Bajrangi Bhaijaan is Salman Khan's gift to bhakts this Eid
This Eid, we have Salman Khan's Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which has a hero whose most distinctive quality is his religiosityand is meant as both satire on and celebration of bhakts.
Over the past year, there’s been a lot of hand-wringing and fretting about how the rise of Hindutva and the growing tentacles of the RSS are stifling free speech and creativity. With Bajrangi Bhaijaan, this Friday’s big release, it’s time to put some of those fears to rest. Bollywood may be faced by challenges like censorship and a whimsical CBFC, but it’s got a few tricks up its sleeve.
For the second time this year, we’ve got a film in which the hero is a simple, golden-hearted, shakha-bred Hindu. Pavan Kumar Chaturvedi, aka Bajrangi of Bajrangi Bhaijaan, could well be the chaddi-buddy of Dum Laga ke Haisha’s Prem Prakash Tiwari. Like Prem, Pavan is also more of a man of action than intellect. Both have failed school multiple times, both are unemployed, both are losers and both men catch the attention of smart, pretty school teachers. Prem redeems himself by hoisting his wife on his back and racing across treacherous terrain in a race. Pavan does pretty much the same thing – only instead of his wife, he’s got a little girl riding him piggyback and the terrain is more expansive as Pavan goes across Pakistan’s desert, plains and then mountains.
The message is clear: the women of North India are suckers for pecs and abs, and the shakha produces men who are studly, loyal and idiots. Eid Mubarak, bhakts.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan pokes much fun at Hindutva’s footsoldiers; more so than Dum Laga ke Haisha, which contained some delightful and subtle satire of the RSS and its ideology. Pavan is not only verging on illiterate, but the only occupation he has appears to be tugging gigantic Hanuman idols. Not quite a career with glowing prospects. There’s a fine line between stupidity and innocence, and most of the time, Pavan – who offers pranaam to random monkeys because they are, to him, symbols of Hanuman and therefore deserving of worship – is unmistakably on the stupid side. Even a six-year-old who has grown up in a remote village despairs at Pavan’s naiveté.
It’s almost as though Bollywood is subtly sticking its tongue out to those who want to censor Indian culture and popular entertainment. If all the right-wing wants are paeans to its awesomeness, Bollywood will deliver with heroes like Pavan and Prem, who get the girl and the audience’s sympathies, who are undeniably heroic; but who are equally undeniably, absolute idiots.
If there is a saving grace to this saffron-tinted hero, then it is that he’s not set in his ways like the others of his tribe. This is partly because he has a good heart and partly because he’s such an idiot that nothing – neither multiplication tables nor religious fundamentalism – registers. Pavan, like Prem, responds with his heart because there’s next to nothing in his head. As Pavan shows in his interaction with the Pakistan security forces, his stupidity overwhelms his instinct for self-preservation and at the root of the aforementioned lack of smarts is religious dogma.
Still, our hero is a good guy who can rise above all this pettiness. The film uses Pavan to rubbish the right-wing distaste for eating meat and pokes holes at the irrational suspicion cast by right-wing Hindus upon Muslims. The little girl in Bajrangi Bhaijaan isn’t an ambassador of Islam. She’s just a lost kid. When Pavan realises she’s a meat-eating Muslim – from Pakistan no less – that she’s a symbol of the enemy is less important to him than the fact that she tugs at his heartstrings. She’s cute and helpless and looks at him with wide-eyed adoration, which makes him feel powerful. She’s also the only person who doesn’t judge him for being a loser, and that’s enough. No wonder Pavan doesn’t think twice about choosing the little girl over his gorgeous girlfriend, Rasika, who loves and supports him but also makes it clear that she’s the one who wears the pants (and has the brain) in their relationship.
In many ways, the rise of this bhakt hero is a throwback to ye olde Bollywood, when sophisticated, posh heroines lost their hearts to heroes who were distinctly “low-class”. Instead of the driver or unemployed or generally unprivileged gent who won the heroine’s heart, today’s hero is the bhakt. He can only be redeemed through the love of a good woman or a good girl.
Rasika plays some role in making Pavan see the light as far as Hindutva is concerned, but the real eye-opener is the little girl, Munni. It’s almost as though writer V Vijayendra Prasad and director Kabir Khan (who has also written the film’s occasionally witty dialogues) decided that since talking to Hindutva trolls only leads to abusive arguments, it would make more sense to combat their brainwashing with silence and sweetness. So there’s Munni, mute and adorable and unwaveringly human, rather than being a blueprint for all things Muslim.
Yet, for all the tongue-in-cheek of Bajrangi Bhaijaan and despite all its delicate subversion, this is ultimately a blockbuster made for a nation of bhakts. While Bajrangi the character becomes more open-minded because of Munni and his travels, the film Bajrangi Bhaijaan stays true to the narrow-mindedness that threatens so much of popular discourse today. Bajrangi comes to terms with the fact that “Mohammedans” are not all bad, but what the film ends up being is a vehicle for Hindu one-upmanship. As much as Bajrangi Bhaijaan is about reuniting a little girl with her parents, it also ends up being a campaign to get Muslims in Pakistan to cheer for Hanuman’s bhakt (and therefore Hanuman?) and yell “Jai Shri Ram” – as though this is the essence of being an Indian.
For example, after a moulvi helps Pavan out of a tricky situation, he says, “Khudahafiz” to Pavan. Pavan is thankful, but he has no words to wish the moulvi a safe journey as the moulvi returns to a potentially dangerous situation. Because hello, Pavan is Hindu. He can’t say “khudahafiz” back even though that’s exactly what he wants to say. Maybe “Hanumanhafiz”...? The moulvi notes Pavan’s discomfort and says, “What is it you say among your kind? Jai Shri Ram?” He then smiles at Pavan and says, “Jai Shri Ram.” Which actually has nothing to do with wishing anyone safety and doesn’t reflect the beliefs of a large percentage of Indians and Hindus, but that’s India apparently: the land of Jai Shri Ram.
The India of Bajrangi Bhaijaan isn’t a multi-cultural, secular nation. It’s the land of bhakts and in many ways, this is a film that’s meant for them, with both its satire and its celebration of that group. Over the last few years, Salman Khan has claimed Eid as his and this has meant fun Bollywood films at this time of year. Religious identity – of the hero or the audiences – was of no consequence. Regardless of your faith, you hooted, cheered and rolled your eyes at Khan and his on-screen antics. This year, we get Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which has a hero whose most distinctive quality is his religiosity and ends with a Muslim jubilantly yelling “Jai Shri Ram”.
To quote a mythical character who has nothing to do with Hinduism or Islam and everything to do with blockbuster films, the world is changed.
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