Zero Review: Proof of Everything Wrong with the Cult of SRK

Bollywood

Zero Review: Proof of Everything Wrong with the Cult of SRK

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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here can be no bigger deceit than Shah Rukh Khan’s turn as 38-year-old Bauua Singh – a Meerut man afflicted with dwarfism – in Hindi cinema this year. It’s a fact universally acknowledged that SRK will play a version of himself in every role that he essays, but it feels especially galling in Anand L Rai’s Zero.

The film opens with a satisfying pulpy sequence where Bauua dreams of a magnetic version of himself, where he isn’t bogged down by height-fuelled insecurities. In those brief moments, he is the hero who saves the “izzat” of an oppressed woman and confronts baddies in French. And for the next 165 minutes, Rai and Zero solely concern themselves with guaranteeing that 53-year-old SRK is that hero – and not Bauua Singh, an ordinary person attracted to any opportunity that allows him to overlook his shortcomings.

So Bauua Singh moulds himself to be SRK: He flashes his dimples, spreads his arms, walks in the trademark gait that we’ve come to identify with the star, dances with the awareness that all eyes are on him, and mouths one-liners knowing that fans will hang onto every word. Every single body twitch, mannerism, emotion, and reaction – like Bauua’s tears or the enunciation of the word “nafrat” – is borrowed proudly and consistently from brand SRK.

It’s a sham of a performance that thrives on the presumption of being instantly recognised. There’s not even a single minute in Zero where the actor plays a character. In fact, the film might be the worst aide-memoire of his long-standing incompetence in completely inhabiting a character.

The last time SRK shed the baggage of being Shah Rukh Khan and surrendered to the needs of a role was back in 2007’s Chak De! India. In the decade that followed, the actor’s choices reflected a dire need to hold onto his plummeting stardom. The roles he signed were designed then to have him retain his hallmark theatrics in a film within a film: In Om Shanti Om, SRK was reborn as a modern-day superstar. In Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, he had a romantic alter-ego. In Ra.One, SRK’s superhero turn relied on heightened exaggeration. In Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Dilwale, Jab Harry Met Sejal, he embodied the clichéd romantic hero he set the template of. And in Fan, SRK just played SRK.

In the last couple of years, another ruse that the superstar has employed is to “reinvent” by taking up roles that only appear challenging. His characters take refuge in manufactured deficiencies – facial distortion, bespectacled monotony, and dwarfism – that mask the actor’s tendency to deliver the same performance over and over again. To be fair, when he essayed Surinder Sahni, an average man trying to make his wife fall for him or Gaurav Chandna, an obsessive stalker, SRK revealed audacious intent and quirks that were distinctly divorced from his larger-than-life persona.

Zero isn’t about Bauua Singh or dwarfism. It’s about SRK taking leaps of faith than only SRK is allowed to.

But in Zero, SRK indulges in the most dangerous artifice by exploiting dwarfism (India alone is estimated to have a dwarf population of 2 lakh) as an empty vessel to elevate brand SRK. Bauua Singh’s condition doesn’t affect, limit, or even inform his dreams and vulnerabilities: Bauua’s confidence reeks of stock small-town masculinity that interprets objectification and stalking as passionate admiration. The sky (and in this case, space) is always the limit when it comes to SRK.

By the end, you have to consciously remind yourself that Bauua Singh suffers from dwarfism (except when Zero implies that people afflicted with dwarfism aren’t “normal people”) because it’s just SRK taking leaps of faith that only SRK is allowed to. Even worse is the film peddling the idea that love can truly happen between two differently abled people. And its sheer arrogance in believing that it doesn’t fetishise disabilities while simultaneously bracketing them as imperfections: Especially when Aafia’s (Anushka Sharma in an awful performance) intelligence is evened out by cerebral palsy, or when the partial blindness of Bauua’s best friend (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) is reduced to a punchline.

Even the film’s most compelling character, Babita Kumari (an arresting Katrina Kaif), a successful actress dealing with a cheating boyfriend, exists to endorse SRK’s change of heart. In the latter parts, Zero even goes as far as recreating every affecting moment from some of Hollywood’s most memorable films (La La Land, Gravity, Hidden Figures, First Man, The Martian, Interstellar) to make SRK look heroic. Even when Bauua Singh didn’t need to be.

But the most telling example of the film’s slipshod ideas, came five minutes into it: At the packed press screening I attended, a bunch of people of restricted growth were ushered in: A promotional gimmick devoid of any thought or logic that demands appreciation, even though Zero features no actor afflicted by dwarfism. 

SRK’s Bauua Singh is a carefully orchestrated and subtle attempt to insult the intellect of audiences. And this is what what makes Zero even more manipulative than all the whitewashing in Sanju.

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