Bajrangi Bhaijaan gives us a Salman Khan very different from the one we're used to seeing on screen. There's no swagger in his step, no signature punchlines to deliver, and…gasp…he doesn't once rip off his shirt. In a departure from his enduring image as a larger-than-life hero who lets his fists do the talking, the actor stars as a symbol of peace and love in this cross-border drama. The result, I'm happy to report, is that this may be Salman Khan's most coherent film in recent years.
He plays Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, a devout Hanuman bhakt and small-town simpleton who resolves to reunite a mute six-year-old girl with her family in Pakistan after she accidentally lands up in India.
The little girl in question, played by Harshaali Malhotra, is a scene-stealer from the very word go. She has an angelic face and expressive eyes, and good luck holding back your tears each time she sheds her own. Director Kabir Khan gives us some charming moments between Salman and her, starting with the bits when it dawns on him that she is neither brahmin nor kshatriya like he’d assumed.
The film uses humor as a tool to address deep-set religious prejudices, like the one Pavan's landlord harbors against his meat-eating Muslim neighbors, or even Pavan's own discomfort about stepping into a masjid. There's also, conveniently, a romantic track with Kareena Kapoor, who, in only a few well-scripted moments reminds us just how good an actress she is, but who sadly seems content playing a largely decorative role.
However, Bajrangi Bhaijaan really comes into its own post interval when the action shifts to Pakistan, where Pavan and the little girl encounter an assortment of locals…from kind-hearted, sympathetic men to suspicious cops. A terrific Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing small-time TV reporter Chand Nawab, quickly becomes an ally, joining the duo on the long journey to the girl's home in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The scenes between these three are some of the best in the film, and Nawazuddin coolly walks away with all the good lines.
Kabir Khan dials up the melodrama and delivers the most unabashedly manipulative climax that you can possibly think of. The film takes a simplistic view of the Indo-Pak problem and the Kashmir issue, and offers well-intentioned but frankly naïve solutions. In the last ten minutes, the makers aren't merely content with drawing tears from your eyes, the film literally squeezes a lump out of your throat.
Despite its plot holes (too many to go into), and its rudimentary politics of the region, the film doesn't derail because we're served up likeable enough principal characters, and inspired actors in these parts. Salman Khan is genuinely endearing as the simple-minded Hanuman devotee who genuflects in reverence each time he spots a monkey. There's an unmistakable earnestness to his performance as a man who demonstrates the importance of humanity over religion and nationality. And he’s complemented nicely by little Harshaali whose smile will melt your heart.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is way too long at 2 hours and 35 minutes, and could have done with some serious pruning, especially in its first half. Nevertheless, it's more engaging than such typical Salman Khan blockbusters as Bodyguard and Ready, if only because it has a sliver of a story, and its heart in the right place.
I'm going with three out of five. Don't forget to take your handkerchief along.
Rating: 3 / 5
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