What an interesting movie! Very well done, made some surprising choices, and ended with a complicated message. Oh, and I encourage you to see the movie if you possibly can, it has something for anyone and really gives you things to think over. Read this review if you possibly can watch it, save this review here for after you watch it.
Whole plot in two paragraphs:
The film opens in 2010, Salman is an old man celebrating his 70th birthday with a large loving family. The children ask for the story of his life, and so he tells it. In 1947, Salman’s family is fleeing Lahore. Salman climbs to the top of the train with his little sister on his back, but she slips off into the crowd. His father Jackie Shroff leaps off the train, tells Salman to take care of the family and keep them together, he will meet them at their aunt’s ration shop in Delhi with his sister. Salman goes to Delhi and makes friends with an orphaned Muslim boy, Sunil Grover. The two of them start working on the streets together to make money for the family. Eventually they join a traveling circus, but when Salman’s younger brother Shashank Arora decides to try to imitate his stunt and is injured, Salman decides he can’t keep risking his life in the circus. He says good-bye to his first love, circus performer Disha Patani, and goes back to looking for work. There are no jobs until finally employment opens in the oil fields in the middle east. The government is organizing the call for workers and Katrina Kaif is the supervisor. She and Salman notice each other right away and start a silent flirtation. Salman and Sunil go to the middle east with Katrina as the supervisor of the Indian workers. Slowly slowly, Salman and Katrina fall in love through little moments and smiles and glances. Salman is trapped in a cave in and when he comes out, Katrina admits her feelings and proposes. Salman gently turns her down, because he doesn’t feel he can get married and start his own family when he has to fulfill his promises to his father and take care of his family. INTERVAL
After the interval, Salman returns to India for his sister’s wedding. But at the wedding, Katrina shows up and suggests a live-in relationship. Salman’s mother approves, understands the sacrifice they are making and that this will make Salman happy. For the next few years, Katrina works as a newsreader during the day and teaches night school in the neighborhood. Salman takes her classes and is offered a job for the railways, his dream. But he turns it down because his uncle wants to sell the ration shop. Instead, he takes a dangerous job on a freighter. He and Katrina fight before he leaves, but he returns to find her working in the shop and taking care of his mother. Sunil Grover goes with him and falls in love with a foreigner, Nora Fatehi. On their last trip, the ship is taken by pirates. At first it seems hopeless, but then Salman builds a fragile connection with the pirates through Amitabh Bachchan. Salman returns and buys the shop and life moves forward. Katrina joins the new Zee TV and pitches the idea of a TV show reuniting families from opposite sides of the border. They think they might have found Salman’s father, but it is just an old man who looks similar and has a similar story. Salman is ready to give up when there is a surprising call from London, his sister Tabu was adopted and barely remembers her childhood but his story made her remember. Tabu flies to India to meet her mother, and then Salman’s mother dies. Now it is 2010, Salman and Katrina are still unmarried and have been together 40 years. He has no children, but his sister and brother and their families, and Sunil and his family, all revere him. The neighborhood business association wants to sell the land for a mall and tear down his shop. Salman resists and resists (including beating up goons sent to convince him), and finally his brother-in-law the lawyer steps in and suggests that the neighborhood build their own mall rather than selling the land. The shop will be torn down, but first Salman goes inside and imagines a conversation saying good-bye to his father, who he now has to admit he will never see again. With that resolved, Salman comes out and talks to Katrina and they decide to finally get married. It ends with their small happy elderly wedding.
I just looked up the original Korean film, Ode to My Father, to see what was changed. And some of the most important and meaningful moments are original to this version. In the original, the hero does get married and has children of his own. And in the original, there is no final conversation with his father.
I want to deal with the final conversation first, because it gives me something that I will be thinking of for a long time. Salman imagines his father in the shop, and is angry with him. His father told him to keep the family together, take care of them, and that he would meet him at the ration shop. Salman gave up his whole life for this, in order to keep the shop in the family and the family together. But it was all a lie, his father was never coming to join them. And his father says he knew that, he knew he was going to die as soon as he stepped off the train. But how could a father live with himself knowing he left one of his children behind? He had to go. He told Salman that, told him he would meet him again, in order to give him hope. He knew Salman would need hope to survive, you must have hope.
The idea was brought up earlier, when Kat asked him why he never went back to Pakistan in all those years and tried to find his father. Salman explains that he was afraid to find his father was gone. So long as he didn’t look, he could believe he was alive. Sometimes you just have to lie to yourself, and know on some level that it is a lie, in order to keep going.
That’s what Salman does over and over again in this movie. He is trapped down in the tunnels and everyone above thinks it is impossible to get out. But he chooses illogical pointless hope, and gets himself and his men out. He believes he can make friends with the pirates, despite a language barrier, despite their weapons, and he does. Even in his love story, they choose the illogical way that should not work, and yet it does for them. A love across class and education, that survives years and distances even without the bond of marriage.
I love the romance in this film. It starts when Salman hears her yelling at someone in her stuffy government office. And continues when he gives an impassioned patriotic speech, and she rolls his eyes and asks if he is running for office. They have physicals and he gently pumps his muscles and raises his eyebrows at her to make sure she noticed and she tries not to smile. They go to the middle east, she is now their supervisor, he speaks up on behalf of the laborers in a meeting and she is impressed with his passion and the results he gets, and she gives him an opening, asking what else he has “feelings” about. His fellow workers convince him to go talk to her, he gets a little drunk and starts by reciting a poem. But then gets serious and admits he finds himself thinking about her, a lot, all the time, even when he should be thinking about his family. They have an unspoken romance after that, eyes meeting, smiling, mutual respect. Salman is trapped in the cave in, and comes out to find her crying and running to embrace him. They have an honest conversation, she says she has no family and is old enough to know what she wants, and she wants to marry him. And he honestly responds that he doesn’t think he can get married, after the cave in he is newly committed, again, to his family before everything. And then she doesn’t accept this, and shows up to propose a live-in relationship.
After 2 years, he asks her to marry him before he lives for the merchant navy. And she argues that he is only proposing in order to make sure she quits her job and takes care of his shop, and his mother. They fight and he leaves. 6 months later he returns to find her silently working in the shop and careing for his mother. There is no need to talk, they understand. The fight was because he implied she would not do this without marriage. He understands now and she forgives him. In the 90s, after 20 years together, she is fighting patiently and constantly at her TV channel for a special reuniting families, so she can help him. He admits he is scared at the border, she reaches out and holds him. He is finally reunited with Tabu via long distance TV, Katrina rushes to him and they hold each other. In 2010, they have matching block cell phones around their necks, she rides the scooter home from the market with the groceries on the back, he feeds her birthday cake before the rest of the family.
This is not the usual romance, the pretty woman who the hero loves for her prettiness, who is swept off her feet and then silently disappears into being the perfect wife and mother and daughter-in-law. Katrina in this film will not be silenced and will not be shoved into a box. Salman falls in love with her because she is smart, smart enough to see through him. And she falls in love with him because he cares, he is morally brave, and he is smart too in his own way (using patriotism to trick the company into hiring more workers, for instance, while Kat rolls her eyes). Kat won’t minimize herself so as to match her partner, and Salman won’t change who he is either. She is more educated, more successful, all those things. Salman is a shopkeeper. She becomes the creative producer at Zee TV, and her partner of 20 years is a former laborer turned shopkeeper. But they love each other, they fit together, and that is all that matters.
Salman isn’t the usual hero either. Oh, he has a few one-liners and a couple fight scenes, sure. But his heroics are on such a small level. Who will remember the worker who asked that the laborers and the executives get served the same food at the oil digs? Or the man who saved 5 other workers from a cave-in? Or the sailor who convinced the pirates to leave by singing Amitabh songs with them? This isn’t a situation where you think “oh, if only the people around him knew what a hero he was, they would be more respectful”. They know what a hero he is. He worked in the oil fields, and then on a merchant freighter. He got his sister married to the man she wanted, he sent his brother through school. That’s a hero.
At the start of the film, his brother and brother-in-law are rolling their eyes a bit about having to come out here to celebrate his birthday in his own strange way, why must they do this every year? But they are there, after all. They rented a bus to drive the family out to the train station, and throw themselves into the celebration Salman chooses every year, eating cake while chasing the train. And in the end at the neighborhood association, his dismissive complaining brother-in-law leaps in to defend him and help him. This is a real family and a real hero, they aren’t going to worship and respect him every minute of every day. But on the days that count, they show up. They know what he did and who he is. His life was not a waste.
That’s the other lesson of his conversation with Jackie. He says that Jackie wasted his life with that lie, that false hope. But Jackie says he needed that hope to survive. Who knows what Salman’s life might have been without that lie, without that purpose? If he had no family to care for, would he have just wandered off into nothingness, been unable to survive? In the childhood flashback, there is a moment when he confesses to his mother that he stole from the family store and then regretted it. She reminds him of his promise to his father, that he must always do the right thing and keep them together. It inspires him and sets him to working, gives him focus. If he had not had that, if he had not had something to be responsible for, would he have fallen into stealing, momentary pleasures, no thought for the future? Is having a small life spent earning money for your family a waste, or is it the saving grace that gives you meaning?
The main meaning of the title, “Bharat”, is the homeland, the nation. That it is the little people like Salman who helped build up the nation. That the nation is a family and the family is the nation. But there is also a small meaning built in to the story of the Ramayana. Ram was the hero, the one who had adventures, the one everyone loved and remembered. But Bharat was the one who stayed home, who waited for him to return, who kept the family together and ruled the kingdom until Ram came back. A small story and a small life, a forgotten life. But that is who Salman is here, the “Bharat” waiting for his “Ram” (Jackie) to return and take his responsibilities away.