For a superstar who has only lately allowed himself to be seen on screen with a middle-aged paunch-and-grizzled-jowls, to admit to being seventy plus is an act of bravery. Has Salman Khan finally grown up?
Yes, that’s how old Bharat No Surname is, when the film opens. He has no last name because that’s a way to belong to the whole country: ‘tujhme poora desh hai, Bharat’, he is told by his beloved father. And in the arc he draws of his life, which we see mostly in flashback, it is evident that we are seeing the story of Bharat, the nation. This parallel unfurls with verve and strong dollops of emotion in the first half, as we see the sundering of Bharat’s family in Lahore during the bloody tumult of the Partition and follow them to their arrival in a Delhi refugee camp.
In the first half, there is scope and sweep. Post interval, though, the film sags. Comprehensively.
Zafar, who works well with Khan, strikes the right notes initially when he shapes his hero as an unlettered but determined-to-do-the-right-thing-by-his-family youth, accompanied by his best friend Vilayati (Grover). There’s a stint in a circus, with Bharat risking his life as a stunt artist, and a coveted trip to the Middle East to help dig oil.
There’s enough conviction in these portions which carries Bharat, and us, through, even though Khan is given enough hero-giri moments to keep him in the foreground at all times. You get a sense of time past, of faded history in the recreation of those grand-but-tawdry circuses, and the ‘maut ka kuans’, which are now relegated to small town fairs, and job-hungry Indians chasing the oil boom in the Gulf, as hard-working labour.
It’s a pity that the director-star duo don’t take this as far as they could. They had a story which had the potential to become a solid reckoner of post-Independence nation-building, and how things rolled from then on, and a free hand to craft it. But the opportunity is squandered in unnecessary songs and dances, an aiming-for-cheap-laughs bad-taste comic thread which involves making a stutterer the butt of jokes, and improbable situations: want to meet Hindi-film-song-loving-sea-pirates? Step right up.
Kaif makes the most of her role, as the feisty Kumum aka ‘Madam-Sir’ who comes into Bharat’s life, and who stays on, for the most part, without, gulp, either mandap or mangalsutra. The whole live-in thing is quite clunkily done, and with dotty reasoning, but while it lasts, it makes a statement. Kaif’s ‘get-up’ varies from scene to scene (eyebrows bushy to bushier; the tan a shade darker or lighter) and her Hindi is still effortful, but she takes Khan on, head to head.
The good thing about the film, despite its eye-roll moments, is its attempt to create an ‘ordinary’ man without any particular skills. And the underlining of a nation which belongs to us all. Vilayati, played excellently by Grover, is a Muslim. The dialogue may be over-the-top but it takes us back to the time when pan-Indian films would speak fearlessly about dosti and bhaichara amongst sworn enemies, about how people are the same everywhere, and that the Partition hasn’t divided dils, which still beat for each other. Yes, it’s all very Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and all very ‘filmi’, haha, but who doesn’t love the idea of long-separated loved ones being reunited? Treacle it may be, but the tears are real. And moving: my eyes were moist, even when I knew I was being played.
Yes, it’s hard to believe that a 70 year old can beat off four menacing young men bent upon making mincemeat of him. But then this is a Bhai movie. He staggers, but is the last man standing. But of course. He may have fixed a grey beard to his chin, but his chest still ripples. What else? In a Salman Khan movie, anything is possible, even tall tales that are meant to transcend borders.