‘Tubelight,’ some rants against Bollywood critics and the Salman Khan phenomenon

A still from Tubelight

Why have critics savaged Tubelight? And why does Bollywood Hungama, the shallowest of all things related to the Hindi film industry, too deem it fit to describe it as ‘a colossal disappointment’ when their track-record of rating films is ‘colossally disappointing?’

Well, before we go into that, let us get some facts right.

Well, facts, according to me.

Bollywood’s critics community is a curious bag.

Other than a smattering of ‘critics’ who understand cinema (I would vouch for Subhra Gupta of Indian Express, as one, and she is fiercely hated), most are ‘humongous’ (this being the pet word of one such) failures at their art. Rather, craft.

Yet, they are widely followed because they most often than not, their reviews are not about films but about stars.

Well, in an industry, where KRK (God bless us all!) is ‘THE’ critic, and a guy who claims to be on the Censor Board of the UAE and UK posts pre-release reviews, all with 5 stars (after having seriously misjudged Baahubali 1 & India’s ill-informed media lapping it all up), there is little hope for objectivity.

And there is another critic who writes for one of India’s largest news agencies; his ‘reviews’ gets picked by national and international media (essentially all those who subscribe to the agency news).

He writes like a dream! And yet, if there is one man in the industry, who could be more biased, more shallow, more peripheral — well, that is him. He interviews stars, star-kids and starlets, makes mountains out of molehills, and gets away with blue murder because, dammit, he writes so well!

There are many such ‘reviewers’ who write with such panache that you marvel at their wordsmithry and showmanship but the purpose of a review is lost. Their writing seldom takes you into the heart of cinema as Roger Ebert (read here why he is the greatest reviewer) or Nigel Andrews or Peter Bradshaw does.

So to anyone who is listening, let me just say: we must recognise the charlatans in Bollywood film writing — and stay very far, very very far from them lest their views cloud our senses too.

Unfollow the scumbags, do not have them the honour of more ‘YouTube’ views. Ignore the pretenders. And watch movies from your heart.

(In Malayalam, the world is not way too different — and that is reserved for another post).

The bottomline on that rant against reviewers is that in Bollywood, you seldom get a true picture of any film if you go by the reviewers. (Well, there is no reason why anyone must read reviews anyway!)

But there is art in reviewing that makes you understand, appreciate and discover films anew. And most of the critics who spend 500 of their 600 word pieces on telling us the story perhaps do not get it.

That is why I would rather never do a ‘film review’ but might not hesitate from a ‘film appreciation’ — which is my view of what a film ‘did to me.’ It is not a signpost for you to follow. And I do not care if you agree or disagree with my ‘appreciation’ of films because to me films are fiercely ‘personal.’

With that detailed prologue, here is what Tubelight was for me.

I was untouched. Unmoved. Often bored. And I was furiously munching away the nachos.

Having said ‘that’s interesting’ to Kabul Express, ‘wtf’ to ‘New York,’ ‘blah’ to ‘Ek Tha Tiger,’ ‘crap’ to ‘Phantom’ and ‘wow’ to ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan,’ let me say, Kabir Khan is not a name that drives me to the theatre.

In his Tubelight, the parallels with 2015’s Little Boy are many. Its synopsis says: “An eight-year-old boy is willing to do whatever it takes to end World War II so he can bring his father home. The story reveals the indescribable love a father has for his little boy and the love a son has for his father.”

Replace 8-year-old boy with Salman Khan, World War II with the Sino-Indian War of 1962, and father with brother, you get Tubelight. That faith can move mountains is the gist of both films, and yet the nuances of Little Boy are lost on Salman Khan’s Tubelight.

Instead, we see one hulk of a man making faces to be the 8-year-old. With all due respect, Salman Khan tries. And his sincerity and ardent desire to perform is real.

There are a number of moments, where he brings in his own flair at ‘crying’ (hey guys, no sarcasm here), sobbing, starting midway, trying to keep his emotions in check, and then breaking down. If you love Salman, man, you would weep with him!

But I don’t love or hate Salman. I am Salman-neutral.

So I just watched and watched. I think saw a shade of Prem from his debut film, Meina Pyaar Kiyaa — and I thought to myself, ‘this is not a man, but a man-boy.’

And since nothing much happens in the movie other than Salman trying to embrace ‘Gandhian’ values and building self-belief so that his brother returns safely, we get time to think and muse. About other things!

There was indeed tremendous potential to the story. On occasion, Kabir Khan gets it spot on.

One such is when Salman (Laxman) asks the little Indian boy (of Chinese ancestry — in reference to the Chinese who have been staying for generations in Kolkata, Chennai and even in nammde Kochi), to say ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai.’

Laxman goes first, and after some prodding, the little boy follows suit with such a shrill note that it sees all the sheep around scrambling to safety.

And then the little boy turns to Laxman and says: “You know, I am more Indian than you since I shout Bharat Mata Ki Jai louder than you!” I thought it was a classic pat on the pseudo-patriots of our time.

There are some good moments that come to life thanks to Om Puri, who tries to instil the Gandhian values in Laxman. He being a simpleton, the lecturing is lost, and you can see the irritation growing in Om Puri’s character. And yet, he doesn’t want to lose cool. The body language, dialogue delivery and overall control of Om Puri is admirable. Sad, we will miss this fantastic actor on-screen.

The film walks on the egg-shell of Laxman trying to befriend the ‘Chinese’ boy. There are typical ‘moments of tension’ especially as the community sees the boy as ‘one of those who kill our brothers.’ It was great theme to build on — and to be fair to Kabir Khan, the message is not lost. We are often inspired to see the the world through the innocence of Laxman.

But drivelling into Laxman’s innocence and pursuit of self-belief don’t make a wholesome movie. That is what happens to Tubelight. It is mono-tonous.

Much like the tube-light sans the ‘chalk’ (as we say), the film tries to splutter to life, however, with an amazing editor’s job by Rameshwar Bhagat. He tries to bring in that raw ‘war energy’ needed with cuts to the action at the border.

Yet, when everything is trickled down to be seen through Laxman, it is as if Kabir Khan dumbs down the movie for the audience too. We are told too much, and shown too much. Subtlety is absent (well, it is unheard of in Bollywood anyway, with only rare exceptions).

Tubelight, thus, feels like a never-ending saga; it could have ended at any number of points. While it is good and acceptable to have films without the usual conflict, resolution, catharsis graph, Tubelight seems to water down everything to such an extent that you simply don’t care.

Well, that is not good for a movie right? Even if it stars Salman Khan?

And I saw only Laxman occasionally but more of Salman Khan. And I saw only Sohail Khan. At times, it was difficult to say who among the siblings contended for the over-actor of the year.

I expected more magic in Shah Rukh Khan’s cameo; but he came, served the purpose and left. Yet, I marvel at SRK’s terrific screen presence.This man is the Big B among Khans.

(By the way, have you observed/do you agree that SRK’s fans are not Salman’s just as Aamir’s fans belong to none of the other two. I believe SRK appeals to a broader elite and Salman to a wider mass; they both can make superhits out of terrible pathetic films; Aamir reigns not because of stardom but because he makes incredibly good films.)

Tubelight isn’t bad; it isn’t terrible; it is just a big film lost in its small-ness of storytelling.

So to answer why all those hostile reviews: let us say, Tubelight is not the typical Salman Khan film.

This is Salman trying to ‘unSalmanise’ and ‘be more human.’ And as I said, most reviewers don’t review films, they review the stars.

To be fair to Salman, he never told any viewer what to expect, so how can we say that he let down us?