Thursday, July 30, 2015

BAAHUBALI (Telugu/Tamil; Hindi (dubbed); 2015)

By now, writing about Baahubali risks getting mired in banalities, about the film's gargantuan scale, its grandeur, the sheer spectacle it offers the viewer, the whole often tinged with (Bollywood?) condescension ("The biggest movie in town is a southern film!") or, conversely, (Southern?) pride ("Hey we've shown them how movies are made").  And it's all completely true: Baahubali is a big big movie, with a compelling story, great velocity, and more fun in each half than most filmmakers can manage in an oeuvre.  (And a specific kind of fun too: this is a film that revels in its bigness, the way Cecil B. Demille's The Ten Commandments did.)

But none of that is sufficient to make the film epic, that is to say, not only pitched at a scale that is itself impressive, but with enough attention to spare for the day-to-day to make the world represented plausible.  Homer is epic in a way the horrid Hollywood Troy isn't: the latter has all the ships and battles, but the former includes the taste of tears, the smell of rotting corpses, and pleasure in the way things work in that world (things that are, of course, being destroyed on the battlefield).  That is to say, Troy is merely a spectacle (certainly not the worst or least entertaining one, not in a world that includes 300, a film that seemed so wretched from the trailer I never could bring myself to watch it), whereas The Iliad makes its world so real you actually care about what happens in it.
What makes Baahubali striking is precisely this "world-making", director S.S. Rajamouli's ability to imagine the particulars of every scene to such a degree that this make-believe world becomes real for the audience, even plausible.  Plenty of other filmmakers can focus on the battle scenes and grand sets, but absent this eye for the little, it can all seem a bit lifeless (think Gladiator, with its emphasis on grand sets and action, as opposed to the HBO TV series Rome, which isn't short of action or amazing sets, but also helps you get a whiff of the streets, the religious ceremonies, the markets and ports; the former is airbrushed, the latter feels alive).  In Baahubali, this eye is seen everywhere: think of the bales of straw the castle's defenders use to try and prevent Sivudu from riding out of Mahishmati's capital on a chariot; or of the hollow (wooden?) tube the hero uses to hold the green snake he's going to release on Avantika while she's taking aim atop a tree (utterly bereft of any vulgarity, a delightfully perverse scene in the way it highlights the tense warrior ready to unleash her arrow at the unknown man who's painted her hand, even as the same man hovers behind her with the snake slithering over her arm: poised to attack, Avantika is rendered immobile); or the way in which Mahishmati's rulers discuss the battle plan in the film's second half.  At every step, Rajamouli and writer Vijayendra Prasad seem to have thought long and hard about how such a world might work if it existed -- and because they have done so, that world comes alive for us.  Compared to Baahubali, even the best of Bollywood's grand fables --think Lagaan -- seem airbrushed, most historicals -- Jodha-Akbar comes to mind, or Asoka -- superficial in the face of its thoroughness, and the less said about wannabe fantasies (like Krrish) the better.  In this it is inspired by the best of contemporary American TV (and, much like Game of Thrones, ends with a sensational cliffhanger). Walking out of the cinema after the film I had a stupid grin on my face, the sort that meant: This too is possible.   A derivative mush of all sorts of mythological tropes and archetypes, not to mention other movies and TV serials, a film with huge sets and not-always-seamless CGI (what Rajamouli would do with a Hollywood budget one can only dream of), a recognizably Telugu film yet like nothing else from the industry (not even the director's own Magadheera), that is to say, completely, utterly itself, Baahubali is a landmark.  And if it isn’t as quirky or the action as imaginative as Shankar’s Enthiran is, it’s grander and more impressive: there has been no more spellbinding, more immersive cinematic experience in recent times.

A tale like this has to begin with a foundling.  Baahubali opens with a landscape of striking waterfalls, and pretty soon we see the Rajmata (Ramya) trying to get a baby to safety.  She manages to save the child from drowning, long enough to ensure he is found by the local village chief and his wife.  The baby grows up to be Sivudu (Prabhas), a hulk of a man obsessed with the idea of climbing the height of the waterfalls to see what awaits him.  When he finally makes it there, he lands smack in the middle of a love story (his own for Avantika (Tamannah Bhatia)) and an ongoing guerrilla rebellion, by the army Avantika serves in, against the royal court and kingdom of Mahishmati, usurped by Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggupati) and his father from... ah, but I can't say more without giving away a mild surprise.  But if you can't guess by now that Sivudu is the messiah, the Baahubali the oppressed masses have been waiting for, you have wasted your life watching something other than masala movies.  There are plenty of surprises left, though: in the second half, the film shifts gears, focusing on a flashback sequence culminating in what has to be the longest, most impressive battle scene in Indian film history, and a film-ending cliffhanger worthy of Game of Thrones.  That's right, this film doesn't end -- it directly leads into the finale to be released next year.

The film's representation of women is striking.  Both Ramya and Tamannah Bhatia play characters with great strength and agency (although Avantika does become more passive once she falls in love with Sivudu), and the Rajmata is just as impressive in the film's second half as any of the male characters she shares screen time with; easily one of the most memorable "kick-ass" female characters on an Indian screen in years.  That this film has gotten called out for sexism in a few media articles, when every multiplex Bollywood film gets a free pass for similar sexism (and is bereft of any strong female characters to boot), speaks volumes about the role social class continues to play in Indian film criticism.  Stated differently, Western-style sexism, imported from American pop culture as it were, and to the taste of the upwardly mobile, urban classes who increasingly dominate the Bollywood audience, does not even register as sexism; whereas representations in a more "vernacular" idiom are called out, even as those who do so pat themselves on the back for being progressive.  Don't believe it.  Is Baahubali sexist?  Sure, a few scenes are -- but overall this fantasy world of battles and court intrigues, with its female warriors, armed guards, and matriarchs, is less sexist than the vast majority of Hindi and Telugu films I have seen. Perhaps no scene epitomizes this better than the real Avantika’s entry (you’ll see why I’ve used the adjective once you see the film): the warrior is pursued by a band of soldiers, and just when Sivudu – and the viewer – think he’ll have to jump out and rescue the damsel in distress, she and her fighters turn the tables and slaughter their enemies.  This woman needs little rescuing.

The charge of racism is perhaps closer to the mark, given the long battle scene with hordes of black, demonic/sub-human enemies (inspired at least in part by the White Walkers from Game of Thrones).  Even here, though, many of the film's critics miss the point: on the Mahishmati-side, the Rajmata camps out next to a statue of Durga, and I found the linkage of the opposing side with the asuras that goddess defeated in Hindu mythology unmistakeable.  Baahubali represents the enemies as demonic precisely because it seeks to evoke the specter of Durga's forces in battle with the armies of Evil: there is certainly a broader discussion to be had about the metaphysics of blackness in Indian and Western cultures (why, that is to say, "black" stands for "evil" or "sin"), a metaphysics Baahubali uncritically perpetuates -- but this is a very far cry from the naked racism of Bollywood "blackface" in the 1970s, or the threatening African-Americans of the NRI films of the 1990s, or the crude mockery of East Asians in films like Kal Ho Na Ho (2003).

A word on the cast: Prabhas is certainly the right physical fit for the part of Sivudu, but his pleasantly blank face is devoid of intensity, and I do consider him a weak link here; I certainly would have preferred the impish charm of NTR Jr. (admittedly he is too scrawny for this role).  Rana Daggubati as Bhallal Dev is splendid, showing us how much fun a one-dimensional performance as a baddie can be (indeed, he looks so good here I was mildly irritated at the use of CGI to bulk him up in his entry scene), as does Ramya in her authoritative role (she isn’t the only woman here to dominate her husband, as she does Bijjaladeva (Nasser); even where Sivudu’s adoptive parents are concerned, it’s clear who runs the show).  Tamannah Bhatia as Avantika made me eat my words: I’ve never been a fan of hers (a feeling reinforced by seeing her in the songs in Baahubali) but she is very good in her warrior get-up – I found myself missing that Avantika once she is somewhat “domesticated” by the relationship with Sivudu, and would have liked to see some more action involving her.  Sathyaraj as Kathappa, the warrior-slave sworn to serve Mahishmati's royal family, even when he knows it’s rule is illegitimate, was another surprise: he has a lot of screen-time here, and creditably acquits himself in a role painted with broad brushstrokes.

Baahubali has other charms too, ranging from a superbly choreographed "item" song -- Manohari, deploying genuine, sensuous, dance moves, rather than the stripper shimmies that too many Hindi films have gotten addicted to -- to Sudeep's fun cameo as the Afghan Aslam Khan (the fleeting role will, I suspect, assume significance in the sequel).  Indeed, nothing suggested the good ol' fun of something like Dharam Veer more than this figure, trying to hawk the ultimate sword to Kathappa. Aslam Khan is an adversary of sorts, ultimately bested in a sword-fight by Kathappa, but he is a certain type: the enemy who both gives and merits respect.  It isn't a coincidence that Aslam Khan is from Afghanistan (the only real place-name in the film); that detail situates him within a specific Hindi film-tradition of noble Indo-Islamic warrior-types, "others" the audience is expected to esteem.  (I consider Feroz Khan the patron saint of this sort of figure, both because of films like Dharmatma (1975) and the public persona he cultivated, reflected even in late – and degraded – offerings like Janasheen (2003) and Welcome (2007); the likes of Jackie Shroff (in Palay Khan (1986)) and of course Amitabh Bachchan as the Afghan Badshah Khan in Khuda Gawah (1992) offer other variants, as does Pran as Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973).  One might even say that this figure's turn towards evil, beginning with Lotiya Pathan (Kiran Kumar) in Tezaab (1988), is a watershed moment, symptomatic of a turn in Hindi cinema towards the less capacious understanding of difference that so scarred the cinema of the 1990s.)  

It’s all a sign that Baahubali is very Indian, with deep roots not just in Indian culture, but in Indian popular cinematic culture: you just don’t see filmi heroes anymore with a playful, even at times competitive relationship with their Gods, as Sivudu does here in a long sequence early on in the film vis-à-vis the village Shiv lingam (this sort of thing holds a special place in my heart, given that Hindi films served as my introduction to Hinduism as a child; Bachchan in Deewar had more to do with my excitement at first visiting a Hindu temple than anything else did); these days, the archetypes of the Mother; the Messiah/Prince; the Foundling; the Usurper, and the rich signification they enable are, at least in Hindi cinema, barely ever deployed in overt fashion (and are acceptable only under the cover of either a neo-Hollywood aesthetic, or the sort of consumption vehicle Bollywood has made its own where mainstream commercial films are concerned; under both, the sign of the Hero is perhaps the only one that is left. and not surprisingly, the feminine iconic mode has withered away).  These sorts of tropes are used fantastically well in Baahubali. The commercial success of this film, including, most remarkably, the scale of the Hindi dubbed version’s success, surely owes something to the chord it has struck, by satisfying a craving for deeper, more resonant storytelling that many of us had forgotten.  Baahubali is magnificent.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

MASAAN (Hindi; 2015)

By the end, Masaan (“Cremation Ground”) was very different from the film I thought I was watching after the first fifteen minutes: the opening sequence, involving a sexual encounter violated and sullied by policemen intent on cruelty and extortion, is one of the most riveting, and nauseating, representations of the police in years (only the sequence in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly (2014), where the father of a missing girl tries to register a missing person-complaint, comes close). I was filled with loathing, and wanted to hurt someone.  That feeling stayed with me – Bhagwan Tiwari as Inspector Mishra has an important and continuing role over the course of the film – but Masaan turned out to be about something other than misogyny or the workings of a corrupt and oppressive state machine.  What that something is I’m not quite sure, but in its moodiness, its air of mystery, its poetry, I am confident Masaan heralds the arrival of an exciting, reflective new directorial talent in Neeraj Ghaywan.  To the extent Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010) may be said to have spawned successors, Masaan is among the worthies.

At one level, the film is a coming-of-age story, a genre that relies on assumptions that the protagonists will be typical in some way (the Lover; the Student; the Prince; even with Portrait of The Artist as a Young Man, a category – the Artist – is immediately and explicitly invoked).  But Masaan, like Udaan, wraps the bildungsroman into a narrative of exception: Deepak (Vicky Kaushal) seems like a typical Polytechnic student in Varanasi, until you appreciate that he is from the Dom caste, traditionally associated with cremating dead bodies on the Varanasi ghats – as caste hierarchies go, it’s hard to think of anyone lower down the totem pole.  But Deepak’s father has ensured an education for him, one that estranges him from the family’s traditional profession (the estrangement personified by his sullen brother Sikandar, who hasn’t been able to do what Deepak has done) – it’s not an impossible story, merely a remarkable one.  Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda), the young Brahmin woman who, along with her father, is ensnared by the police in a manufactured sex scandal and resulting extortion, is remarkable for her inner strength and poise: her conviction that she has done nothing wrong seems unshakeable, not only in the face of sexual predators who want to sleep with her because, well, she’s done it once before with someone else, but also in private, before her father. 

A story about the coming of age of two people who are self-consciously atypical is not a problem per se (Ghaywan and writer Varun Grover are surely entitled to tell any tale of their choosing), but does raise wider questions of meaning.  That the stakes are higher than those involved in the story of two remarkable young people is not in doubt, given the metaphysics of death and re-birth self-consciously deployed by the film.  And there is Varanasi itself, loaded with meaning (and its ghats wonderfully shot by cinematographer Avinash Arun), sought by both the pilgrims and tourists who visit (the former are obligated to go in some sense, out of religious duty, but even the latter – of whom I was one for five memorable days in 2009 at a small guesthouse near the Kashi Vishwanath temple – are convinced that they are visiting a special place, one like no other: the city’s proximity to death has by now become a cliché, although no less true for it). 

Perhaps that is the place to begin: is the cremation ground of the film’s title Harishchandra Ghat, where Deepak’s family lives and where it plies its trade?  It might be the city itself, where dying can sometimes seem easier than living (recall the opening sequence, at the end of which Piyush kills himself; Devi is stronger, and it’s clear that option has never occurred to her).  The parallels between the two leads might offer some clues: the fathers of both, albeit at opposite ends of the caste spectrum, make their living from death and the rituals associated with it, on the banks of the Ganges (Devi’s father is a pandit and former professor of Sanskrit who now advises people on post-death rituals; Deepak’s family cremates corpses); both Devi and Deepak have had lovers from Bania backgrounds (Aggarwal for her; Gupta for him); both work for Indian Railways at some point (indeed the rail as metaphor for arrivals and departures is a recurring motif in the film); both are born into families at the end of a long tradition, but one that doesn’t sustain them any longer, and is instead something to get away from, its weight felt like that of a carcass.  On this reading the Masaan of the film’s title might be the milieu itself: life, if it is to be, must be elsewhere. 

Away from the two leads, Masaan gets plenty other things right: a host of other characters populate the film, and just about every one – ranging from Deepak’s friends to the man who baldly and offensively propositions Devi to Deepak’s lover Shaalu to the foul-mouthed boy Jhonta who works with Devi’s father, to Piyush’s mother, and the two leads’ fathers– is well-etched and aptly cast.  They seem like people who might be real, and are very far from types.  Deepak’s friends are a case in point: in most other films (especially multiplex films, where middle-class men have increasingly been stereotyped as little better than swine – the charming Queen offers a great example in Raj Kumar Rao’s character, who is not just awful but awful in a way that suggests he is meant to stand in for a whole class of Indian male) they might be stereotypical louts or lechers; here they are awkward but well-meaning, and surprise us with their sensitivity.  (Don’t get me wrong, Masaan isn’t short of assholes, it’s just that the film represents many more hues than one.)  Nor is the caste angle one-dimensional, with privileged upper-castes on the one hand and the Doms on the other: the latter’s lot is grim, but in Devi’s father and his pathetic feebleness before Inspector Mishra, we also encounter how wretched upper-caste poverty can be as well (indeed at one point Vidyadhar Pathak naively mumbles that he thought he could rely on the Inspector’s sympathy – “Mishra” is also a Brahmin last name – only to be met with derision).  No position atop the Hindu caste hierarchy will save the Pathaks: only money will.

Vicky Kaushal makes the role of Deepak his own, in a winning performance that brought more than one smile to my face: his shyness is irresistible, and his wooing of Shaalu more disarmingly natural than any number of representations of boys from the “Hindi heartland” over the last decade (compare this to Vivek Oberoi crooning Lionel Richie songs in Omkara and you’ll appreciate what a condescending representation is all about).  But the most arresting acting in the film comes from Richa Chadda, who uses inscrutability as both woman’s shield and weapon in this film: her tightly impassive face conveys in precisely the proportion that it conceals (indeed, one might even criticize the film for making too much of this: Devi’s motivations are all but opaque, not only to her father but also to us, and perhaps even to the director), and compels attention.  Not to mention that she is insanely hot; the combination means great screen presence (oddly enough not showcased as well in Gangs of Wasseypur as here, or in Fukrey or in a blink-and-miss role in the Indian TV version of 24) that anchors Masaan.  Someone get her more roles!

Masaan only features three tracks, but each is memorable: Indian Ocean’s soulful music works very well here, not least because each song serves primarily as vehicle for very fresh lyrics.  Varun Grover’s adaptation of Dushyant Kumar’s poem is unforgettable and jarring – I don’t think I’ve gotten over these most odd of romantic lyrics, in “Tu kisi rail si guzartee hai / Mein kisi pul sa thartharaata hoon”; Grover does even better with the simple “Mann kasturi re / Jag dastoori re / Baat hui na pooree re”, and Sanjeev Sharma’s lyrics in “Bhor” are also very good.  Perhaps what I enjoyed was also the feeling that here were writers who like the rhythms of spoken Hindi in Eastern U.P., who are able to make poetry from a very popular and unpretentious idiom (another quality that links Masaan to Udaan).

In Masaan, leaving is no clean break (and not just because, as Devi’s Railways colleague Sadhya (Pankaj Tripathi) tells her, 26 trains stop at Benares, but 64 don’t, showing that it is easy to get to the city, but hard to leave): the Ganges is the site not just of death but of rebirth, and the films closing sequences make that explicit: Devi and Deepak achieve some kind of closure by casting the last physical objects tying them to their dead lovers into the water, and then meet each other and embark on a journey that signifies a beginning on the same river.  (The connection has already been foreshadowed: the ring Deepak casts away, then tries to find but cannot, ends up, unknown to Devi, playing a crucial role in her liberation.)  Kashi must be fled, but only with what Kashi gave you, with traces of what Kashi took away.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


The term "masala" has been much bandied about in recent years, all-too-often by people with scant respect or understanding of its rhythms, of the precise contexts it grew out, indeed of how vanishingly brief its efflorescence was -- essentially coterminous with the arc of Amitabh Bachchan's and Manmohan Desai's careers, more accurately with the intersection of the two careers in the 1970s and 1980s.  At some point, "masala" became a lazy stand-in, for films from any period prior to this century, for anything that pre-dated the Hollywoodization of the Hindi film aesthetic, for anything outlandish or spoofish, for films we were embarrassed about, for films we didn't just make any more.  Until, that is, we did, when, after the path breaking success of 2008's Ghajini, a particular variant of popular (primarily Telugu) cinema was able to be married to The Big Bollywood Star, and has been a fixture of Hindi screens ever since -- in a particular way.  For the likes of Ready, Kick, Rowdy Rathore, are not mainstream movies in the sense that they set the pace for the industry, exemplars of a tradition at its prime; rather, these films only make sense in the context of an industry that (commercially speaking) has moved on (to an extent because of changing tastes; but also, in no small measure, because of its ability to pitch products to smaller and smaller demographic groups.  Unlike the industries all over the world that seek to broaden their footprint, Bollywood, wittingly or no, prefers to focus on smaller groups of more affluent consumers).  Contemporary masala makes sense, and can be successful, only because there isn't very much of it, and what there is harkens to a general sense of Bollywood's history; it is thus essential that it be married to a veteran star, whose long career itself imbues him with an aura of authenticity.  That context paradoxically means that the masala movie, however well-made, simply cannot mean what it used to: its excellence vis-a-vis other films might have brought success once upon a time (think of Sholay, as opposed to Khotay Sikkay); today, its rarity, its status as a kind of specimen (the Hindi/Urdu word namoona does come to mind) is crucial.

The above accounts for many of Salman Khan's recent films: unquestionably Southern masala in one sense, films like Dabangg, Dabangg 2, Ek Tha Tiger or Kick were also careful not to alienate the multiplex audience, packaging what they were selling in tongue-in-cheek humor, and Hollywood length (Dabangg, for instance, was under two hours in length).  They were easy to consume, both for an audience that wanted "this sort" of film but couldn't get it anywhere else, and for an audience who needed escapist fare but was embarrassed by itself for being so silly.  Kabir Khan's Ek Tha Tiger offered a fascinating glimpse of the potential and pitfalls of this sort of film could be: shorn of sexism or even the overt nationalism that one might have expected from its subject (an Indo-Pak romance between two spies), just as the film gets interesting, with the star-crossed lovers fleeing with RAW and the ISI in hot pursuit, it, um, ends, almost as if the filmmakers knew that you couldn't risk getting too serious, too, well, masala anymore.

Everyone deserves a second chance, and in retrospect, Ek Tha Tiger was the appetizer to the main course that is Bajrangi Bhaijaan: and a damn good meal it is (and, it must be noted, one not without some Andhra spice, written as it is by K. Vijayendra Prasad, a man credited with more blockbusters – including the continuing phenomenon of Baahubali -- than most have hits).  By now everyone knows the plot -- good-hearted Hanuman bhakt Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi finds a mute Pakistani girl lost in India, and resolves to cross the border to re-unite her with her family -- but let's pause to acknowledge that this itself is a welcome relief from the nauseating flood of routine love stories packaged as something different; or the clothes, fashion, and lifestyle ads that masquerade as films in Bollywood.  And then there is the question of the social milieu the film is set in: I found myself rooting for the fact that this film isn’t populated by people toting D&G and acting as if progressive cinema consisted of ripping off off-beat American filmmakers, rather than plagiarizing other sources.  In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, people take the bus, eat at dhabas, drink tea from roadside stalls, not because the director is trying to tell us something (in far too many contemporary Hindi films, these representations would mean either that we are talking about the hinterlands of UP and Bihar, with crazy violence sure to follow; or that it’s a question of a film about some “them”, made for some “us” that is assuredly not “them”), but because that’s simply where his characters live and how they commute to work.  It’s delightful because it’s so normal.  (That I have to make this point at all testifies to the sad pass the industry has come to.)  [In fact, Kabir Khan’s representation of the film’s worlds has led to some off-screen confusion with more than one urbane Bombayite puzzled over the use of terms like “Mohammedan” in the film – a sure sign of one’s unfamiliarity with certain North Indian milieus.]

There are other signs of a new normal: Pawan isn’t just a Hanuman bhakt but a rather closed-minded Hindu: he’s the son of a RSS shakha pramukh, is shocked by even the smell of meat wafting over from a Muslim neighbors house, and is completely disgusted to see the child he’s so fond of wolf down chicken.  He’s also communal, pleading for Hanuman’s forgiveness upon entering a mosque, is shocked that the child in his care even wants to tie a thread at a dargah, and further evidenced by his desperation to come up with an explanation of the girl’s meat-eating ways that doesn’t have her be – shudder – a Muslim.  Kshatriyas eat meat, he reasons, an addendum to his earlier reasoning that the girl’s light skin means she must be a Brahmin.  And then there’s his literal-mindedness: much of the film’s comedy is centered on Pawan’s attempts to live his life according to the precepts of Lord Hanuman: never lie, deceive, or do anything under-handed. All this isn’t just director Kabir Khan and writer Vijayendra Prasad looking down at some simple-minded bigot who makes the rest of us feel better about our own “tolerance”.  On the contrary, the representation of Pawan’s bigotry as completely, banally, normal, so much so that it’s Pawan’s lover Rasika who seems odd when she snaps that all this stuff about staying away from those of “paraaya dharm” is nonsense, stays with the viewer.  Pawan’s attitudes aren’t abnormal or unusual, they are all too common across large swathes of Indian society, and the film doesn’t let us forget it precisely because it evokes that reality in a seemingly non-judgmental way.  

This isn’t the syncretic Hindu that we are familiar with from a long line of Hindi films, but almost the first post-Modi Hindu film hero, one with a communal identity so clearly demarcated, so abundantly policed and vigilant of borders (witness Pawan about to step into a dargah for the first time – and this is on the Indian side of the border), one might mistake him for a monotheistic fundamentalist. The jibe against the Sangh is subtle, but unmistakable: what the new normal – an ignorant one, I might add: a second after Rasika asks Pawan if he’s read the Mahabharata she remembers who she’s dealing with, following it up with “you must have at least watched the TV serial?” – amounts to isn’t anti-Muslim so much as it is un-Muslim, a conception of India and Indianness that has nothing whatsoever to do with the likes of Muslims.  The new normal, that is to say, aims at fulfilling the logic of Partition, by creating a Hindu Pakistan to mirror the Muslim one across the border.  So while I celebrate Bajrangi Bhaijaan for its insight and appreciation of the stakes here, my appreciation is tinged with sadness: because the film also reminds us, in a way no Indo-Pak bonhomie at film’s end can undo, how complete the logic of Partition is for so many people, whether they live in India or Pakistan.  Indeed that cross-border bonhomie reinforces the stability of the border, a point that seems to have eluded the filmmakers: stated differently, a more daring film would have tackled the Hindu-Muslim “borders” within a city like Delhi, and the challenges those frontiers pose to sustaining a genuinely pluralistic polity.  The Wagah border can be oppressive, but it doesn’t upset either Hindu or Pakistani nationalism because it keeps everyone in their place (to be fair, this film does have a brilliant sequence where things are out of place, when India loses a cricket match to Pakistan and everyone in the house Pawan and Rasika stay in is distraught, with only Munni jumping up and down in excitement, and then kissing the Pakistani flag on the TV screen).

But -- and this is perhaps the best thing about this film -- Bajrangi Bhaijaan's magic lies in the sly way it upsets expectations by making an "other" of its lead protagonist, and, by extension, of the audience.  The film’s second half is set entirely in Pakistan, and at one fell swoop it is Pawan who sticks out like a sore thumb: his name, the words he uses, his religiosity, makes him seem as aberrant in Pakistan as, well, a Muslim guy at a RSS shakha.  I can’t think of another Hindi film that does so much with this trope, in the sense that Pawan isn’t oppressed in Pakistan for his religion, it’s just that his oddity is reinforced at every turn (the scene where Pawan asks for vegetarian food at a roadside dhaba was hilarious, and rang true, reminding me of more than one Muslim acquaintance), and he has to cope with being strange in a milieu that otherwise includes plenty of the familiar.  This is a double estrangement, not simply borne of alien-ness, but of an alien-ness that also feels, in many ways, familiar.  (Perhaps I should speak of a triple or even quadruple estrangement here, given that Pawan is played by Muslim Salman Khan; but a Muslim who can recite the Hanumanchalisa with no trouble at all, and one who is himself, in a perverse twist that would have done Proust proud, closer to the Hindu Right than just about any other Muslim celebrity in India.)

The second half of Bajrangi Bhaijaan introduces us to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing the rather shabby Pakistani journalist Chand Nawab, who becomes smitten by the story of the big-hearted Indian on an odyssey to re-unite Munni with her parents.  Salman Khan’s character is strangely passive and quiet in the second half, and Nawazuddin propels the action here, with wonderful comic timing and that ever-present misery in the actor’s eyes.  It isn’t often that one speaks of another actor in a Salman Khan film (Nawazuddin himself had no more than ten good minutes in Kick), but it must be said that he has tons of screen time, and holds the film’s second half together.  I could see this film again just for him. That’s not a knock on Salman, but merely an acknowledgment that Kabir Khan hasn’t been as flattering to him here as he was in Ek Tha Tiger: there are fewer great dialogs, only one crowd-pleasing action sequence, the music – as one would expect from Pritam – is pedestrian, and no Sallu song choreography worthy of the name (E le le is not a patch on, for instance, Hum ka peeni hai from Dabangg; although the Kukdu ku song celebrating the charms of non-veg food, features delightful lyrics by Mayur Puri).

What is the film’s message (apart, that is, from, as Baradwaj Rangan has noted, the notion that Salman Khan is a wonderful human being)? That we should all get along, for sure, but there’s another, more sly thread here: what happens to Pawan illustrates the limits of literal-minded adherence to religious or moral precepts – if you keep admitting you crossed the border illegally into Pakistan, expect to be beaten by the police and border security personnel, however pure your intentions – and on more than one occasion, Prasad and Kabir Khan evoke the Mahabharata: Rasika does it most explicitly early on, trying to explain to Pawan that he needs to add some Krishna to his Hanuman bhakti.  “Never tell lies” is not just a moral precept, it’s a sure way to make one’s life unlivable.  By film’s end, Pawan seems to get it: he still won’t tell lies or deceive, but will mislead and enable others to do so to serve a good end.  Chand Nawab has never heard of the Mahabharata, but the writer ensures we are reminded of it in the latter half of the film: as every good Hindi film fan knows, Natwarlal is the most masala-friendly of all Deities.