A remake of Little Boy, Tubelight is marred by bad acting from its lead, bad direction and bad script writing.
The 2015 American war drama Little Boy piggybacked on a simple motif: faith can move mountains. Which literally materialised in a scene, in the film’s latter part, where the protagonist, Pepper, an eight-year-old boy, moves a mountain. That film inspired Kabir Khan’s latest, Tubelight, starring Salman Khan, Sohail Khan and Zhu Zhu. It’s not difficult to guess what made Kabir turn Little Boy – a simple, sentimental and, at times, manipulative drama – into Tubelight. Little Boy presents its hero as an underdog, constantly bullied for being a misfit; emphasises the importance of kindness, compassion and honesty; ends on a crowd-pleasing note; and has enough melodramatic elements (a father-son bond, an unlikely friendship between a Japanese man and an American boy, xenophobia, social ridicule, the power of faith).
Kabir is a difficult filmmaker to understand, for he’s often switched, in his 12-year career, from sensible to inane. If Kabul Express was nuanced, then New York was ludicrously simplistic. If Bajrangi Bhaijaan was charming and intelligent (slyly subversive even), then Phantom was monotonously jingoistic. If Ek Tha Tiger was a sincere, even though failed, attempt to pair Salman’s stardom with a convincing character, then Tubelight is, among other things, painfully one note. Not particularly known for his acting choices, Salman has begun to pick promising films over the last few years. There’s been a willingness to do certain kinds of movies. Movies – like Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Sultan – that moderate his stardom and tell credible stories. Tubelight’s attempt looked similar. In fact, taking a step forward, in Tubelight, Salman doesn’t even romance a heroine on screen.
Largely set during the Sino-Indian War in 1962, Tubelight is centred on Laxman Singh Bisht (Salman), the laughing stock of Kumaon. Laxman isn’t smart; he can’t earn a living. He lacks common sense and social finesse. He is naïve and timid. He dotes on and depends on his younger brother, Bharat (Sohail), who, at one point, enlists in the army to fight the war. When Laxman hears about the trouble at the border, he resolves to get his brother back.
Like Little Boy, Tubelight wants to be the cinema of underdogs, telling us that every ordinary hides the extraordinary, that our true powers aren’t beyond us. It wants to, at least on the surface, caress magic. And it’s an impressive ambition. It’s what the best artists try; it’s what keeps them going. In his essay for the latest issue of a Japanese literary magazine, Monkey Business, Haruki Murakami writes, “The key component [in putting together a good novel] is not the quality of the materials – what’s needed is magic. If that magic is present, the most basic daily matters and the plainest language can be turned into a device of surprising sophistication.”
Tubelight often tries to create magic out of the commonplace, out of the forgettable. Laxman is unable to support himself; he can’t even do, or understand, many basic things. And yet the image of someone like him – powerless, clueless, hesitant – trying to move a mountain is oddly affecting. When Earth tremors at the same time (due to an earthquake) he considers his hands, as if he’s looking at them, and indeed himself, for the first time, unaware of who he is, what he’s capable of.
If cinema can be transformative, then it’s not a bad idea to make an inclusionary and empowering film. But it’s got to be a good film first. Tubelight is severely let down by its leading man, Salman, who looks so out of his depth here that you (almost) feel bad for him. Laxman isn’t an easy character to portray, but Salman makes him thoroughly unconvincing. Whether he’s angry or hurt, confused or determined, Salman’s expression barely changes. It’s difficult to take a film seriously when the central performance in it is this bad.
If Salman fails the realism, then Kabir fails the magic. Similar to Little Boy, where Pepper is transformed by a priest who gives him a set of instructions that would cleanse his heart of hatred, Tubelight has Laxman’s well-wisher Banne chacha (Om Puri) playing a similar role. Banne chacha tells Laxman that “yakeen” – faith – can help achieve anything. It was, in fact, yakeen that helped Mahatma Gandhi free India from the British. Several subsequent scenes then gratuitously and repeatedly drop references to Gandhi. It is a bizarre simplification that rings both insincere and untrue. Once Tubelight stops harping on Gandhi, it switches to “yakeen”. The film’s heroine, Liling (Zhu), who’s of Chinese descent and has recently moved to Kumaon from Calcutta, tells Laxman, several times, that his faith can surmount all problems. Some films can convincingly portray heightened optimism, but in Tubelight hope and cynicism often intersect awkwardly, giving rise to a strange mix. In several scenes, for instance, an army major, Rajbir (Yashpal Sharma), is either indifferent to or dismissive of Laxman. But when all of a sudden, in the film’s climax, he tells him, in all seriousness, “Jung band karvade (Please stop the war),” you aren’t sure what’s going on, whether you’re watching a drama or a comedy. And when the war indeed stops, Kumaon’s people flock to Laxman, thanking him. Laxman smiles, you do not.
But the most disappointing bit about Tubelight is that it doesn’t even tell an engaging story. It zigzags in several directions with precious little clarity. One of its vital plot points – Liling and her son’s (Matin Rey Tangu) social rejection, because they’re mistaken for Chinese– is unconvincing. The film’s purported central conflict – Laxman hoping for Bharat’s return – looks like a subplot. And the few scenes that manage to impress have been directly taken from Little Boy, showing a distinct lack of imagination by the screenwriters (Kabir and Parveez Shaikh) – something that defines this film.
Moreover, when looked at closely, Tubelight throws some strange parallels. At one point, Laxman urges Liling’s son, Guo, to say “Bharat mata ki jai” to prove his patriotism. Then shortly after Laxman is believed to have moved a mountain, a school’s science teacher tells his students that it was an earthquake, but one of them contradicts him, almost pitting science against belief. Even if well-intentioned, these scenes aren’t sending the right message to their audience. (More importantly, I shudder at the thought of bhai fans trying to make their biceps bulge purely on the basis of yakeen.)
But there’s something disingenuous and hollow about a big-budget film, made with around Rs 100 crore, holding forth on faith. It feels all the more pointless because the film doesn’t earn its roseate moments or worldview. There was a good story to be told here, no matter how simple or straightforward, but Kabir fritters that opportunity away.
Tubelight lives up to its name: it flickers and flickers and, ultimately, peters out.