Kabir Khan’s previous Salman Khan starrer, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, was unique in its own way because it showcased Salman in a vulnerable and an almost anti-hero fashion. Bajrangi worked and went on to be a critical and commercial success because Kabir explored Salman’s talent as a more nuanced performer than the action hero for which the audience has long been loving him. Bajrangi Bhaijaan also worked because the plot worked and the emotional buyouts in the story were timed carefully and sparsely. In Tubelight, Kabir Khan employs the same formula again but with little success. The film starts off in the right direction but soon derails because of its languid pace and exhaustion of cliches. Now I’m all for a feel good movie – but when the bhashans come at me every five minutes, I naturally lose interest and get tired of investing in characters who have little depth and have been unsuccessful in creating a connection with the audience.
Based on the Hollywood film Little Boy by Alejandro Monteverde, Tubelight sees Salman plays Laxman Bhisht. Laxman is a slightly autistic native of Jagatpur where he is dubbed as Tubelight – he is also shown as someone naive and with below average intelligence. Laxman’s brother, Bharat (Sohail Khan) is the only family he has – along with kindly neighbor (the late Om Puri Sahab) Banne Chacha. Laxman’s childhood friend slash bully is Narayan (Mohammad Zeeshan) – and it is the most bizarre and one of the most unconvincing relationships in the film.
Bharat is drafted off to the Indo-China war and Laxman begins to wait for his brother to come home. Then begin the longest hours of the film. Banne Chacha teaches Laxman the Gandhi mantras and philosophies. An immigrant Chinese family comprising of Li Ling (Zhu Zhu and Guo (Martin) arrives in Jagatpur and little Guo is harassed by Narayan for being the “enemy”.
One wonders what kind of monster would attempt to harass a kid under ten years old – but the story doesn’t allow us to ask these questions. We are quickly transported to slo-mo sequences at the war front where Bharat is fighting the real enemy with guns and bombs and taking a beating along with his fellow soldiers.
For the next two hours, both these storylines move two step forwards and three steps backward with little engagement. The songs uplift you and so does Salman when he wins you over with his sheer childlike vulnerability and naivete – but then you shift back to the dully told story that seems to be going around in circles.
Shah Rukh Khan makes a small and magical appearance as Go Go Pasha – who helps Laxman believe in himself a little bit more. Shah Rukh’s cameo is one of the most exciting parts of the film, as he enthralls the audience with few but choice messages – which prove the point yet again that the audiences cannot be lectured about love and faith and goodness by the truckload. It doesn’t have to be hammered in to drive the point home – like Pasha’s small but effective role, it can be the critical moment at the end of the film instead of being a long list of good deeds done throughout the two hours.
Zhu Zhu is beautiful and a wonderful actress but her delivery is too forced. It seems unnatural that she’s an immigrant – rather it seems like she’s as new to India as the telephone. Her sentences are contrived and despite her superb acting chops, the dubbing gives her away.
Salman Khan is endearing and lovable as Laxman and every frame that demands an intense emotional response from him, Salman delivers.
Despite the flawed storyline, Laxman manages to find a place in your heart and you keep watching the film because of a combination of Khan’s sheer animal magnetism and the profound intensity of Khan’s impact on the screen. His relationship with Guo is filled with some sweet and honest moments that redeem the film for a while before it knocks you down with another badly executed cliche.
With stunning landscapes that are showcases in by even more wonderful cinematography, the mountains and the deserts become characters in the film – but the film is in such a hurry to convince the audience that the world is a good and kind place where even perpetual bullies like Narayan learn that peace is good and war is bad, it forgets to focus on the little details that could have been a better way to communicate the important anti-war message of the film.
Watch if you are a Salman Khan fan (but that goes without saying) or if haven’t seen Bajrangi Bhaijaan. The film falls short of the expectations one may have had from Kabir Khan, but for Salman’s emotional portrayal and Kabir’s ability to invite you in an impossibly bookish world that is filled with redemption and scenes that are aesthetically a treat to watch, this film might be worth your time.