Once upon a time, there was a young man. His name was Rajesh Khanna. But that wasn’t all that he was known as. He was also ‘The Phenomenon’ or ‘India’s First Superstar’. It all just depended on whom you asked. The merest mention of him had girls swooning, slitting their own wrists, writing him letters in blood. Then, just as suddenly as it came, the star died, leaving behind a shell of a man. Never again, thought most. Never again will we see such mass hysteria again.
Then came Salman Khan.
17th July 2015, a movie was released. The name of the movie was Bajrangi Bhaijaan. Written by Vijayendra Prasad. Directed by Kabir Khan. Starring Salman Khan. Today, Bajrangi Bhaijaan will have completed six promising weeks on the big screen.
The premise was promising. The story was that of a little six year old mute Pakistani girl, Shahida (played by Harshaali Malhotra) who gets lost in India. Confused, lost and hungry, she comes across a simple minded devotee of Lord Ganesh, Pawan, fondly known to everyone as Bajrangi who now makes it his life’s mission to take Shahida, or Munni, as he calls her, back to her village in Pakistan.
Truth be told, that is a beautiful premise. But the movie itself was something else.
Anurag Kashyap (of Dev.D and Gangs of Wasseypur fame) once said that the Indian Film Industry is steeped in mediocrity. Through this essay, what I’d like to explore the co-relation between this mediocrity and a mega-star movie. And this I’d like to do by studying one movie in particular; Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
When I went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijaan recently, the one thing that really struck out to me was the obvious enjoyment of the family sitting beside me. We hadn’t gotten the best seats, but maybe that was for the best, because that way, we got to watch it with the masses, the real audience towards whom the film is aimed. We were seated beside a very large family. And boy, did they enjoy the movie or what. They laughed at all the right places. They cried at all the right places. Even though I couldn’t feel any sort of a connection or relation with the movie, I couldn’t deny one simple fact; the movie had worked. And that is the dichotomy that thoroughly puzzles me. Because cinematically, the movie is below mediocre. So how can a movie that is so terribly made touch so many hearts?
Similar to Mad Max: Fury Road, Bajrangi Bhaijaan completely ignores its protagonist, focusing instead at a supporting character masquerading as a protagonist. If you went to watch a movie about a little lost girl’s tumultuous journey through a strange land and how she makes her way back home, helped by a kind soul, you would be very disappointed. Because, that, is not what Bajrangi Bhaijaan is. Bajrangi Bhaijaan is no Ramchand Pakistani (a 2008 movie about a 7 year old Pakistani boy who accidentally crosses the border into India). Bajrangi Bhaijaan is a through and through Salman Khan movie.
To clarify, the movie might be about Shahida, or it might be about Pawan(Salman Khan’s character), but none of them are the true protagonist (or ‘hero’, in layman terms) of the movie. The movie has only one hero, Salman Khan. Take the first song, for example, Selfie Lele Re. Shahida has just gotten lost, boarded the wrong train and has landed in the middle of a very crowded Kurukshetra. From a storytelling point of view, this would have been the perfect opportunity to showcase the little girl’s bewilderment and despair. One little girl lost in a sea of people. That’s perfect! But no, how could they? This is also our hero, Salman Khan’s entrance! And how can a hero enter without any pomp and splendor? Thus, Shahida is ignored and Mr. Khan goes around taking selfies with every one.
Cut to the journey back home with Shahida. Pawan still doesn’t know where Shahida is from, so he’s going to take her back to his home in Delhi. During this bus journey, we learn about Pawan’s backstory through a flashback describing how he met his fiancée (played by Kareena Kapoor). Structurally, this is classic. It is very remnant of the way our epics are structured. But for a three hour movie, this is inefficient. It comes down to that one cardinal rule; when you have limited resources, you do not waste any. Had it been any other film, this inefficiency would not have been missed by the audience. But here, not only is it overlooked, it is forgiven and even enjoyed.
Frankly speaking, the audience is not stupid, just starstruck. They are willing to forgive almost anything just to watch their hero achieve the impossible. The level of incredulity in a movie, in fact, seems to be directly proportional to the loyalty of the star’s fan following.
I emphasise on the loyalty of the fan following here because just being a star does not provide you with immunity against the viewer’s ire. You must be a certain kind of a star. Shahrukh Khan and Aamir Khan are also stars of equal caliber with similar numbers in their fan following. Arguably, Shahrukh Khan rakes in more, financially than Salman Khan. He has been the richest actor in the world. And Aamir Khan definitely rakes more respect, especially among the educated middle and upper middle classes. But had either of them done this film the way it was done, the audience would not have accepted it. It takes a certain kind of star to do that. It takes a deified star to do that.
One of the main reasons the other Khans are not so deified is because they cater to a completely different audience group, namely the educated middle and the upper classes. Salman Khan is the common man’s hero. The only common man’s hero. He has built himself on that. Therefore, to understand the dynamics of how such films work, we must look at the aspirations and social conditions of the non-educated middle and the lower classes(or, the masses, as we will call them through the rest of the article, for the sake of convenience). We must realize that these people occupy a completely different world to ours. And they simply make up the largest demographic in the country. Catering to them is an obvious and brilliant marketing tool.
Fact is, while the rest of the country has forged ahead, these masses seem to have been left behind, both figuratively and literally. Economically, the country might be at an all time high. We have one of the highest GDPs in the world. We are part of the G20. But we are also one of the most populated countries in the world. With a population of over 1.2 billion people, the country’s resources and earnings are just not enough for everyone to move ahead together. As it is, capitalism forces us to depend on trickle down (which is one of the slowest and most inefficient ways of distributing resources). But an unlimited number of people competing for a limited amount of resources forces an already slow trickle down effect even further, therefore pushing the masses to remain stuck in a post-colonial rut, both financially and mentally.
Tired after a whole day’s vigor, they come to watch movies not just to be entertained, but also to escape. They want to escape to a world where anything is possible, and for that, they are willing to forgive any storytelling faux pas. A fact that Shakespeare made use of back in the 16th century, Salman Khan is making use of in the 21st century. History does indeed repeat itself. It’s no magic that Salman Khan is so well loved (that we are even willing to forgive him murder) or that his seemingly mindless movies do so well. It is just brilliant marketing. It’s pure business. You give the audience what they want. And the majority does not want elitist art. They don’t want flawless storytelling. In fact, it is not even entertainment that they are looking for. They want hope. They want to live in a world where even a simple common idiot like Pawan (in Bajrangi Bhaijaan) can achieve the impossible. And in that, Bajrangi Bhaijaan is definitely successful. In fact, it is idiots like us who go around looking for art.
Financials can change. As India rises further, the financial aspect will change. The masses will be pulled out of this post-colonial rut, at least financially. But that need to escape from reality is innate. That is not likely to go anytime soon. We’ll be watching Dabangg and Bajrangi Bhaijaan for a long time indeed.
Have a great Sunday!
Have a great Sunday