Synopsis – The story revolves around Bauua Singh (Shah Rukh Khan), a vertically challenged man, who is full of charm and wit, with a pinch of arrogance. Born to a wealthy family and raised in an environment of affluence, he is challenged to broaden his horizon and find purpose in life.
My Take – Let me get this out the way first, yes, ever since I have known Bollywood films I have been a fan of Shah Rukh Khan, who undeniably has ruled the rooster for Hindi cinema for the past two decades, mainly with the help of his acting prowess and unruly charm. However considering his recent choices it quite obvious that despite his severe attempts to break out of his comfort zone, the now 53-year-old is unfortunately struggling to find his place in the expanding medium. While his return to his anti-hero roots in Fan and Raees were quite appreciated, both the films ended up under-performing at the box office. And the less said about disasters, Dilwale and Jab Harry Met Sejal, the better.
But the tide seemed to be turning in his favor when it was announced that the superstar would be leading director Aanand L Rai‘s next film as a four feet six inch vertically challenged man named Bauua Singh, a strange and rare feat to imagine. And unsurprisingly, as a co-producer himself, Khan has made sure the film co-produced by himself, is a VFX triumph. The Red Chillies VFX team deserve a big bow for the work they’ve put in to create what is visually excellent on-screen. Also, apart from technological wonders, the character of Bauua Singh makes it crystal clear that disability could be enjoyed and made a stepping stone to dream big, rather than generating sympathy.
Sure, it’s a strange film, one that lets Shah Rukh Khan do what he does best, by way of swooning overture, but also a film that takes him where we wouldn’t expect. As a pure fantasy feature, there is an interesting idea here, carefully designed to appeal to Khan’s core demographic – the family – while providing scope to invent an endearing character. The film becomes odder and odder as it goes along, and while the end is impossible to take seriously, mainly as the entire film has been presented as a fable.
However, the flaws of the film lies not in the physicality of the characters, but in the story. Too ambitious in its vision and indiscriminately illogical, director Rai falters in the second half making the end experience feel a little disjointed. While many will watch this film and see it as yet another recent Shah Rukh Khan led film which didn’t quite strike a chord with the audiences, it does deserve applause for highlighting the fact that physical flaws are instead just different abilities and this should be what every audience member should take away from the film – whether the story disappoints or not.
The story follows Bauua Singh (Shah Rukh Khan), a four feet two inches tall vertical 38 year old man from Meerut, who blames his father (Tigmanshu Dhulia), for his fate, and often curses the Universe for playing such a cruel joke on him, despite giving him everything else life could offer. He is extremely touchy, nasty, and mischievous too; and what he lacks by way of a manly build, he more than makes up for it through his confidence, unbelievable optimism and a dare-devil go-getter attitude.
Despite his disability playing a spoilsport Bauua is also eager to get married, and signs up for a match making agency, which leads him to meeting Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder (Anushka Sharma), a NASA scientist with cerebral palsy. While initially put off by the wheel chair bound proposal, her attitude and beauty makes Bauu fall deeply in love with her, which Aafia reciprocates quickly.
However, Bauu begins getting cold feet the moment his family announces their marriage, and more internal confusion forms when his best friend (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) comes with the news that he has been selected to participate in the competition which would lead him to winning a date with Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif), a renowned Bollywood actress who Bauua has been dreaming off romancing for the past fifteen years.
Made on a lavish budget and scale, the film takes the audience into fantasy land, a near-impossible adventure of a vertically challenged man, who romances a film star, falls in love with NASA scientist before traversing a bizarre territory that’ll involve outer space. Right from the first scene (a dream sequence), it’s clear that this is a film which inhabits a film-like universe, where lovers who promise each other the moon actually reach for the sky, where a star’s real-life romance is a proper sub-plot (super-meta), where old Bollywood songs are used in earnest wooing, and one where underdogs invariably win. The first half of the film is flat-out fantastic, an unabashed charm-offensive from director Rai, Khan and the film’s writer Himanshu Sharma.
The dialogues crackle with spontaneity and inventiveness. Bauua Singh is routinely whipped by his father and when this threat is made with the family lying under the stars, Bauua asks if his father now wears a belt with his boxers or if he now intends to whip him with the naada, the elastic band holding up the shorts. Sticks and stones don’t hurt this hero, though names go some way in denting him. Director Rai is known for the way he humanizing his characters and situations in his films and this film is no less.
It’s evident in the first half that all three main characters have flaws – not just of the physical kind. They are unreasonable, difficult to identify with and larger than life in so many senses. Despite these things, they are also all endearing and what they go through is enough to keep you engaged. While disability is either used as a sympathy-prop or a punching bag in Hindi cinema, here, Bauua is well-nuanced, in the sense, he is not shown as a character feeling bad about his ‘condition’ but as someone who’s able to laugh at his limitations without allowing them to interrupt his dreams. In fact if anything, Bauua’s height issues actually encourage him to dream fearlessly. Bauua, unlike Aafiya, is extremely self-centered, entitled and bratty, someone who romances the idea of romance for personal fulfillment and not because he can genuinely empathize.
For the Meerut-bred Bauua, winning a woman’s heart is a thrill, a way of affirming his masculinity, a way of him telling himself, ‘oh even I can.’ He’s that guy who likes the chase, not the catch. There is more to this little man besides insolence. He’s magic. He looks up at the stars and swipes at them dismissively — as if toying with intergalactic Tinder — and as he counts down from 10 to nothing and waves a finger, stationary stars turn into shooting ones. Now this isn’t a trick he can do much with, but it does dazzle his outer space lady who fears what moons this man may shatter if he so casually breaks stars.
It’s a film that’s self-aware and needs to be looked and evaluated in the broader context of loud, larger-than-life Bollywood spectacles that make no bones about being realistic. It makes interesting points about the selfishness that precedes love before it becomes selfless and tells you that you’re never too small to dream big. The film aims big on the fact that disability could be a sympathy-prop or a punching bag but if you rise above it, there is whole life to be lived and enjoyed. Which could be a magical adventure, which the film, for the most part, is indeed a dream film! It’s a film that borrows from films. There’s no promise of realism, no slice-of-life moments. Everything is heightened and exaggerated and hyper-glamorized. It works, well at least for most parts.
The ease with which the film’s first half flows, all with laugh-a-minute one liners tossed around is disappointingly offset by the curse of the second half. The latter half of the film reflects tonal inconsistency as director Rai goes for scale and ambition over coherence and logic. The starkly different, strange visual language of the second half hampers the overall experience of the film. Here, director Rai is aiming high with this fable, but gets caught up in issues characteristic of his cinema. The film threatens to become yet another romanticization of an obsessive hero who refuses to go away, and to take no for an answer. And to ensure that his character isn’t given a convenient redemptive arc, director Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma go on the other extreme. In a bid to make Bauua repent, they corner him into taking up a challenge that defies comprehension and believability.
The melodramatic approach robs the film of its essential lightness, and the metaphor becomes clumsier. Yet there is something fascinating at heart: a woman, tired of a man, literally imposes space on him. Director Rai and Sharma pack in a plethora of talking points. For instance that a chimpanzee and a man serve the same purpose on a space mission, and that we need to find a new habitable planet because of the way man is destroying Earth. They allude to the possibility that two negatives can make a positive and that physical disability is no bar to finding love or embarking on space exploration.
Of course, the most clichéd theme is that where you end up is only limited by your own imagination. While nearly all the songs in the film beautifully blend with the narrative, it is the song Issaqbaazi which features Salman Khan, choreographer/director Remo and the choreographer Ganesh Acharya that appears forced.
Yes, the second half is equally bizarre, senseless and lengthy but it keeps you intrigued with its VFX and stellar performances. Interestingly here, Shah Rukh Khan delivered one of his finest performances. Despite its obvious shortcomings and an over-the-top finale, SRK powers the film with an electric energy, infusing the smug and entitled Bauua with a likability and an endearing quality. He occupies every frame of the film, owns this performance, easily outshining roles he’s attempted in the recent past. While being fumbling and funny, Shah Rukh Khan holds you in rapturous attention with his shenanigans. You could say his personality and his performance are both in an “overall” style.
Anushka Sharma, just eases into the role of a NASA scientist, who suffers from cerebral palsy. She hits all the right notes, revealing a mix of vulnerability and determination and maintaining remarkable consistency in her character. Meanwhile, Katrina Kaif is surprisingly a huge revelation, and knocks it out of the park by owning up the part of an unhinged superstar, who has lost all will to care about social norms or public life protocols. She has shades to her character, who is dealing with betrayal, public life, self-destructive behavior and most part loneliness.
Equally outstanding is director Rai’s frequent collaborator Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, who although a template sidekick (a second time to SRK following Raees), Ayyub makes this character his own, dropping several ironical lines that mock the stereotypes associated with Muslims while being consistently funny. In supporting roles, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Sheeba Chaddha and Bijendra Kala manage to leave a mark. In smaller roles, Abhay Deol and R. Madhavan are alright, while the cameos from the late Sridevi, Kajol, Juhi Chawla, Karisma Kapoor, Rani Mukerji, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt are just awkward. On the whole, ‘Zero’ is an ambitious Bollywood film which works on its stellar performances and its arresting VFX, yet ends up being effected by its irregular writing and direction. For Shah Rukh Khan fans only!
Directed – Aanand L. Rai
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 164 minutes