In 2006, Lage Raho Munnabhai brought Mahatma Gandhi back to mass consciousness when the country appeared to have forgotten the Father of the Nation. Now, when Tubelight references him, we are just short of rewriting history and negating him and his role in shaping our present. In fact, a line from the film goes—“Pita ko sharaab ne maar diya, maa ko ghum ne aur Gandhiji ko humne (Father died of alcoholism, mother died of sorrow and Gandhi was killed by us)”. Literally and metaphorically. In that sense Kabir Khan’s new film is a change; it’s not a narrative of political co-option that a bunch of upcoming mainstream Hindi films seem to be. In fact, it tries hard to look at some contentious issues — the national/anti-national debate, who is perceived to be an Indian and who is not, who is one of us and who is an outsider and it even tries to be subversive with the Bharat Mata Ki Jai chant.
Having said that, such antagonistic politics need not always make compelling cinema; Tubelight flickers in that unfortunate zone. It’s not even half as engaging a film as Khan’s own Bajrangi Bhaijaan. There, he managed to press all the right emotional buttons along with the ideological ones. Here he leaves you cold (and bored) with a hackneyed, facile and naive take on issues.
The points of similarity with BB are quite a few: the figure of the child, the lead character’s innate pacifism as against the cultural prejudices around him and the simple and straightforward story-telling. However, while BB felt organic, Tubelight appears to have been painfully deliberated on. Instead of having his politics and story-telling go hand in hand naturally, Khan seems to have consciously chosen to adapt what in retrospect seems like an unsuitable film—Little Boy. In a nutshell it’s a tale about a Forrest Gump like ‘special man’, Laxman Singh Bisht (Salman Khan) and his younger, parent-like brother Bharat (Sohail Khan) and what transpires when Bharat gets recruited in the army to fight in the Indo-Sino war of 1962 and an Indian mother and child of Chinese descent (Zhu Zhu and Matin Rey Tangu) come to stay in the village.
There is a blandness that permeates through and through, hardly any dramatic peaks nor any innate tension, no shocks nor surprises, not even one moment or scene that stays with you. Even a sequence with Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan together — that should have brought the house down — totally lacks magic. The biggest nail in the coffin is that Salman has to cry a lot, perhaps the most since Tere Naam. One wonders how his fans are going to respond to that hint of the snot in Bhai’s nostrils.
Khan has a solid cast of actors. The child, Matin Tey Tangu, is eminently cute. But Zhu Zhu can’t rise above being flawless; the tears flowing down her eyes in picture perfect streams. The biggest letdown, however, is Salman himself. Crying copious tears alone can’t a good performance make. His handling of the child-man is all about pulling some embarrassingly weird faces at the camera. Not for a moment do you feel invested in Laxman—neither his little joys nor his gargantuan plights.
The only scenes that work visually, to a mild extent, are the ones that capture the majesty of Ladakh mountains in war time. Coming from the Kumaon hills myself, I might end up doubly harsh in my assessment but the set of the fictional Jagatpur village — with the ranges spread in the front — feels utterly synthetic as do the people populating it. Just the surnames — Bisht, Tiwari — can’t make for a Kumaoni setting. But one would have bought into the mock up with willing suspension of disbelief —“yakeen ki taaqat”, as the film puts it —had it been moving enough. Unfortunately piety and righteousness are written way too large on Tubelight. We need some inventiveness and chutzpah even when we take the bull by its horns. Afterall, what’s cinematic subversion without any sparkle?