Suspend your disbelief. In the absence of any other statutory warning, this is the subliminal instruction required for viewing director Aanand L Rai’s fantasy feature Zero. The film opens with a dream sequence leading into a chaotic TV serial-style family argument and then some nonsensical banter between Shah Rukh Khan’s Bauaa Singh and his mates.

The man-child from Meerut, Bauaa is a thirty-something good-for-nothing son of an affluent man. Blowing up his father’s money, fantasising about a Bollywood actress and finding a wife and are his past-times.

A local matchmaker (Brijendra Kala) organises a blind date between Bauaa and Aafia Bhinder – a half Afghani-half Punjabi, wheelchair-bound space scientist with cerebral palsy. Bauaa pursues her determinedly, but unknown to the brilliant mind of Aafia – responsible for discovering water on Mars – the vertically challenged Bauaa is yearning for Bollywood star Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif). Talk about a problem of plenty!

Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif, the Hindi film Zero released in theatres today.
Starring Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma and Katrina Kaif, the Hindi film Zero released in theatres today.

What he lacks in height and ambition, Bauaa Singh makes up for in terms of energy and optimism. Shah Rukh Khan dials up the charm and makes enough references to his dimples to make you smile. His energy and commitment to the part of the vertically challenged Bauaa Singh are unquestionable, but also disappointingly familiar. You feel like you are watching the customary Khan performance with the addition of visual effects assistance.

Anushka Sharma entrusts herself to the director, but the physical requirements of the role – the trembling movement of the arms, the speech defect – are uncomfortable to watch, and not in an admirable Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything kind of way.

Bauaa is fully aware that he can compensate for this physical stature with grand gestures of love. He also has a special talent. He can make stars fall. It impresses Aafia, although one would think that an astrophysicist would ask ‘how is this possible?’.

But nothing is impossible in this world created by Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma. His incredulous journey takes Bauaa from Meerut to Delhi, Mumbai, USA and into outer space. (Imagine the disclaimer in the bottom right corner of the screen: suspend your disbelief.)

En route, sometimes accompanied by his one-eyed best buddy (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), Bauaa Singh does meet Babita Kumari, and somehow the two broken people help heal each other a little. As a perpetually drunk and heartbroken movie star, arguably, Katrina Kaif delivers what could be considered her most authentic performance.

Rai favourites (including Madhavan and Abhay Deol) pop up in cameos and in one scene you can play a quick round of pop quiz identifying which Khan films these leading ladies appeared in. Equally, Bauaa’s parents (Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sheeba Chaddha) and siblings appear and disappear out of the narrative as quickly as the falling stars.

Rai and Sharma pack in a plethora of talking points. For instance that a chimpanzee and a man serve the same purpose on a space mission, and that we need to find a new habitable planet because of the way man is destroying Earth. They allude to the possibility that two negatives can make a positive and that physical disability is no bar to finding love or embarking on space exploration. Of course, the most clichéd theme is that where you end up is only limited by your own imagination.

The 53-year-old Khan’s recent choices suggest that he is unable to break out of his comfort zone as a romantic hero that you see a glimpse of when he sings, dances and woos Aafia in a flood of colours to the tune of Mere Naam Tu. The most existential question posed by Zero is not about life in space and conquering new frontiers etc., but where does ‘King Khan’ go from here?

Interestingly, Khan delivered one of his finest performances as a NASA scientist in Swades. He finds a deep space connection in Zero and his next work is reportedly Saare Jaahan Se Acha, a biopic on Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian in space.

As a pure fantasy feature, there was an interesting idea in Zero. Carefully designed to appeal to Khan’s core demographic – the family – while providing scope to invent an endearing character. The flaws of Zero lie not in the physicality of the characters, but in the story. Too ambitious in its vision and indiscriminately illogical, Rai falters in exploring both inner spaces and outer space. Even at 164 minutes, the narrative lurches from scene to scene, and before you can say ‘Houston we have a problem’, incredulously Bauaa is suiting up for a space odyssey.

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