Happy Salman Day! Bajrangi Bhaijaan, His New Classic

My final reposted Salman review!  For his newest movie that I really really love.  And which is something really extra remarkable.

Yes it does hold up!  I watched it again last night with friends for my weekly movie night.  I’d already seen it twice in theaters, once at another movie night, and once with my sister while we cooked Thanksgiving dinner.  It’s an extremely re-watchable film, especially with a group.  Which probably explains why it sold so many tickets.

After seeing it over and over again, there are two things that I think make it really remarkably watchable and re-watchable.  First, the structure.  It has a very clear series of divided sections.  If you don’t like the opening with world’s cutest little girl and her parents, wait twenty minutes, and it will turn into a gentle comedy with hammy Salman.  If you don’t like that, wait another ten minutes and it turns into a sweet family friendly love-story with Kareena.  And if you don’t like the whole sort of slice of Delhi life first half, wait for the second half when it turns into a buddy road movie!

It’s a Masala movie, but a better defined one that usual.   In, say, Karan-Arjun, if you are bored by love scenes, too bad!  The love scenes have important information related to the action scenes mixed in, and they also sometimes have an action scene thrown in the middle, you can never afford to look away!  It makes the whole movie feel more tedious on a re-watch, when you have to suffer through the parts you don’t enjoy a second time, just so you can still enjoy the parts you do like.  In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Kabir Khan set it up so that instead of changing tone scene by scene, or even line by line, it is set up as a series of short films, each of which can stand on their own.  On a re-watch, it is easy to go to the bathroom, fast-forward, talk over, buy popcorn, or take a quick nap, during the parts you like less.  They are the perfect length to allow you to do something else, but still be able to come back and pay full attention once the parts you enjoy more start up again.

Second, the extra complexity of what is being shown.  This is not a movie that puts us completely in the character’s mindset.  This is a movie that makes us watch the characters and question what they are thinking and feeling, make our own moral judgments of their actions and opinions.  There are layers to it that only become clear as it unfolds, and reward a re-watch knowing where it will end up.

Basically everyone I have shown this to, when Salman first shows up, starts rolling their eyes at the obvious religious fundamentalist message here.  He is leading an enormous dance in honor of Hanuman, he continues to constantly reference his faith, he leaves Shahida at a temple.  His character looks like the worst kind of religious propaganda, the kind of character presentation which is both morally repugnant and just kind of boring to watch.

(There’s a reason most Gandhi movies fail.  Moral perfection is boring to watch)

But watch closely, there are already hints that things aren’t quite as simple as they seem.  When he leaves Shahida at the temple, he gives her an apple as an offering to Hanuman.  But as he turns away, he hesitates a moment and then turns back and tells her to eat the apple if she gets hungry.  He is already bending his values, placing the hunger of a little girl over the offering to a temple.  It’s a small thing, but it is a small thing that will lead to bigger things down the road.

The small things growing into bigger is actually the overall point of this film.  It’s not saying that you have to be a perfect open-minded liberal, just that you have to be willing to let your heart open up a little bit to people who are different than you, and wonderful things can happen.  The villains aren’t Pakistanis or Indians, or Muslims or Hindus, or conservatives or liberals, they are people who have forgotten how to trust and care for others versus those who can’t stop themselves from caring.

That’s what makes our hero so special.  He has a simple and complete belief in what he has been taught, that you should always help others, tell the truth, be straight-forward and decent.  And also that the caste system should be upheld and it is wrong to enter a Masjid, or even really interact in any way with a Muslim.  But over the course of the film, those first beliefs, in helping others, telling the truth, being straight-forward, start to conflict with the second set.  And rather than closing off his mind and his heart, he lets in other ideas and other people and, ultimately, other religions.

Most of the people in this film are basically good, and go through the same process as our hero in a smaller way.  Kareena’s father, although a hard line Brahmin, is still able to take pity on a little incredibly adorable Muslim girl.  Not just when she first arrives (although the household’s willingness to take her in and clean and clothe and feed her should not be discounted.  Not all families would do that, even for a co-religionist), but even later, when they know that she is both Muslim and Pakistani.  He asks that she leave as soon as possible, but he doesn’t throw her out of the street.  He doesn’t even order his son to stop playing with her, in fact he visibly stops himself from revealing his feelings in front of the children, knowing that their innocence should be protected.  He has strict standards for himself, but he is not forcing those standards on others, even his own son.

(They may paint an Indian flag on her cheek, but they also braid her hair, give her food, clothes, and let her stay in their house even after this scene)

We saw the same thing in his reaction to Kareena breaking her engagement.  A conservative Hindu father, informed that his daughter has fallen in love and wants to marry a man of her own choice, would be expected to react with anger and violence.  At least, that’s how it usually goes down in the movies.  Probably he would forbid her from seeing the man again, maybe force her into marriage with someone else, certainly throw the man in question out of their house.  But instead, in this film, he reacts reasonably.  He throws out the arranged fiance, telling him that his daughter prefers someone else, so they have no other choice.  He makes a show of enforcing his authority, by naming conditions for their marriage, but the condition is fairly small and manageable, and actually a reasonable concern for a father (that they have a place to live before they get married).

This is a man who is firm in his beliefs, and his beliefs are somewhat outdated.  But on a case by case basis, he is able to look at the needs of the situation and choose the less harmful and more loving path.  And the same thing happens again and again in this film, when the Pakistani army officer allows Salman into the country, when the ISI officer frees him from jail, when the border guards let him through at the end.  Just because you believe something and are loyal to an ideal doesn’t mean that you can’t make your own decisions and choices about what is right.

The few completely close-minded and unbending characters are treated not as fearsome villains, but as jokes.  That is the best way, I think, to fight against a power-system.  It isn’t as showy as, for instance, our hero in Munna killing his own father.  But laughing at the enemy who has authority over you gives them less power, reveals them for the cowards and weak men they are.  Bajrangi Bhaijaan invites the audience to laugh together at how ridiculous it would be to actually believe such things, or respect the men who do.

(It’s like All in the Family, the people who thought Archie was the hero were missing the point)

I am thinking in particular of the sequence with Salman’s father, a small small man who enjoys the perks that membership in an authoritarian group gives him, and of the sequence with the Pakistani police officer who enjoys the same undeserved power.  Salman defeats his father be simply not conforming to his father’s narrow view of the world.  First by being unable to take seriously the lessons he is being taught, whether they are the times table or wrestling or respect for the authority of the RSS-like group to which they belong.  And secondly, by finally succeeding even without learning those lessons.  His father needed him to fail, over and over again, because to succeed would mean that his father was no longer better than him, had no reason to abuse or discredit him.

Again, this isn’t there in front of you on the first watch.  On the first watch, it looks like a kind of silly backstory, with a really cute little boy (seriously, who cast the kids for this movie?  They are universally so cute that I just want to eat them up!) who wriggles around a lot and looks distracted while his father gets infuriated.  And then turns into a doofish looking older boy who hunches his shoulders in humility before his father, despite being twice his size.  It’s only when the sequence suddenly ends with the death of his father used as a punchline, and you find yourself laughing at a moment which in any other film would be treated as devastating, that you realize this was all a careful matter of showing not telling, making the audience see this relationship more clearly than even our character who is narrating it does.

Little adorable Salman is wriggly and ticklish and bored with his father’s lessons, because the lessons are boring and unimportant.  Grown-up Salman telling this story now may be repeating that they are important, and he is ashamed that he failed at them (because that is what his father convinced him was true), but we the audience are supposed to see through that.  A little boy shouldn’t be beaten for messing up his times tables, he shouldn’t be expected to succeed at standing at attention with much older boys (notice that little Salman is the only child of his age at that rally), and if he is ticklish when wrestling, make him try again!  Motivate him!  Or laugh about it, don’t make him think it is his failure.

And finally, when there is the time jump and he turns into a teenager, there is a reason they cast such a short actor to play his father and such a hulking one to play Salman the teenager.  You want teenage Salman to stop taking the blows, to stand up for himself, to stand straight, to refuse to accept the blame over and over again.  Because we, the audience, can see that he is so much bigger than his father, both physically, and in his heart.  Even their posture tells us that.  His father is standing as straight as possible, trying to make himself appear the bigger man that he wants to be.  Salman is hunched over, trying to be as small as his father has made him feel he is.  Finally, in the last sequence of the flashback, when Salman has actually succeeded on his own merits, he comes striding in, shoulders back, head up, and he actually, finally, interrupts his father and challenges him.  And that is why the death feels so funny.  It isn’t just a father having a heart attack on learning that his son passed a test after failing so many times.  It is a father having a heart attack after finally, FINALLY, having his petty tyranny challenged.  We laugh because we are so happy that sweet innocent Salman can be freed to fulfill his full potential.

The same thing happens again in Pakistan.  The police officer who arrests Salman and Shahida is fat and humorous, he waddles when he walks and his face shakes when he talks.  Salman is afraid and respectful, so are his subordinates, but we the audience never feel like we should take him seriously.  Because we can see for ourselves, his power is like his body, vast, but ultimately weak.  Just like Salman’s father, he enjoys enforcing his power of others, this time grabbing and shaking Shahida.  But, unlike little Salman who was forced to endure such treatment with no protection, Salman is there to remove the unworthy one from his position of power, to show his ultimate lack of power or real authority.

(There’s also these bad guys, but I think they are teaching Salman a different lesson, less about standing up for himself and what he knows to be right than standing up against what he knows to be wrong.  Also, it’s a Salman Bhai movie, there has to be a fight scene!)

The surface message of the film is that Pakistan and India should love each other, blah blah blah, heard it before.  But the deeper message, not the one given by the long speeches or the ending shot, is that all people, everywhere, should learn to laugh at those who try to enforce arcane rules and take their power from controlling others, and instead should learn to make the choices and their own rules.

Oh, and also, I really like the soundtrack.


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