When Salman Khan makes his flamboyant entry in Bajrangi Bhaijaan dancing in front of an enormous idol of Hanuman, the film may seem like a misplaced Eid offering. For Muslims, as indeed for many of us, the word “Bajrangi” had become inseparable from Babu Bajrangi, convicted of mass killings in Naroda Paitiya and the belligerent foot-soldiers of the Bajrangi Dal. But by the time the film ends, “Bajrangi” has been effectively hijacked by “Bhaijaan” inaugurating the possibility of new associations.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is the story of an unlikely friendship and a journey of discoveries. Six year old Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), comes to India with her mother to visit the shrine of Nizamuddin Auliya. On their way back, she wanders out of the Samjhauta express and gets left behind. The family is frantic. The difficulty of searching for a lost child across the border is made harder by Shahida’s speech impairment. She cannot speak even though she can hear perfectly well. Shahida’s grandfather hopes that somewhere in India is a good man (“khuda ka nek banda”) who will look after her. The man is “Bajrangi” Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi (Salman Khan), an acolyte of Hanuman. The rest of the film is about “Bajrangi’s” growing attachment to the child, his efforts to take her home to Pakistan and his education about “paraya dharam”- the religion of the other.
In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Hindutva meets its nemesis right at home. Neither Pawan nor Rasika (Kareena Kapoor), the woman he loves, share the bigotry of their Hindutva-enthused fathers. In fact, Pawan is a huge disappointment to his father who heads the RSS shakha of Pratapgarh. He is disastrous in studies, taking 20 years to reach class 10 and finally graduating on his 11th attempt. He is inept at wrestling because he is ticklish. Worse, when his father stands on the RSS stage singing to the glory of a strong Hindu nation, Pawan is the only fidgety boy in the long line of disciplined cadres. Pawan modestly declares,” “In all the subjects that were dear to my father, I had absolutely no interest.” Bajrangi certainly does not embody the manhood valorised by the Hindu Right. No wonder that his father, even after his death, glowers at him from the framed picture on the wall.
Rasika’s father Dayanand (Sharad Saxena) is a proud bigot. He does not allow “Mohameddans” to rent rooms in his building. He does not like the smell of non-vegetarian cuisine to contaminate his pure vegetarian air. When he gets to know that Munni (Shahida) is a Muslim from Pakistan, he asks her to be removed forthwith. But Dayanand’s bluster doesn’t command obedience. Rasika disapproves of her father’s mindset and reprimands Bajrangi for sharing his views. The rest of the family is happy to have Munni around. When the Pakistan Embassy shuts down after an unruly attack by the saffron-brigade, the youngest member of the family is delighted that Munni’s stay in their house has been extended.
The journey to the cinematic Pakistan (shot on the Indian side of the border) transforms Bajrangi while recalibrating the representation of Pakistan in mainstream Bollywood films. As illegal entrants into the country, the duo find a friend and accomplice in TV stringer Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) whose introduction is a hilarious reconstruction of the real namesake’ s unedited piece-to-camera that had gone viral on the net in 2008. The two make common cause even though Bajrangi has no idea what “watan parast” means and Chand Nawab struggles to pronounce “desh bhakt.” The search for Munni’s parents drives Bajrangi into spaces that are anathema to him. In one sequence, Bajrangi self-righteously refuses to enter a masjid in Pakistan but quickly changes his mind when he spots a police van approaching. He also discovers that honesty is not always the best policy. The romp through Pakistan is as hilarious as it is moving. The affective universe of the film is driven by some of Bombay cinema’s best loved conventions – a lost-and-found narrative, accidental partings, coincidental meetings and happy reunions. Yet their staging is not predictable. One such example is Shahida’s home-coming that Bajrangi is unable to witness but which a joyful Chand Nawab records with his camcorder. The utopian finale, uninhibitedly emotive, is the staging of a dream nurtured by many in South Asia.
Eid celebrations are incomplete without a Salman Khan release. The “king of single screens” has always shared a special affinity with the urban proletariat and non-metropolitan audiences of which the subaltern Muslim has been a significant part. On the other hand, Kabir Khan’s directorial interventions are purposeful. In films like Kabul Express (2006), New York (2009) and Ek Tha Tiger (2012) he has consistently sought to rework popular conventions in order to subvert the predictable representation of Muslims in Bombay films. New York marks a significant shift by extricating the cinematic imagination of `terrorism” from the commonly depicted signifiers of Islam. Ek Tha Tiger, a love story between an ISI and a RAW agent, breaks an established convention of Indo-Pak romances. In the Pakistani blockbuster Tere Pyar Mein (2000) the lovers choose Pakistan, after a violent disavowal of the ‘enemy country’. Gadar Ek Prem Katha (2001) reciprocates the same with as much hostility. Even the protagonists of the non-aggressive Veer-Zara (2004) choose destination India. The country of the male protagonist has always been the desired destination. In a refreshing twist, the lovers in Ek Tha Tiger reject both countries and make the world their home.
One reviewer commented that Bajrangi Bhaijaan is not “an Eid feast for hungry Salman Khan fans.” The irony of the statement runs deep. One of the most endearing (if not the most subversive) sequences in the film is a tribute to the feasting associated with Eid. As Hindu-right groups clamour to ban beef and segregate non-vegetarians, the ‘chicken song’ sung by the strictly vegetarian Bajrangi, invoking delicacies like “biryani bukhari” and “nalli nihari”, is simply delectable. The invitation to transgress religious diktats (“dharam bhrasht”) has seldom been extended so joyfully.
Shohini Ghosh is Professor at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia