Bharat Review: Did We Really Need Another Salman Khan Vanity Project?


Bharat Review: Did We Really Need Another Salman Khan Vanity Project?

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Anything can happen in a Salman Khan film. Ali Abbas Zafar’s Bharat – a remake of the South Korean film, Ode To My Father takes that idea quite literally.

As a result, a 44-year-old Sonali Kulkarni plays mother to a 53-year-old Salman Khan (even to the eponymous 70-year-old version of him in the film) and no one bats an eyelid. It’s why the women in Bharat mysteriously keep disappearing, getting married, or dying at frequent intervals. And also why Khan’s Bharat saves a hijacked Indian ship from a Somali pirate by simply making racist jokes (“You’re black, I’m black,” says the actor, without a touch of irony before pointing to a dark Indian man and labelling him African). The pirate in turn responds by fanboying over Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar and dancing to Bachchan’s songs with Khan, leaving the ship and its inhabitants unharmed. Like I said, Bharat really does go the extra mile to prove that anything can happen in a Salman Khan film.

In the film, Khan plays a 70-year-old with the sculpted body of a 30-year-old (he works out at Lodhi Garden) and the attitude of a 20-year-old fashion blogger whose personality trait is swearing by Being Human T-shirts. Narrated entirely in flashbacks, Bharat’s intercontinental journey spans over six decades and has him experiment with jobs as frequently as a snooty Bandra millennial with a Blue Tokai addiction. He starts off as a  boot-polisher, car window-cleaner, newspaper seller, becomes a stuntman at a circus, and transitions into a lowly labourer in the Middle East, where he finds enlightenment after surviving a laughable blast in an underground gas-pipe tunnel. Then he gives up a job offer from the Indian Railways to become a grocery entrepreneur, and ultimately retires as a Navy officer. Because he is played by Khan, the superstar, Bharat the character doesn’t even interview for any of these jobs, unless you count a “comic sequence” involving a physical examination that requires him to drop his pants, as one.

Bharat is the second film this year – after Abhishek Varman’s Kalank – that takes to minining Partition as a gimmicky plot twist. It revolves around 70-year-old Bharat (Salman Khan), a sacrificial bachelor who spends his whole life searching for his missing father (Jackie Shroff) and younger sister (Tabu), separated from him while fleeing a riot-hit Pakistan in 1947. The promise of this big-budget magnum opus was presenting a snapshot of the tumultuous history of India through the six-decade long journey of one person. Ode To My Father, for instance, marvellously used its lead’s emotional arc to inform the ramifications of the division of North Korea and South Korea. Bharat, in comparison, seems like a parody that reduces the horrors of Partition to a millennial MTV reality show, accompanied by a promotional Instagram photoshoot. In the film’s climax, Bharat is reunited with his lost sister through a live Zee TV transmission that allows them to hear, see, and talk to each other through a television screen. One of them is in India and the other in London. Forget logic, Salman Khan movies even trump technology.

In Bharat, Salman Khan plays a 70-year-old with the sculpted body of a 30-year-old.

It also doesn’t help that the history of India is merely glossed over in Bharat, giving one no real sense of the evolution of the country. Partition predictably occupies a chunk of Zafar’s attention and the film reinforces the worst cliches – think bloodied bodies, tears, and villainous Muslims – while India’s 1983 World Cup win, Manmohan Singh, Shah Rukh Khan, and Sachin Tendulkar are hurriedly invoked. Even when stripped off its ambitious historical sweep, Ode To My Father was a compelling watch, primarily due to how it crafted a sentimental tale of family and loss that was informed by the pangs of longing of a vulnerable son for his father. Bharat however, fails foremost, at evoking emotional investment in the father-son tale. Its developments, whether it is a teary family reunion at an airport or a son finally coming to terms with his father’s death, is rendered inarguably bland and soulless. Khan’s tears have more glycerine than genuine emotion.

Much of it is naturally because Bharat is designed solely as an annual Salman Khan vanity project that leaves no room for either story or character development, using its extraordinary cast of supporting actors only for reaction shots. Shroff who plays Khan’s father is missing from almost the entire film and Shashank Arora, made to play Bharat’s younger brother, doesn’t even get a proper name or dialogues. Even Sunil Grover who plays Vilayati (that translates to “foreign”, which is another example of the film’s questionable humour given that the character is introduced as Muslim in the flashbacks), Bharat’s best friend, is exploited only for laughs and convenience. Even more jarring is Zafar’s decision to give its melodramatic source-material a needless comic makeover. The humour in Bharat is not just unfunny but also horrifyingly repulsive – laughs are gained from a man commenting on a woman’s backside, racism, obesity, and even underwear. Moreover, if there’s something truly frightening than Khan’s acting skills, then it is his comic timing. The problem is, Bharat relies heavily on it. 

Bharat proves that anything can happen in a Salman Khan film.

Besides Khan, the only person then, who is allowed to have considerable screen-time is Kumud (Katrina Kaif), Bharat’s “live-in” girlfriend, whose marriage proposal he turns down early on, prioritising taking care of his mother instead. n what comes as a surprise to no one, Bharat doesn’t even end up taking care of his mother, making Kumud do it on his behalf. And even though Kumud claims that they are one of the first “live-in couple in India”, he doesn’t technically live in with her either. The actress, whose role involves mothering an overgrown manchild, feels the closest to reality, although she plays a 70-year-old even less convincingly than Khan, which is a non-acting feat in itself. I At this point, Priyanka Chopra choosing to get married to Nick Jonas so that she wouldn’t have to play Kumud in Bharat, is nothing less than an inimitable power-move.

Clocking in at almost three hours, Bharat is an excruciating watch, which is exacerbated by the fact that neither Khan’s acting or dancing skills looks like they’re in any mood to ever improve. Yet, the extent of the film’s pointlessness and embarrassing dialogues (Radha, one of Bharat’s love interests bids him goodbye by saying “Kisi bhi Radha ko uska Krishna nahi milta”) feels slightly unexpected given that Zafar’s reputation of being one of the rare directors who can get Khan to emote. If in Sultan, Zafar succeeded in making Khan play a character almost convincingly, then in Tiger Zinda Hai, he dialed up the mainstream appeal of Khan as a brainless entertainer. In that sense, Bharat is a colossal misfire – in a similar fashion as Tubelight, another doomed remake – that has no idea what to do with itself. Over the years, if there’s one thing Salman Khan has taught Bollywood, it’s to not have any expectations from him. Zafar’s Bharat takes even that idea quite literally.