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Tubelight Review: Salman doesn't seem to be having fun

'How can you blame poor Kabir Khan for the Tubelight fiasco?'
'We know that his Job Description expects him to work below full capacity, to sell his soul, and we know his SOP-sheet has the title: Design the next Salman Khan Project.'
Sreehari Nair sees through Kabir Khan's cunning.

Kabir Khan strongly believes that solemnity exists only in the mountains -- like in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, he begins his latest picture with an earnest shot of the mountains.

The rhythms of the shots are eerily alike, as we are reminded: 'This is solemnity; this is life; up here in the mountains.'

And we accept the message with grace even as the mountains stare back at us suspiciously: 'What's with these people?'

Tubelight, Kabir Khan's latest, is a film that germinates in the same gut as Bajrangi Bhaijaan -- you constantly get the feeling that this is a product trying hard to replicate the 'success factors' of that one.

Here's a film devised clearly in the boardroom, over power-point presentations, and executive talk: 'Oh no, no, let's not do that! That would be too manipulative! Let's try to be a little subtle.'

This present generation, though, has its antennae extended for any such attempts at calculated subtlety, even when it forgives the kind of art that goes all-out-manipulative. This generation knows its Camp.

But how can you blame poor Kabir Khan for the fiasco?

We know that his Job Description expects him to work below full capacity, to sell his soul, and we know his SOP-sheet has the title: 'Design the next Salman Khan Project.'

Khan can only do what his hero's mood instructs him to. And the hero's in a do-gooder, guiltless mood right now.

So part of Kabir Khan's cunning is to surround his leading man with superior actors and prove that if these actors endorse our man's big heart, maybe there's a case to be made about his heart after all; he uses Acting Talent for the purpose of Character Certification.

However, in the process, what Kabir Khan also does is make these fine actors prostrate before Salman the star.

All those who'd thought it was Nawazuddin Siddiqui who redeemed Bajrangi Bhaijaan couldn't clearly see through Kabir Khan's cunning.

For in this planned conceit, it's not the Nawazuddins, the Om Puris, the Rajesh Sharmas or the Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyubs who hold the power to redeem the films, but Salman himself, and working with actors you don't expect too much from, starting out.

If you ask me, there was only one really effective scene in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, and it involved the supremely underused Sharat Saxena who wore his uptightness on his chin, and who delivered a Norm Macdonald-like anti-joke about airplanes and oxygen masks.

In Tubelight, the only scenes of behaviour come from actors like Brijendra Kala and the wonderful Isha Talwar who talks between typewriter keystrokes, and who offers the act of mourning the requisite sympathy, looking at the horizon silently, even as grand tears are shed elsewhere.

Tears are critical here; tears and geopolitical tensions are the essence of Tubelight.

Kabir Khan uses his own background as a documentary filmmaker to highlight the themes of fraternisation beyond borders, and the importance of putting individuals above their nationalities.

But these themes clearly came second.

Kabir Khan's primary trigger-switch here was the sodden American movie Little Boy and he then double-tracks to find an Indian context to which he can transpose that story.

So the Japanese War in Little Boy becomes the India-China war of 1962 in Tubelight, and we have the one-man Kamikaze of Sohail Khan standing up to a bunch of hill-descending Chinese soldiers.

Sohail's Bharat is off to fight the war leaving behind his 'smaller' elder brother Lakshman: A slow-thinking child who magically grows up to become Salman Khan acting nitwity -- it is Tubelight become Tropic Thunder.

The initial sections, delivered over Salman's sincere-sounding voiceover, feels like a cross between Piyush Pandey's '90s advertisements, and the opening bits of Anurag Basu's Barfi -- especially in its matter-of-fact treatment of a loved one's death, narrated over the imagery of a blown-up toy-bus rolling down the hill.

Lakshman is sluggish; he often misses the beat and that’s his music.

Bharat, as interpreted by Sohail, is modest and genuine.

Together, with all their softness, they are an odd team.

The scenes between the brothers are probably the weakest in the film and their nothing-chemistry is quickly done away with.

You can sense Kabir Khan's true sensibility shining through in the desentimentalised tone of the war-announcement scenes.

Here we have Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub's Narayan being denied recruitment for having knock-knees, and carried away in an almost Roberto Benigniesque fashion.

Outside of that scene, the talented Ayyub is wasted in a role that requires him to constantly switch between bellyaching and caring.

He gets the same deal as Rajesh Sharma in Bajrangi Bhaijaan; existing only to make Salman's Lakshman look good.

This, incidentally, also happens to be Yashpal Sharma's main dharma here.

Lakshman hops between the Kumaon regiment and village, enquiring about his brother, and reading from the notes that Om Puri has handed him.

The film wants us to believe that the notes are an Algorithm of Hope supposed to see Lakshman through the tough realities of life.

But what the notes actually are, are actually a bunch of handwritten clichés that Salman wants to parade as an emblem of his squashy heart.

Kabir Khan clearly has no idea how to make his hero the virtuous fella he desperately wants to be.

So he lets the villagers pile on him, and then to pick him up from the rubbles, introduces Shah Rukh Khan in a cameo: Dressed like a gypsy, with a magician's props, and a superstar-psychiatrist's manner.

That scene is so unimaginative and it has the two actors trying to move a soda-bottle across the table using the power of telekinesis.

But then, such is the strength of their mannered performances that the bottle actually moves!

It's when Salman's out of the equation that Kabir Khan does his little directorial woo-woos: He tries to set up period details, hanging up pictures of maharajas and ranis in the background; and whips up everyday scenes featuring the smaller actors (the reaction-shots don't feel ill-timed suddenly!).

In these bits, even (cinematographer) Aseem Mishra's usage of the mountain light feels natural, and it cracks in differently (intensely!) when Lakshman's around.

One constantly gets the sense that Kabir Khan knows the kick of creating a real world, but does not have the freedom to do that here.

Lakshman is his biggest draw, and his biggest curse.

He's the figure turning this into a template-world of red sweaters and temple-bells.

In his constant hopping, Lakshman runs into a mother-son duo of Chinese origin, and tries to use Om Puri's Algorithm of Hope on them.

Again, the kid is an executive decision, because obviously the little girl in Bajrangi had teamed up pretty well with Salman, and this kid's as exotic as he's cute.

The Chinese mother, played by actress Zhu Zhu, has a sexy mole below her nostrils, and it dilates every time hope swells inside her.

She's a single-note performer though, and in that scene of mourning, Isha Talwar chews her out, while just standing there and doing practically nothing.

The idyllic placidness of Tubelight, which may even turn to out be the big reason for its success, actually has a numbing effect -- you end up feeling less.

After cashing all those checks, if the final sequence did move me, it was for the fact that I was seeing, in that sequence, Om Puri crying his last onscreen tears.

When Salman Khan puts on his Lakshman act, you will, for every second of that performance, be reminded that this the devil-may-care Salman trying to look naïve, lost and pastoral.

It's not that Salman doesn't try, but when the actor sits with a pack of sheep trying to suggest loneliness, your heart actually beats for the sheep.

And for all the tomfoolery and clowning around, this feels like a truly stressed out performance; he doesn't seem to be having fun here.

There's a passing scene where Lakshman gets a glimpse of wartime horrors.

He is devastated.

He feels it in his stomach, the horrors, and tries to throw up. But then, he only manages to work up a spit.

In a weird way, that scene becomes a perfect summation for what the performance aspires for, and what it finally delivers.

Rediff Rating: