When discussing Bajrangi Bhaijaan, the first instinct might be to solely view it as a Salman Khan vehicle. After all, Khan is one of the biggest stars in all of Indian cinema, and this is but another in a string of hits that he’s had over the last 20 years. His recent films have all been formulaic action thrillers that mostly rely on his charisma and the relationship he has with his adoring fans to make them work, if they work at all. And, while a lot of what’s pleasurable about the new film has to do with Salman Khan’s film persona and how this film uses it to its own ends, a look at the director, Kabir Khan, might be worthwhile. I’m an auteurist. What can you do?
Kabir Khan, a former documentarian, seems attracted to political subjects first and foremost. His 2009 feature, New York, is about post-9/11 detaining of Muslims in the United States. It’s an often clumsy, risible film, full of flimsy characterization, bone-headed writing, and questionable acting. The first half basically feels like someone decided that Kuch Kuch Hota Hai needed more counter-terrorism. But it’s a sincere movie and there’s at least one really good scene in it (Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s monologue about what happened to him after he was detained makes irrelevant star John Abraham’s protracted sequence in a detention center).
His 2012 feature, Ek Tha Tiger (also a Salman Khan film), was about Indian and Pakistani spies who fall in love with each other, but this aspect of it seems compromised, and doesn’t get enough focus. As soon as his lovers unite, the film turns into a chase film as both governments try and track them down. The film can be said to be less about Pakistan/India relations and more about the sight of Katrina Kaif holding a bagpipe. There’s an uneasy tension between the commercial requirements of a Salman Khan film and what seems possible with this kind of scenario.
There’s no such tension in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. What we have here is star, director and story all working in full concert. Salman Khan actually plays a character here. His Pawan is a perpetually honest simpleton (failed to graduate high school for 10 years!) who lives to good deeds, worship Hanuman, and woo Kareena Kapoor. This isn’t a film like Dabanng that isn’t about a human character, but rather some kinda demigod. The 2010 thriller has Salman as a over the top cop character delivering a ton of classic “bhai” moments (Salman’s nickname) where he beats down on people in slow motion, delivers catchphrases and one-liners, chastefully woos a local girl, and maintains proper values. The fight scenes in Bajrangi are brief and are only there when necessary. It’s a little more muted, more rooted to the specifics that Salman is playing, and more interesting because of this. Kabir Khan, meanwhile, tampers down his fidelity to realism, and allows the film to become something like a fable. He doesn’t go for gritty, but softens the edges instead. The story, Salman Khan vowing to return a young, adorable (and mute) Pakistani girl back to her parents, is completely manipulative and shamelessly so. But it has a light touch, and its political points often come second to its characters.
It’s that light touch that separates the film from something like Rajkumar Hirani’s PK, which covers some of the same thematic material, but comes off as sanctimonious and preachy. In Bajrangi, Salman is flawed, too, and often has too overcome his own prejudices. His assumptions about the caste of Munni, the little girl, her religion, and everything, are upended one-by-one throughout the film. He freaks out when has to step into a mosque to go look for her, he freaks out when she starts eating meat at a neighbor’s place and he most definitely freaks out when she cheers for the Pakistan cricket team. The film’s message is one of acceptance and togetherness. Everything always goes back to this. Even a totally silly number like “Chicken Kuk-doo-koo” ties back into the film’s exploration of different traditions within India and Pakistan (some people eat meat… others do not). There are no real villains either (a highly-ranked Pakistani government agent comes closest – it’s a Kabir Khan film after all), just a lot of people trying to do their best. Time after time, people show their their best selves: guards stand aside, smugglers provide help along the way and corruption doesn’t win. In one of the film’s most winning performances, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, a local reporter, is so moved by Salman’s struggles to return the girl back to her family that he ends up helping them out, using the internet to get the world on their side (more shades of PK). It culminates in a symbolically rich, genuinely moving ending that’s very easy to see coming, but harder to be unaffected by.
Perhaps Bajrangi will be but a minor detour in Kabir Khan’s filmography. His next film, Phantom starring Saif Ali Khan, promises more terrorists, badly directed action sequences and sociopolitical shenanigans that you can shake a stick at. It’s almost reassuring. But, with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he managed to make a somewhat personal film within the confines of a Salman Khan vehicle, and that’s something worth celebrating.