The question is repeated throughout writer-director Kabir Khan’s Tubelight, in which Salman Khan plays a Kumaoni man waiting for his brother to return from the India-China war of 1962. It has its origins in the 2015 Hollywood venture Little Boy on which this film is based, in which the boy Pepper’s actions were driven by these words of Jesus Christ in the New Testament of the Bible: “…For truly I say unto you, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say unto this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. And nothing shall be impossible for you.” (Matthew 17:20)
In Tubelight, the child hero of Little Boy who is plagued by insecurities about his small size, becomes a slow-witted adult called Lakshman Singh Bisht who is taunted by the local bully Narayan (played by Mohammad Zeeshan Ayyub); Jesus and a kindly Christian priest are replaced by Mahatma Gandhi and the elderly Gandhian gentleman Banne Chacha (Om Puri) who is a sort of spiritual guide to the protagonist; and a father away fighting in World War II becomes Lakshman’s brother Bharat (Sohail Khan) fighting the Chinese.
Lakshman and Bharat lost their parents when they were very young, and have been everything to each other ever since. When Bharat leaves their town of Jagatpur for the battlefield, Lakshman becomes convinced that his faith can bring back his beloved sibling.
Meanwhile, Liling and her son Guo move into Jagatpur and are tormented by Narayan who assumes that they are Chinese and therefore, the enemy. As it turns out, their origins, his mistreatment of them and Lakshman’s reaction are a decisive slap in the face of pseudo patriots currently dominating the national discourse in India, demanding that all of us — but especially religious minorities, liberals across faiths and Kashmiri Muslims — wear our patriotism on our sleeve, and constantly asking for proof of our love for Bharat Mata.
Since this is a Kabir Khan film, it goes without saying that it is steeped in political commentary from start to finish. In Kabir’s hands, every word, every look, every turn of phrase takes on a special meaning, especially in the context in which the film has been made. There is a passage in which Lakshman, initially swayed by prejudice himself, demands that Guo prove his Indianness by shouting “Bharat Mata ki jai” and, later, by speaking Hindi. The boy’s differing reactions to the two demands are both hilarious and telling.
This is the sort of material few Bollywood directors would dare to feature in such a massive, big-budget film. Kabir dares. The man who risked giving us Bajrangi Bhaijaan just a year after Narendra Modi won the general election pulls no punches two years later.
For his courage, above all else, he deserves kudos. But good cinema is not about courage alone. Tubelight works in the first half because its messaging is subtle and woven into an endearing story filled with humour and warmth, and because it pointedly tells us not to be as literal in our interpretation of the point it makes as Lakshman is with Banne Chacha’s wisdom. It flounders repeatedly in the second half though, when it begins to stretch itself, loses much of its layering and becomes overtly manipulative.
Don’t get me wrong. I love being reduced to tears by a film, and I spent a considerable part of the post-interval portion happily crying, because what was playing out on screen has such stinging resonance when seen in the light of what is happening off screen in the real India. There was no need, therefore, for the insertion of two maudlin songs in the second half. ‘Tinka tinka dil mera’ was particularly infuriating, and both numbers felt as if they had been put there because the director did not have enough faith in his story’s ability to move us and wanted a safety net. You know, just in case.
Even the upbeat ‘Radio’ felt like an afterthought, as if to compensate any audience member bored by the gravity of the film’s theme. It is Tubelight’s equivalent of the loud Punjabi wedding song ‘n’ dance number that is now a commercial Hindi film cliché. Sure it is fun, but it is also completely incongruous considering the kind of film that this is.
Besides, the screenplay of Bajrangi Bhaijaan (by Kabir and Parveez Shaikh) was wholesome and well-rounded, whereas this one (by the same team) is not as nuanced and well thought out. [Spoiler alert] The writers might want to consider, for instance, why it was necessary to make Liling and Guo Indians of Chinese origin, rather than citizens from any of the sister states of the North-east, and what precious meaning has been lost by making this choice. Elsewhere, Banne Chacha seems confused beyond a point by the effect his words have had on Lakshman and fades away. [Spoiler alert ends]
And while reams of screen space are given to Lakshman, not enough time is spent on developing the supporting characters, especially Liling and Guo. Zhu Zhu is beautiful, Matin Rey Tangu is utterly lovable, and both are clearly gifted actors, but the mother and son they play feel more like props than full-fledged people who we can invest in. In fact, the considerate Major Tokas (played so well by the always wonderful Yashpal Sharma) is much better written than these two.
Liling and Guo are a far cry from the well-fleshed-out Shahida and Chand Nawab of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.
At the centre of Tubelight’s balance sheet is Salman Khan. He is both the film’s biggest asset and its greatest liability. Salman’s acting limitations are painfully evident in this film and I kept wondering what Tubelight might have been if Lakshman had been played by Irrfan Khan or Nawazuddin Siddiqui, or even Hrithik Roshan under his father’s controlled direction.
In fact, Salman here seems to be drawing on Hrithik’s Rohit from Koi Mil Gaya and the contrast between the two stars’ abilities is almost embarrassing. That said, it is obvious that the pre-release attention this film has received has been almost entirely due to his megastar presence. I have to also admit to being relieved that at this stage of his career, when he could play it safe with conventional projects, he is at least trying to do something different and is taking on films that many other major stars might consider politically risky.
There is so much to celebrate in Tubelight, that it almost hurts to point out what is wrong with it. This is a brave film yet so much of its bravery is lost in the over-wrought tone of the second half and the strained acting by its leading man.
Still, with Tubelight, my glass is half full and not half empty. When your head points out several exasperating aspects of a film and you still find yourself weeping with it, there is something to be said about the director’s ability to touch an emotional chord. Whatever be my reservations, the big takeaway for me from Tubelight is that Salman Khan and Kabir Khan have once again teamed up in trying times to deliver a resounding snub to bigotry.