Never Go Full Tubelight

Pop Culture

Never Go Full Tubelight

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

There’s a “Bhai” film in the theatres and it’s time for bhai-jaculations. Everyone has their own routine to join the celebrations, and my preferred one is to get completely trashed and land up right in time for a front-row experience of the last show on the first day. The alcohol-induced daze transports me head first into the universe of Bhai fandom, where every dialogue is whistle-worthy and every Salman Khan entry is met with the metal clink of coins hitting the big screen. From punch to pout, I join the raucous cheering blindly, seeing in him the messiah we seek in all of us.

Who the fuck cares if the world is going up in flames when Salman is there to save us? Come hell or high water, if it’s a Salman movie, there will be a Bhai moment, and usually therein lies my redemption and justification for a bitch of a hangover.

So like the characters in Waiting for Godot, I waited for that “Bhai moment” of emotional crescendo, but it never seemed to arrive. Or maybe it came so often that I never really felt it at all.

Salman’s Laxman, the Tubelight, is the centre of all jokes in the small, fictionalised border town, where the army descends for a recruitment drive during the Sino-Indian war of 1962.  Salman plays a “tubelight”, a colloquial term for someone with perceived intellectual disability. With his distracting bulk, he tries to pull off being vulnerable and childlike but ends up being endearing in the way a really annoying goat is endearing. There are moments where you want to feel for him, but mostly you just want to whack him. On a scale of Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man to Ajay Devgn in the I Am Sam remake Main Aisa Hi Hoon, Tubelight edges frighteningly close to the latter. But in Salman Khan’s defence, no Bollywood film has ever approached even close to the former.


I’m not a cynic and I understand that hope and faith are powerful words, but they’re not as hollow as Tubelight tells you they are.


In Tropic Thunder, Robert Downey Jr tells Ben Stiller that an actor, even when playing a “tubelight”, must “never go full retard” because it alienates him from the audience. This is pretty much what goes wrong every time the Bombay film industry tries its hand at quintessential “tubelights”. Hrithik Roshan made a career out of saying, “Avon cycle, maa!” in varying degrees of “tubelicity”, while Shah Rukh Khan tried his luck in My Name Is Khan, managing to eke out only a sliver of empathy from all of us (credit for which should rightfully go to the screenplay than Shah Rukh himself). Aamir Khan’s “Tubelight” moment in Dhoom 3 was so contrived that it was more alienating than the alien he played in PK. But the rightful throne of “The Tubelight” rests with Ajay Devgn, whose performance was an exaggerated master class of idiot-dom, which made many a Stanislavski student twist and turn in their graves, asking Devgn, “Tu Aisa Kyun Hai?”

When our filmmakers try to portray people with intellectual disabilities, their representations, more often than not, turn out to be tone-deaf, cringeworthy, and borderline offensive. No matter how endearing the character in question is, or how often he cutely forgets to zip up his trouser, he is always portrayed as an object of pity and scorn, when he is actually supposed to be inspiring. It’s not that these characters shouldn’t be portrayed as vulnerable; it’s just that we never seem to do them any justice, and don’t seem to understand the wistful boundaries that can contain them. Kabir Khan has painted Laxman “Tubelight” Bisht with the brush so firmly in his mouth that the end result is not a character, as much as a caricature.

Tubelight is driven by the “magic of faith” theme that dominates the narrative, and Laxman believes he can actually move mountains, but all he manages to do is move the audience to yawns. There is so much emphasis that goes into driving home the point about faith that everyone in the film from Mahatma Gandhi, Shah Rukh Khan, Chinese actress Zhu Zhu, to the late Om Puri, keeps hammering it in, up to a point where you begin believing that only faith can get you through the remaining length of the film.

I’m not a cynic and I understand that hope and faith are powerful words, but they’re not as hollow as Tubelight tells you they are. They must always be driven by action, but action which in some way contributes to the bigger picture rather than going around in circles of its own.

It’s not that the film does not have its moments. It has Kabir Khan at the helm after all. Through Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub’s character, Narayan, Kabir Khan makes fine remarks on the idea of nationalism of hate, where he questions hating a minority on the grounds of patriotism. Through the young Matin Rey, there is another fine point he makes on misguided perceptions and nationalistic fervour, when Salman asks him to say “Bharat Mata Ki Jai” to prove that he is not Chinese. Broader points on war, humanity, and how it affects soldiers and civilians alike are well-brewed. These scenes shine and provide a glimmer of hope in an otherwise flickering and hardly illuminating narrative that is Tubelight. And for fuck’s sake, we know that Salman can ace crying, but not if he’s made to do it 34 times in three hours.


Who the fuck cares if the world is going up in flames when Salman is there to save us?


But in spite of Salman’s very obvious limitations, Kabir Khan has decided to bear the weight of moving Bhai away from the typical “Bhai-formula film”. It worked wonders in Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where his character takes it upon himself to ensure that a little girl from Pakistan finds her way home all the way from India. The empathy that Salman drew from the viewer was by positioning himself as the silent messiah of the helpless little girl. Where Tubelight falters is that it takes the impending weight of empathy for granted. In the Salman School of Acting, distanced entirely from say the Stanislavski method or the Brechtian school, every character must become a Salman alter ego – kyunki hum sab ke andar ek chhota Salman hota hai!

As a takeaway for a Salman fan (which I most certainly remain), one wonders what would have been if this film wasn’t completely “de-bhai-fied”. Who wouldn’t have loved to see Salman move a mountain, then stretch his hand out, and pick out Sohail baba from the gloomy cloud of war? If life were so simple, you’d say. But it would’ve still made for an enthralling watch. Not going completely “Tubelight” could’ve saved the film from just being a plotless narrative interspersed with a cacophony of songs. We could’ve seen another side of war that a lot of us choose to ignore – sitting on the sidelines with nothing to do, bored as fuck.

Bored (and dehydrated) as fuck, is also how I felt by the time the climax came. At the end of three hours, once the boredom had culminated into a fine crescendo which threatened to put me to sleep, the credits came up and I made for the exit gate.

I may be a Salman fan alright, but this Tubelight failed to light me up.