Film Review: Tubelight
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“So there’s this idea I had for a film. You have Salman. Plays a simple guy, good heart, not very bright. There’s this criminally cute kid. Om Puri’s in there somewhere. And there’s some border conflict they’re all wrapped up in. Kabir to direct.”
“Sounds great. What’s it called?”
“Bajrangi Bhaijaan. And if it’s a hit we’ll make another just like it and call it Tubelight.”
For legal reasons, I should state this fanciful imagining of mine probably bears no resemblance to the actual greenlighting process at Salman Khan Films or Kabir Khan Films, producers of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015) and Tubelight. But even if it does, this is how a studio is supposed to behave: when your film earns Rs600 crore, you immediately get the team behind it to do the same thing over again, only slightly different. Replace India-Pakistan tensions with the Sino-Indian war of 1962, a lost girl with a misunderstood boy, and a heroic journey with a heroic wait, and you have Tubelight—like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, only worse in every way.
Though he’s long since given up on quick-witted types, the characters Salman’s played in his last few films can be situated on a scale from Forrest Gump to Boo Radley. Here, the protagonist’s density gives the film its title; ever since he was a kid, Laxman has always been a little late to the comprehension party, like a tubelight that flickers several times before working. His parents are no more, but his younger brother, Bharat (Sohail Khan, Salman’s real-life brother), keeps him out of harm’s way. However, when war breaks out, Bharat enlists, and Laxman is left behind in the care of the kindly Banne Chacha (Om Puri).
Bajrangi Bhaijaan didn’t exactly shy away from extolling the homespun virtues of its protagonist, but it’s got nothing on Tubelight, which is so intent on stuffing Laxman full of innocent goodness that there’s no room left for personality. This is a shameless creation: not just childlike and endearing but a follower of Gandhi, a patriot, a doting brother. He befriends a young boy, Guo (Matin Rey Tangu), and his mother, Liling; they’re Indian by birth but have Chinese ancestors, which leaves them vulnerable in this Kumaon hill town which has sent its sons to fight the enemy. As with Bajrangi, we’re offered lessons in togetherness by Salman and an elfin child—this, apparently, is the “politics” that the director promised in interviews leading up to the film’s release.
At times, Kabir Khan seems caught between his own liberal leanings and the demands of making a mass-market film in a jingoistic age. One scene, in particular, was supremely disappointing. Mistaking Guo for a Chinese boy, Laxman insists that he says “Bharat mata ki jai”. “If you’re Indian you’ll say it, otherwise you’re Chinese,” he tells the child, who immediately yells the phrase. This is the sort of reductive thinking that one would have assumed Kabir Khan is opposed to. If there’s a substantive difference between this and ridiculous measures of patriotism like “If you don’t stand for the national anthem, you aren’t a patriot” or “If you praise the Pakistani cricket team, you’re a traitor”, then I can’t see it.
It’s nearly always excruciating when an actor with limited talent plays a character with limited intelligence. Normally, the charge against Salman is that he doesn’t do anything; here, he does so much that you’ll be begging for him to go back to his minimalist ways. Liling is played by Chinese actor Zhu Zhu; even when she and Salman are in a scene together, they’re worlds apart. Tangu is, in theory at least, adorable.
Early on in Tubelight, Laxman is told, “Har insaan ke andar jaadugar hai (There’s a magician inside each one of us).” He spends the rest of the film trying to move mountains with his mind. A Salman Khan film in which anything is displaced by the power of thought is almost too much irony to bear.