Tubelight, Salman Khan’s much awaited Eid release, is the superstar’s third film with director Kabir Khan after Ek Tha Tiger (2012) and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (2015). If Tiger was a transnational spy-thriller traversing a global landscape, Bajrangi Bhaijaan was a road movie unfolding on both sides of the cinematic Indo-Pak border. Tubelight, an adaptation of Little Boy (Alejandro Gómez Monteverde, 2015), unfolds in the fictional Jagatpur, an arcadian hamlet in Kumaon. Staged across a diversity of landscapes and shot evocatively by Aseem Mishra, all three films are about transformative journeys.
Set against the India-China war of 1962, Tubelight revolves around Laxman Singh Bisht (Salman Khan), Jagatpur’s equivalent of the village idiot whose dim-wittedness has earned him the moniker `Tubelight’- the one who lights-up a tad too late. Having lost his father to alcohol and mother to grief, Laxman grows up protected by Bharat (Sohail Khan), his devoted and doting younger brother. When during an army recruitment drive, Laxman fails to qualify for the Kumaon Regiment, Bharat puts him in charge of the fictional ‘Jagatpur Regiment’ to stay back and protect the village. In the universe that Bharat creates around him, Laxman is as good as anyone else. When Bharat leaves for the warfront, a distraught Laxman tries to find solace in the power of faith (‘yakeen ka taqat’), an idea that Gandhi inspired in him when he was a schoolboy. Laxman confuses faith with what he imagines are his telekinetic powers. Banne Chacha (Om Puri), a parent-figure to the brothers, explains that faith is the power of self-belief and tenacity, not a result of magic or mysticism. He instructs Laxman to follow Gandhi’s teachings of which one is to befriend the enemy. More specifically, he has to befriend the two new inhabitants of Jagatpur – the Chinese boy Gu Won (Matin Ray Tangu) and his mother Li Leing (Zhu Zhu).
Laxman is entrusted with the task because when the two first arrived in Jagatpur, he had roused the village shouting, “The Chinese have come”. The local bigot Narayan (Zeeshan Ayub Khan), debarred from the army for having knock-knees, decides to fight the ‘Chinese Invasion’ by inciting a mob to burn down their house. The `patriotic mission’ backfires when the flaming projectile lands on the pyromaniac himself. Narayan survives as does the house but Gu and Li feel thoroughly unwanted. Later, Laxman is shocked to discover that contrary to all appearances, they too happen to be Indians.
The comparisons between Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Tubelight are unavoidable. In both films, Salman Khan plays a pacifist simpleton whose friendship with a child belonging to an ‘enemy’ community leads him to confront his own prejudices. While no consensus can be assumed about responses to a cultural text, it is likely that in comparison, Bajrangi Bhaijaan would score much higher in scripting, performance and overall cinematic appeal. Salman’s charismatic star presence is dulled by his unidimensional interpretation of Laxman’s character. Despite these weaknesses, Tubelight makes a number of daring interventions both in the representation of war – which merits a longer discussion – and in the volatile debates raging within the country.
Tubelight asserts that loving one’s country is not synonymous with hating the enemy and in war there is no gain or glory, only death and destruction. Major Rajbir Tokas (Yashpal Sharma) tells Laxman that if indeed he has magical powers, he should use it to end the war so that soldiers on both sides could return to their loved ones. At a time when the cult of muscular militarism demands complete submission, Tubelight mounts an unapologetic indictment of war. At a recent event Salman Khan remarked that those who propagate war should be asked to pick up a gun and sent to the warfront. (“They will tremble and shake and eventually take the route of dialogues and discussions”) The fury that met his comments indicates that pacifism no longer resides in the realm of common sense.
War also instigates the toxic social sorting of insiders and outsiders. When Li tells Laxman that the rest of her family has been taken to a “jail in Rajasthan”, she references a shameful chapter in Indian history. In 1962, thousands of ethnic Chinese were picked up from different parts of India and incarcerated without trial in a concentration camp in Deoli, Rajasthan. Some remained incarcerated for years even after the war ended. This experience triggered a mass exodus of the Chinese from India. Tubelight would have done well to make this point more forcefully. During a moment of confrontation, Li tells the xenophobic Narayan: “We love this country as much as you do and we don’t need a certificate from anyone for that.” The predicament of the Chinese in Jagatpur raises the spectre of the Muslim in contemporary India; a minority under siege.
Progressive politics is no guarantee for good cinema but Kabir Khan’s repertoire – especially New York (2009), Ek Tha Tiger and Bajrangi Bhajaan – have demonstrated that mainstream cinema can effectively counter majoritarian assumptions to create a memorable cinematic experience. He has consistently sought to bend the tropes of popular cinema to subvert the predictable representations of minorities. It is therefore, only fitting that the first on-screen Chinese protagonists of Bollywood should debut in his film. In such cinematic endeavours, some films will fare better than others. The task at hand is to keep making films that will resist the temptation to make the mainstream synonymous with the majoritarian.
Shohini Ghosh is Sajjad Zaheer Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia.