Bajarangi Bhaijan

Bajarangi Bhaijan: piquant, unexpected and emotional
Film: Bajrangi Bhaijaan
Cast: Salman Khan, Harshali Malhotra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Om Puri  
Director: Kabir Khan 
Rating: 4/5

1999. I was barely two years old at the time, but that year marked one of Salman Khan’s most brilliant performances – one etched into my mind as the epitome of his acting career. It was the year Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam released, and, though it took me another eight years to even comprehend the film, it was ultimately a film that, for me, made Salman Khan, Salman Khan – a versatile actor that can force your laughter and break your heart in one shot.

Now, 16 years later, post a string of films with lackluster plots deprived of piquant storylines and multifaceted messages, Salman Khan is not who he used to be as an artist. I will be honest here, I was expecting Bajrangi Bhaijaan to bea variation of Kick with a different musical score, some twinges of emotional poignancy, and a dash of banal jokes that, at best, could elicit a grin.

But this movie may have been the best I have seen Salman Khan, ever.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s brawn doesn’t stem from Khan’s biceps, “thrilling” item songs, or streamlined action sequences. Instead, it takes root in a 6-year-old’s single tear, in a mother’s plea from Allah for her child, in a man’s painstaking honesty and devotion to Hanumanji, in the smallest of moments that collectively and undeniably impart a sense of humanity, compassion, and integrity within you.

Director Kabir Khan manages to construct a new persona for Salman Khan in this film as Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi, known as Bajrangi due to his undying bhakti for Lord Hanuman. Bajrangi, although physically capable of beating anyone to pulp, possesses immense sensitivity to the human condition. He cannot witness the suffering of others, including strangers, and traverses the course of life armed with only honesty and altruism as his weapons of choice. Initially, he succumbs to his society’s toxic, prejudiced views of caste and distaste for Islamic belief, but is able to eventually overlook those inhibitions to extend a helping hand. The film follows this loveable, assiduous Hindu man’s journey across borders and religions into Pakistan as he attempts to reunite a mute 6-year-old girl, Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), with her parents.  
Kabir Khan’s ability to weave social commentary and critique into a plot that tugs on your heartstrings but simultaneously caters to your desire for action, justice, and comedy is what perfects this work. Rather than concentrating the film’s resources on larger-than-life visual technology (as we have seen in other recent projects like Baahubali), he relies on real-life phenomena. Not only does he capitalize on the breathtaking ice-covered valleys of Kashmir, but he also portrays the brutal, unforgiving state of social standards in India, the absurdity of religious division, the cruelty toward women and girls, and the depravity on both sides of the India-Pakistan conflict.

When, for example, Bajrangi entrusts Shahida with an agent, who is supposed to help her cross the border but instead sells her into prostitution, Kabir Khan provides a glimpse into the corruption and avarice within India’s legal system, and into the shameless bodily exploitation of young children that persists today. This agent is a devout Hindu, and yet he sells a child. Thus, Kabir Khan also forces us to ask the question – does our religion really define who we are as humans? Is it really our right to demonize Muslims, and vice versa?

Malhotra, who plays Shahida, is this movie’s superstar. Though Malhotra is merely seven-years-old, she makes you cry (yes, me and those next to me in the theater definitely shed a few), and wish you had a child or younger sibling of your own. Her cherubic innocence drives the emotional basis of the film, and, when she does find her mother, well, let me just say I have never squeezed my Amma’s hand so tightly in my life.

Now, the ingredients to a typical Salman Khan starrer remain – he breaks a few bones, and does bear his abs. But it is never to a point that you get a headache. There are moments when even he is vulnerable, where he puts his life on the line to save Shahida, where his childlike behavior is an endearing emblem of his masculinity rather than his physical strength.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s role emerges as one of the most memorable of the film as well – his comedic timing is impeccable and his jokes spot-on. He mimics the real-life Chand Nawab (a Pakistani journalist) perfectly, and, though his character is initially driven by selfish purposes, his transition into an empathetic man with moral intentions to help Bajrangi inspires you to believe even the most ordinary people can have extraordinary purposes. Kareena Kapoor Khan, though she has a very minor role, is effervescent, feisty, and independent in the film. She is the empowered woman of this century who stands her ground. The same goes for Om Puri, whose part as a maulana reminds us that no faith-based barrier should separate human beings from supporting one another, and that hate between Pakistan and India is no longer relevant. Through the religious juxtaposition of Puri’s role and Khan’s role, Kabir Khan showcases the negative and positive sides of both India and Pakistan, rather than painting one country as nefarious and the other perfect. And, finally, the climax of this film stands out as one of the greatest, most evocative scenes I have ever watched.

Bajrangi Bhaijaan’s only shortcoming is its excessive length. Toward the middle, you start hoping the film doesn’t trudge as slowly in the second half. Nevertheless, it is also a film that you will leave with a smile on your face, and that will inspire you to go a few extra miles to be a better human being – no matter what. At the end, your sentiments will echo a fellow audience member of mine in the theater when he screamed “Taliyan to baja!”

Written by Sindhu Ravuri