BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN (Dir. Kabir Khan, 2015, India) – Borders [spoilers ahead]

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I wonder how many eager cinephiles spotted the opening intertextual reference to the Manmohan Desai film Chhalia as the Samjuhta Express makes it way from Pakistan to India? The image of Nutan wiping away the condensation from the window of her train compartment (see below) in the 1960 film is eerily resurrected in the cinematic memories of Bajrangi Bhaijaan. By reaching back to one of Desai’s earliest films, a work exploring the trauma of partition through the eyes of a displaced abductee, Bajrangi Bhaijaan implies this mainstream star vehicle for Salman Khan, while trying to broach the subject of borders and belonging, will in truth be a secularist allegory on the inwardly interminable disturbance of partition. However, does a slick filmic reference to a classic Hindi film automatically categorise Bajrangi Bhaijaan as a deft slice of mainstream melodrama?

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It certainly peaked my interests but like so much of contemporary Bollywood cinema, the film falls prey to an imitative narrative, delivering a film of two halves; the first half, comical in tone, whereas the second half is all about the histrionics and the value of closure. Adopting the much abused ‘lost and found’ narrative, the film is about a young Pakistani girl Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra) left behind in India. It falls upon Bajrangi (Salman Khan), a devotee of Hanuman, to reunite Shahida with her parents in Pakistan. Unlike Salman Khan’s previous films fashioned around his hollow hard body persona, in Bajrangi Bhaijaan the action genre is displaced by social melodrama leaving him sort of exposed as an actor. Unsurprisingly Salman Khan has never really taken acting seriously, having spent his career unashamedly and narcissistically playing himself. He does so again, and when Bajrangi crosses the border into Pakistan he does so as Salman Khan, a secularist Indian film star, imagining a visual memo of cross border congruence borrowed somewhat from P.K.

Admittedly, the film is far more compelling in the second half, enlivened unquestionably by Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s amiable performance as a disillusioned Pakistani reporter, chronicling Bajrangi’s journey through Pakistan, while semi-evoking idioms of the road movie genre. This is a disjointed film, which could have worked far better if it had focused on Bajrangi’s mini exodus through Pakistan. The film’s didactic political approach, accomplished with a bothering sledgehammer like impetus, reaches a spectacularly calculating series of catharses, erasing the Indo-Pak border and reinstating equipoise in terms of religious and national variances. If religious intolerance is a major theme it lingers benevolently on the surface, never pursued with any real complexity. In many ways, the film has become caught up in the criminal charges currently being brought against Salman Khan. It is hard not to view the genial character of Bajrangi Bhaijaan as a vestigial response to Salman’s Khan’s tarnished public image which has yet to dent his box office bankability. It will be interesting to see if and how many times Salman uses his coming films to disguise or apologise for his crimes with the veil of stardom.

The ending is remarkable in terms of ideological address, more fascinating than the rest of the film, opening a space for an imaginary dialogue on cross border cultural politics. Through the social media efforts of reporter Chand Nawab, ordinary people from India and Pakistan amass on the Kashmiri border, demanding Bajrangi be allowed to return home safely. Finally, Shahida speaks for the first time, quoting Bajrangi’s reverence for his faith, invoking a fantasy wish fulfilment, and visualizing peaceful relations, both politically and religiously. There is a veiled truth to the final shot when Bajrangi lifts Shahida into the air. Director Kabir Khan uses a freeze frame so that Shahida is left suspended in mid-air with Bajrangi looking up to her, ready to catch her. Choosing to finish on a purgative note can be interpreted ambiguously, translating metaphorically into a commentary on Indo-Pak relations, that they also remain suspended, in limbo, unresolved. Just like P.K., Shahida is still a child and thus has not been poisoned by the Indo-Pak culture of hate; it is not so much her innocence at stake but rather the mentality of a generation who might potentially opine differently about their respective neighbours. Glib this message maybe, and exponentially preachy, and while Bajrangi Bhaijaan is certainly not great cinema, it strives clumsily to a denouement of apocryphal cathartic proportions in which the hedonistic, emotional release is romanticised as a trait that only Bollywood knows how to manufacture with a completely benign morality.

SINGHAM (Dir. Rohit Shetty, India, 2011) – Return of The ‘Hard Body’

Picking up from where Dabangg left off, Singham is a police action thriller directed in tribute form by an unashamed fan (Rohit Shetty) of the angry young man films of the 70s. With a plot involving a dishonoured police inspector and the village boy as mythological hero, Singham is very much a throwback film bathed in nostalgic yearnings for traditional genre cinema. I’m not so sure if this plea for re initiating a lot of the action films made in the 70s and especially in the 80s is such a worthy one given their diabolical narratives and questionable technical proficiency. Like Dabangg, Singham reasserts the rural Indian village as a microcosm of Utopian ideals in which community, honour and justice are organised around the police and local criminals. The crusading cop with a vendetta is now one of the most tired conventions in all of cinema. However, such a melodramatic convention carries with it a narrative momentum and set of conflicting ideologies (the cop who must transcend the law to reinstate order) that still appeals to film makers and audiences alike. Like Dabangg, Singham is clearly a star vehicle for Ajay Devgan who first appears on screen emerging from the holy waters of the river Ganges with a Goliath like physique – his larger than life entrance marks him out as a mythological figure; an immortal amongst mortals and whilst Singham may be a police inspector, he is also a superhero. Ghajini, Dabangg and Singham prove that the hard body is an iconographic element and established convention intrinsic to the DNA make up of the contemporary Indian action film. I’m not sure but I think it might have been academic Yvonne Tasker who coined the term ‘hard body’ in reference to the action heroes played by Stallone and Schwarzenegger in a testosterone fuelled 1980s Reaganite America. Compared to Hollywood, the hard body concept seems quite new to Indian films.

Traditionally male leads like Amitabh and Dharmendra were expected to perform demanding stunts and also maintain some kind of physique but the Indian film star and leading male hero tended to remain a little out of shape so to speak. One could argue that much of this has changed considerably now. The emphasis on maintaining a clean, crisp and buffed physical appearance has now become an audience expectation. All of the major male leads working in the Mumbai film industry today have taken up the ethos that the inner must be in equilibrium with the outer – for many male leads such an ethos has become the norm. So now it might be appropriate to say that we are clearly in the era of the hard body cinema but with one major difference when compared to Hollywood – the absence of blood. The violence in Singham and Dabangg is a comic book pastiche, using a slow mo aesthetic that magnifies the violence as a post modern spectacle. Dabangg may have had Salman Khan as the star attraction but Singham wins out largely because of the scene stealing presence of Prakash Raj in a fantastic turn as the villainous Jaikant Shikre. Actor Prakash Raj who is closely associated with the Tamil film industry has acres of fun with his role. Of course, I am forgetting to mention a major point in my appraisal of the film; Singham is a remake of a successful Tamil action film of the same name. So, perhaps it’s not so surprising why it works so well as a mainstream summer film.

DABANGG / THE FEARLESS (Dir. Abhinav Kashyap, 2010, India) – Star Worship

Before I begin I have a little confession to make. I have never really been a big fan of Salman Khan’s work. His refusal to take cinema and film seriously has led to a perpetual state of mockery. Unlike the radical transformation of Aamir Khan who also entered the industry as a poster boy, Salman’s star image has remained more or less constant. Whilst Shah Rukh Khan’s box office magnetism resides in the overseas markets with the NRI audience, Salman Khan is perhaps a bigger indigenous film star. Yet for all his star power, unlike his contemporary rivals including Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan, he has been reluctant to branch out into the field of socially sincere cinema. He continues to make bland, formulaic and sorely mediocre films with many expressing a terrible streak of nepotism. I have to be honest, I can’t remember the last Salman Khan film I saw in cinema. However, the flashy trailers for his latest venture Dabangg certainly raised my interest in Sallu’s retro pencil thin moustache. Directed by Abhinav Kashyap, the brother of talented film maker Anurag Kashyap, and produced by Arbaaz Khan (brother of Salman), Dabangg has for the past week been busy breaking box office records in India. The context in which one watches a certain film can at times shape our initial reception and with the hype surrounding Dabangg, it would be foolish to discount the effect such commercial euphoria has had on the viewing experience. Dabangg is certainly not the best Indian film of the year nor is it the worst but it highlights a prescient point on stardom and its relationship with Indian cinema and the audiences which exist for such films.

Ever since high concept cinema emerged in the eighties, the value of the Hollywood film star in particular has diminished at the box office. Stars have become increasingly irrelevant to mainstream Hollywood film making and whilst the likes of Will Smith and Sandra Bullock can still be considered bankable stars, Katzenberg’s notion that ‘idea is king’ has become a veritable manifesto for many film producers. Dabangg borrows liberally from the playful post-modern aesthetics of a film like Kung Fu Hustle whilst repeating familiar melodramatic tropes. Yet for all its overt stylisation it is the presence of a film star like Salman Khan that suggests Indian cinema continues to depend, thankfully that is, on a plethora of stars. Whilst this may bring charges of an elitist and hegemonic power block ruling the box office, stars and their relationship with fans has always been a central part of the glamorous and alluring appeal of cinema. Salman’s introduction in Dabangg as the affable ‘Robin Hood’ Chulbul Pandey which is signposted with deliberate aplomb raised rounds of applause and impromptu cheering in the cinema audience. Having seen so many of the Hollywood summer films this year when ever a star appeared on screen the sedate audience did not bat an eyelid. I’m guessing the audience reaction to Salman’s entry in cinemas including Mumbai and New Delhi has been positively riotous. Dabangg may not be a brilliant film but it proves an important point – that though Salman Khan may be an average actor at best and makes mediocre films he is above all a star.