Bharat- Of all things Bhai and nice

Fifteen minutes into the movie, there’s this stretch in a circus involving a bike, a death defying race, a clueless character who has the gumption to even think of outdoing Bhai in a Bhai film on Eid and Bhai. We’re prepped for an adrenaline gushing gratuitous race for him to defy, both death and gravity to go past the finish line first, to bring up the “Slow Motion” song.(With the round the clock promos, nothing onscreen is enigmatic anymore. Plus it’s a Bhai movie, predicting a song placement isn’t rocket science exactly.) So as expected Bhai does win. But how? The stakes are dialled up. He leaps over two speeding cars that come his way on the WALL OF THE WELL a la Spidey, to climb atop his bike on the other side to complete the victory lap. Again,this dalliance with speeding motor vehicles doesn’t happen on flat ground, but on the motherfucking wall of a circular well. And the response, uninterrupted wolf whistles! Now tell me how many people can pull this off and get away with whistles.
Salman is an emotion that personifies all things larger than life; an alter ego, an actor we love enough to overlook his inability to act. All of this is another way of saying, he’s one of the last surviving superstars of Indian cinema. Watching Bharat made me realize this yet again.

Normally, actors draw their identity from the characters they play, whereas with Salman it’s always the opposite. He doesn’t dissolve into the role, but it dissolves into him, drawing from his persona. What is on display isn’t the acting chops, but textbook narcissism which somehow seems to be drawing men to it by the million, in a state of trance that usually precedes an elongated orgasm. That’s the thing about phenomenons, they get harder with each attempt to get to the bottom of. And what people don’t understand, they begin to resent. They get on a high horse and condescend the admirers/supporters of a personality, by branding them a certain way.  Like with Salman fans, who are collectively assumed to be  misogynistic deviants who worship and emulate the toxic charm of an iffy celebrity who’s far from being a model citizen. We saw this presumptuous elitism backfire on the Modi haters this elections. And looking at the opening figures of Bharat, it’s an encore at the movies for Salman haters as well.  There’s no rational way to gauge a popular wave, than humbly acknowledging it from the other side.

Coming back to Bharat, first things first. Age finally seems to be catching up with Bhai. Especially in the initial portions, when he’s playing a young man. And the fact that a much younger actress plays his mother and an even younger one plays his love interest makes this more atrocious than it already is. Bhai, love you to the moon and back. But please be a little, just a little age appropriate onscreen. That said, he totally rocks the five ‘o’ clock shadow and the salt ‘n’ pepper. Not to mention the swag and screen presence which seem to be intact.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think there has been another director in the recent past who’s leveraged Salman’s persona as holistically as Ali Abbas Zafar. When most collaborators with Salman can’t resist the temptation to keep pulling the trigger, Ali knows when not to. Be it Sultan, Tiger or now Bharat, he seems to imbue Bhai with a touch of innocence, vulnerability, fragility, heart that lend a new dimension to the larger than life characters he portrays, which make us not just hoot, but root for him. If the breakdown before the mirror in Sultan was beautifully vulnerable, there’s a similar emotional high point here in the preclimax, where the actor within completely overtakes the star.

And I think screaming like a neanderthal who’s ass is on fire, every time Bhai’s shirt comes off isn’t going out of vogue. Agreed, one’s more likely to stumble upon a gym than a pebble these days and being muscular isn’t that big a deal as it used to be. But the ritual of straight men going nuts at the first sight of Bhai’s exposed torso, is a very personal heave of nostalgia. An unsophisticated, primal doff of hat to the beloved legacy of a man, whose body of work is inseparable from his body.

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Sultan-An actor is born out of a superstar

With his back facing us, he struts out of the dark alley to the ring like a celestial being, little streaks of sunlight pouring from the shafts above in quantity just enough to fashion the contours of his silhouette with gold dust as the chant in the background goes-“Khoon mein tere Mitti, Mitti mein tera Khoon; Upar Allah, Neeche Dharti; Beech mein tera Junoon“.
The crowds in the movie become delirious as Sultan makes a grand entrance,as the crowd in the theatre goes berserk at the first sight of Salman. Salman’s playing his favourite alter ego- that of a man child with a magnetic charm for the infinite time to the same effect; this time he’s called Sultan.

A quintessential Bhai movie is nothing but an elaborate vanity exercise comprising of-catchy numbers, quirky signature steps and fourth wall breaking sequences with iconic lines when Bhai is done breaking some bones. Sultan does all this and much more. It gives us a protagonist who is not saddled with the task of catering to the legion of fans of the star alone.  He is a fallible person, who crumbles under the impact of defeat. He is an illiterate who knows to handle the rejection of a woman with dignity. He is a desi wrestler who’s Ko move is punctuated with an obeisance.Sultan manages the hitherto  unmanageable feat of trespassing beyond the “Salman” persona to an unchartered territory called acting, that Bajrangi Bhaijaan almost managed to do.

The road to redemption is staged onscreen in an invigorating fashion through the subtle deployment of a few processes as metaphorical devices . Insulted by the woman he loves for the dearth of purpose in his life, he embarks on a journey of self discovery .He starts off with a clear-face shakily,tilling a field singlehandedly to chasing beside a local train. The train zooms past him and there’s a lot left to plow in the field.
As he makes progress; he’s grown a thick stubble now. He almost manages to match the train and the field has significantly been cleared; his limits stretched.
By the end of his metamorphosis- the stubble has turned a marked moustache; he races past the train with the field burning ready for cultivation. A new man is born.

There is this point in the movie where a worn out Sultan, past his prime is trying to stage a comeback. He takes his shirt off before the mirror.What he sees is an image of a man who is not just out of shape, but buried beneath the debris of despair and defeat. He implodes with anguish as even his shirt wouldn’t peacefully let him sneak in to it. It is one of the rare occasions where our hearts go out in unison for this man, overlooking the star portraying him.
Sedentary at soul, he is this lackadaisical individual who wakes up to his potential after instigation. For success has often been his retaliation to instigation- a recurring motif in his life. If Aarfa instigated him with her insult to turn him into a world renown wrestler earlier, a coach now calls him a dead person from the ringside while he gets beaten to pulp, trying to resurrect his carrier in a new form after a sabbatical.
Phat comes the killer move – as if in response – as he lays still his opponent.He springs out of the ring defiantly to tell this man, verbally now that he might have quit wrestling, but never stopped fighting.

The romance isn’t a gratuitous embellishment to ratify song sequences. It constitutes the very heart and soul of the movie.It gives us his love interest Aarfa, an ambitious-strong woman, an Adrian to his Rocky(just that she’s is a wrestler much before he wanted to be one.) She just isn’t there as his prosaic arm candy, but insinuates the necessary friction in his life from time to time.
There’s a beautiful trait she exhibits every time when Sultan makes progress towards something great; she turns away from the happening solicitously. She doesn’t want to spectate, but rather participate vicariously in his travails moment by moment. She does this when he enrols as a green horn wrestler to take part in a state level championship. She does this while coaching kids with her back facing the TV playing his MMA matches.

These finer aspects go on to enhance the relatability of the larger than life proceedings, the stuff that we seldom expect out of a Salman starrer. There is this scene where he watches his wedding night’s video after dinner in isolation. As the shot segues from the video to his room, he’s  fallen asleep watching himself fall asleep in the video. We get to know that the nostalgia held in the video is his lullaby.
For once the sight of Bhai is not just the excuse to wolf whistle alone, but a calming influence.