One of the best jokes in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007) is about the tendency of the movie business to extract audience sympathy by using physical handicaps. Shah Rukh Khan’s vain and arrogant superstar decides that the best way to win box-office credit and the love of critics is to play a severely challenged character who is blind, limbless and restricted to a wheelchair. Shah Rukh’s Omi isn’t so downbeat that he cannot participate in a dance sequence featuring his own well-oiled six-pack and several young women in hot pants. The song is explained away as a fantasy sequence, which is Farah’s clever inside joke about the quality of expediency that marks the typical Hindi masala movie.
Roshan swaps agile moves for a wheelchair in Guzaarish
Sanjay Leela Bhansali is all set to challenge this dig at contrived screenplay writing in Guzaarish. Bhansali has the temerity to put the assiduously sculpted hunk of rippling flesh that goes by the name of Hrithik Roshan in a wheelchair. Roshan isn’t being punished for the debacle of Kites earlier this year. Rather, he is only the latest in a long line of marquee names who have allowed their physical perfectness to be challenged in the name of meaningful cinema.
Channelling the recent films The Sea Inside and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Guzaarish is about a magician who suffers a horrible accident and becomes a paraplegic. Roshan spends a great part of the movie being fussed over by his beautiful nurse (played by Aishwarya Rai Bachchan) and reminiscing about his more mobile days. Will Bhansali’s gamble work at a time when viewers are still recovering from the vim and vigour that Salman Khan displayed in Dabangg? Even 60-year-old Rajinikanth seems more energetic than Roshan in Endhiran: The Robot.
Roshan’s direct competitor for the best actor trophy at next year’s Filmfare awards will be Shah Rukh, who played a man affected by Asperger’s Syndrome in this year’s My Name is Khan. Karan Johar’s film tries to create sympathy for the faith-based discrimination faced by his lead character by making audiences an offer they cannot refuse. Not only is Khan a victim of post-9/11 anti-Muslim hysteria in the US, but he is also a lovable innocent. Either way, you can’t help but feel terrible for him.
Bhansali has his reasons for playing the sympathy card. A joke for Farah is serious business for Bhansali, who is a self-declared auteur of suffering, although not all his expositions on self-hurt and doomed romance have been successful. In Devdas (2002), a gaudy noughties update on the Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay novel, Shah Rukh drinks his way to self-destruction, wringing out tears every step along the way. Black (2005), in which Rani Mukerji plays a character who can neither see nor speak, was a healthy grosser in spite of—or perhaps because of—its masochistic moroseness. Saawariya (2007), which was released alongside the upbeat and campy Om Shanti Om, was a failed attempt to celebrate the few highs and the many lows of first love. In Guzaarish, Bhansali seems to be teasing audiences by shackling the mobility of easily the best dancer in the movie business. There’s nothing quite like the idea of moving movie goers enough to make them set aside their hankies and reach for their wallets. Ask Farah.
Guzaarish releases on 19 November.
Nandini Ramnath is a film critic with Time Out Mumbai (www.timeoutmumbai.net).
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org