Films can creep up on you sometimes. For 130-odd minutes, Bharat trundles along, sometimes diverting, often annoying, deeply inessential. But then, out of nowhere, it turns into a meditation on the lingering scars of Partition. This is the great enduring theme of Hindi cinema, usually cloaked in metaphor. Here, however, it’s tackled head-on, stories of loss and separation from both sides of the border. For a few minutes, actors appear genuinely moved and catharses are earned. Then, in a change of tone that feels like a betrayal, we’re back in a Salman Khan film.
From the vantage point of 2010, Ali Abbas Zafar’s film looks back at the life of Bharat and the country he was named for. We see him as an 8-year-old in Lahore, in 1947, separated at the last moment from his father and younger sister when a riot breaks out just as the train to Delhi he’s on is leaving the station. His father’s parting words – keep the family together – become his life’s goal; to provide for his mother and two younger siblings, he takes up jobs in the circus, on an oil rig in the Gulf and in the merchant navy. The film’s poster promises the “journey of a man and a nation together", but the focus mostly remains on Bharat. India only makes cameo appearances – Jawaharlal Nehru’s death, liberalization.
Bharat takes its structure from the 2014 South Korean film Ode To My Father, but its inspirations are homegrown. Early on, we see young Bharat as a conscientious boot-polisher and car-window-cleaner in Delhi. It’s a scenario crying out for a Bachchan reference, which duly arrives. Bharat, now in his twenties, is a stuntman with the Great Russian Circus. His best friend, Vilayati (Sunil Grover, very watchable), is the emcee whose opening act has him emerging from a giant egg. As “My Name is Anthony Gonsalves" plays, the camera picks out a delighted young man in the audience, whom the voiceover identifies as Amitabh Bachchan.
Zafar might have one foot in the 1970s, but Bharat is a film of this moment. There’s another Bachchan reference, when the African pirates who board an Indian ship turn out to be fans of the actor – so much so that they abandon the robbery. “There isn’t a problem which conversation, love and Hindi film songs can’t solve," the voiceover tells us – a declaration of Bollywood’s soft power, in an era when it’s forced to seek out lucrative foreign markets. There’s also the obligatory nation-love that accompanies most Hindi films today. When his pleas to the oil rig recruiters fall on deaf ears, Bharat starts to sing the national anthem. It’s almost a parody of unthinking patriotism taking the place of genuine argument, but the film is straight-faced about it, playing the whole song through. “Yeh asli deshbhakt hai (he’s a real patriot)," someone remarks after he’s done.
We see Bharat in his 20s, 40s and 70s, but Khan doesn’t age onscreen so much as trade one kind of facial hair for another. Surreal as it is to see him play a 70-year-old, he’s scarcely more believable as a 53-year-old action star. No amount of VFX cleanup or clever choreography can overcome the simple fact that the actor is trapped in an image he can’t deliver on anymore. The scene in which the pipeline they’re digging caves in shows how difficult it’s become to structure a physically demanding scene around Khan. Bharat, injured and trapped behind a wall of rubble, almost passes out, then snaps back to life. Next thing you know, he’s dragging his crew out. We don’t see the intervening scenes because the man on screen can no longer execute them convincingly—or can’t be bothered to.
The visible effort Katrina Kaif puts into playing Kumud, oil rig recruiter turned newsreader, only calls attention to Khan’s distaste for the same. Yet, Zafar has a way of drawing the actor into revealing moments. When Bharat breaks down towards the end, Khan seems, just for a moment, vulnerable and human. Then the movie star ego kicks in and we see a septuagenarian beat up four attackers on bikes. The flesh is weak, the spirit only half-willing.