Did SRK’s Stardom Derail 'Zero'?
In the pre-climactic scene of Zero, Anushka Sharma’s Aafiya talks about the compounding nature of love; at once the fragility and strength; at once the frailty and honesty of human beings - the emotion of love. She talks about facts in her life being stranger than fiction; of the actions one resorts to for love. Love, or the search for it, yields two types of reactions: one that the self feels; and one the other, i.e. the world feels. It makes sense then, that only three individuals (Katrina Kaif'’s Babita Kumari, the hurt-in-love actress) smiles and says proudly that she kissed him when Khan’s Bauua Singh comes onto the digital billboard in a foreign country that consider themselves – and are made to feel – incomplete by the world at large go through what might be called a different trajectory of emotions when in love or when lost. And if one, as an audience, buys this logic, much, and many more of the scenes, and story line makes sense – at least to the heart – and one’s willing to forgive the excesses that the writer and director resort to under the unbearable burden of making Shah Rukh Khan, the ‘superstar’ act as well as retain his star wattage. This is a double-edged sword that sometimes works and shines – but also bleeds both ways, and it shows.
And so, the story is that of three individuals, two of them subject to the karmic nature of life, and one subject to destiny’s materialistic and genetic showers, whilst also rotting along searching for love; correction, ‘true’ love. On the front of it, it is a story of three people whose paths cross and who are incomplete, but at its heart, the entire weight of ‘incompleteness’ is borne by the main character, Khan’s Bauua Singh, a dwarf (for the politically correct, a person vertically-challenged – one always puts the person before his or her supposed imperfections). The film begins in Meerut, traverses to Delhi, to Bombay, and to the United States; albeit totally confused about the locations in the latter. It shows NYC since the makers want you to see NYC, not because the film needs it! It shows Orlando, utilises the University of Central Florida campus, travels to Huntsville, Alabama— (Was that pure logistics or Khan’s love for Alabama, vis-à-vis My Name Is Khan?): Only two of the aforementioned locations make sense in the placing of this movie’s situations. Bauua Singh, though physically short-changed, wants to, tries to, and does, live life larger-than-his-destined-life. He dreams big, though the world makes fun of him as a small man having big dreams and a man not living within his ‘औकात’. He dreams of marrying a movie star, and runs away from marriage with Aafiya, a brilliant scientist who’s working on a mission to Mars and is afflicted with cerebral palsy. Through a matrimonial service, they meet, enjoy each other’s company, acknowledge their imperfections, and fall in love, Bauua reluctantly, and Aafiya, hopelessly. Thanks to Bauua’s larger than life dreams, he rejects his happening marriage to Aafiya and runs away to Mumbai to meet a physically gifted actress, whom he has always dreamt of marrying. In the course of their time spent together, he realises, and Babita acknowledges and makes him realise, that his true love, and his heart, only belongs to Aafiya. Bauua tries to mend her heart in recovering from heartbreak with an actor, with him being an unofficial employee-cum-advisor on people – note, because, he feels, she understands the world, but not it’s people. It’s an unintended give and take for both. The rest of the film then deals with the extent – from Mumbai to NASA in Florida— to which Bauua realises his one and only love, repents, and the tasks he undertakes to win back Aafiya.
The first half of the film is brilliant and tonally consistent with the Meerutiya atmosphere; it’s a known-fact that Aanand and Himanshu know the heartland’s lingo and cultural-specificity like the back of their hands, and it shows, oh how it shows! From a fantastic Tigmanshu Dhulia playing the protagonist’s father to the cycle rickshaw-wallah’s character, to Brijendra Kala’s matrimonial-service agent, the film ‘marinates’ in its North-Indian small-town milieu. The writing is sharp, the dialogues extremely witty, and the ‘लहज़ा’ seeps through in daily conversations and exchanges. Bauua’s exchanges with his father, his mother, and his friend played by Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub. The marriage scenes and the precursors to those scenes are brilliantly shot, with minute references to the milieu and culture, be it the ‘mandatory’ showering of money during the ‘बारात’, or the ritual of shooting bullets – in a fine nod, Bauua’s mother, Sheeba Chadda’s Beena, snatches the revolver from her husband, adjusts it, and shoots in the air; so as to indicate, so what if it’s traditionally the man’s calling to ‘shoot’, I will shoot it anyway!
The song ‘Mere Naam Tu’ is superbly filmed and is brilliant, to say the least, visually and aurally: and SRK is in his element here; especially when he dances with the little girl: Superb channelization of his strengths as a star. Sample some terrific lines: a) ना जी ना, अगर अकेली हे पीनी होती तो फिर मीरूत के ठेके बुरे थे क्या? b) ओजी इतने दूर आए हैं आपकी महफ़िल में.. छाई, लस्सी, बनता, रास्ना, शराब कुछ तो पुच्छ लो.. कुछ तो पुच्छ लो c) शादी किससे करनी थी हुमारे यहाँ प्लॉट देखने के पैसे थोड़े लगते हैं|
Come the second-half, and it is here that whatever was on paper thematically, just goes haywire and gets elongated like a chewing gum cinematically. There are a few terrific moments ‘inserted’ that embody the Babita-Bauua relationship, but once the ‘itch’ for Bauua to return to his true love is initiated in the course of this relationship, it’s a giant stretch; absolutely honest in its expectation, but gone horribly wrong in its execution. This is again in Aanand’s home territory when Jimmy Shergill’s character trying to win back Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu but the problem is, here, it tries to reach the ‘skies’ instead of staying down-to-earth; and Aanand, to say the least, falters here. It’s a miss-step due to multiple factors: a) wedding the Aanand Rai template of North-India based love-stories onto the Shah Rukh romance template b) trying to extend the boundaries of the aforementioned Aanand Rai template, and c) the biggest culprit of all: Trying to ‘merge’ Shah Rukh Khan’s by now iconic and romance-ridden signature onto something more ambitious, such as, subverting the superhero genre as accustomed to the Marvel/DC comics via a vertically challenged person!
As I said before, the biggest wealth, and ill-health, of Zero is Shah Rukh Khan, the superstar, and Shah Rukh Khan, the actor. The latter falls prey to the former. It’s happened before, and it’s happened here too. It’s a weird reasoning, but somewhat true, that while both of them are strong facets in their own right, one feels dwarfism is used more as a gimmick. The very first scene of the movie, a ‘dream’ sequence, symbolises SRK, the superstar’s dreams and achievements per se! From then on, there are meta-references to his super-stardom in bits and pieces thereafter. After he wakes up from his dream, in which he protects a housemaid from a mob headed by , well, his ‘father’, the villain, who he thinks is responsible for his short height, thanks to his gutkha-eating habit, he asks her to get him tea while his cronies land up on the road reading him the daily news! A symbolism to the real Khan’s weakness of being surrounded by ‘yes-men’? Who knows? And then, contradicting this, is his saying that being from a small-town like Meerut, how can he expect a kiss from a woman as famous as Babita Kumari, the actress? Isn’t this a reflection of Shah Rukh’s ‘I am the best’, self-therapy? He always thought of himself as being inadequate as an actor, or so he talked in his older interviews, but convincing himself first, and then the world, that he is indeed better than the best, was him talking to himself to get going in the morning. In reality, SRK the actor convinces himself, that he is the best, and better than Bachchan– but when faced with reality, as with the character of Bauua here, he admits that Meerutiyas are hardly lucky to get a kiss from a woman, let alone from Babita Kumari! There are meta-contradictions galore, and it’s difficult as an audience to buy them. The ‘character-graph’ and etching of the inadequacies of height are highly contradictory, especially in the way it resonates with the audience. Yes, there are thrown in dialogues, like Bauua asking his friend, and referencing his height, ‘What else has God got to put me down? At a party attended by film stars, he matter-of-fact states to Babita, ‘People like us are used as baits in circuses. That’s what we are. Why don’t you employ me as your sidekick, as a joker, for quirks and see where it lands?’ All these are good, but his confidence, his over-confidence, and his channelling of romantic stardom and arrogance are so looming in the front, that we—at least—as an audience, lose all empathy to this character. And again, remember Khan’s narcissism about who the better husband would be to Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bada Di Jodi? It is Shah Rukh Khan himself, but without the moustache and glasses, and with gelled-hair! And what better venue than a dance competition to win the heart? And so here it goes, it’s again a dance-competition that is pulled in as a fulcrum! And then there’s the scene – two actually—referencing the poorly directed/aimed film, My Name Is Khan where Muslims don’t get visas – or are discriminated against – in the United States. What was the need? It’s done! You had an entire film devoted to the cause! Let it go! Contrast this with the ‘technical’ homage to the Brahman-clan; Bauua hangs his ‘janoi’ over his ear when he’s peeing; hell, even when he is being sanitised, he makes sure, he has it on; or even when he’s stripping! It sprays off a vibe like one’s trying to subvert when one’s actually not truly invested in it!
The party with movie stars is such a poorly executed gimmick, what with the late Sridevi, Juhi Chawla, Karisma Kapoor, Kajol, Rani Mukerji, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt, and adds zero value to the proceedings. This is not even Om Shanti Om, where it made sense in the cinematic universe of its setting to bring together all the stars under one roof! Once Bauua runs away from Meerut, there’s not even a single scene that talks of what his extended/joint family might have faced. Didn’t the move start out on the premise? A dis-jointed family, though, is still a joint family? And then they bring in the kid thanks to the one-night-stand with Aafiya, the premise of which is left dangling in the air! Just like a zero-gravity experiment! In a scene, Madhavan reveals that he’s marrying Aafiya only for a billion-dollar project, and she responds saying she’s both angry and sad: The next instant, when one’s lead to believe that she might now realise what true love is, she goes on to talk of Bauua running away from being a ‘monkey’ on the shuttle! Again, in a scene invoking 3 Idiots, she keeps ‘driving’ on the US interstate toward the launching pad on her wheel-chair, no less!
The film rises spectacularly in the first half and the second half, well, it’s subject to interpretation, and not in a good way.
SRK is energy-personified, and is brilliant within his stardom-stuffed box. Consider the scene in the car when Babita tries to get out of him his love for his former beau by faking her parents’ love story; check his reactions: He is fantastic! His eyeballs rise and fall like the crests and troughs of the Arabian Sea! But, but haven’t we seen it all before in Fan? This is literally a posturing of SRK the ‘Dillli-ka-launda’ North-Indian arrogant fluff –again, brilliantly channelised by Mani Ratnam in Dil Se, and nothing supersedes it as yet—beaten to death, by directors, and the star himself. That’s the problem with this film. It attempts/aims to try something different, but beneath the surface, it executes pretty much the same.
Of the women, Anushka Sharma valiantly tries to infuse some life into her character, but the effort shows and her performance is inconsistent at best. In fact of the three, it is Katrina Kaif in a redundant role that somewhat keeps us invested, even if she actually has very little to do with the core love story.
In conclusion, the problem with this movie is, as an audience, one implicitly understands the emotions underlying and is warmed up to it, but the unspooling exposes a lot of weak-points.
What a darned shame.