I went to see Bajrangi Bhaijaan with no expectations, because the friends I went with warned me that Salman Khan films (of which I had seen only HAHK) were just meaningless fun. I emerged, however, deeply moved.
The film’s protagonist, Pavan (a reference to Hanuman, son of the wind god) is known as Bajrangi (another name for Hanuman, meaning “iron-limbed”). He is a true devotee, seeing only good in everyone until they are manifestly proven wicked. Just as Hanuman in the Ramayana travels to Lanka to help bring Sita home, Bajrangi travels to Pakistan to bring a mute little Pakistani girl (Shahida aka Munni) home.
Like Hanuman, Bajrangi selflessly risks life and limb to do the right thing. Unlike Hanuman, he does not have miraculous powers, so he suffers torture and nearly dies in the process. For me the most moving moments in the film occur when the Hanuman Chalisa is evoked. Attributed to Tulsidas, this is one of the two most popular prayers in north India, chanted by millions every day. Hanuman, as mediator and wish-fulfiller, has also garnered some devotion across religious lines. In the late eighteenth century, a queen, Begum Janab-e-Alia, second wife of Nawab Shuja ud Daula (reigned 1753-75) built a Hanuman temple (where the festival of Bada Mangal is celebrated as a symbol of Lucknow’s famous Hindu-Muslim harmony); she is said to have done this after dreaming of Hanuman telling her to do so.
The first evocation of the Chalisa is when Bajrangi, having used all his and his girlfriend’s savings to pay a tout to send the six-year-old Munni home, discovers that the tout is selling her to a brothel. He stands still for a moment, as if unable to believe the depth of this nightmarish wickedness. A tear slowly wells out of his eye as lines from the Chalisa swell in the background, including the line: Sukshma rup dhari Siyahi dikhaava/Vikat rup dhari lank jaraava (He took a subtle form to show Sita, and a terrible form to burn Lanka). The line suggests the ability of the divine/human/animal manifestation that is Hanuman to adjust his being to the requirements of the moment.
Likewise, Bajrangi, who is always tender in a parental way to Munni (he gently covers her sleeping face with a veil when sitting amidst a crowd of men at the dargah), explodes into action, pulverizing the modern-day demons, the pimps, and sending the tout flying through the window, while the neighborhood watches, stunned. He then carries Munni away on his back.
The second moment is when Bajrangi’s girlfriend begs him not to go to Pakistan without passport or visa, because this will most likely result in his death or lifelong incarceration. He replies, Sankat katey mitey sab peera/Jo sumire Hanumat balbira (Difficulties are demolished, suffering wiped out, for one who remembers Hanuman the powerful), and adds that one who has Ram in his heart needs neither passport nor visa.
Bajrangi, who is reluctant to step into mosques, visits a dargah in Pakistan to pray for Munni’s safe return. This reflects the experience of most Hindus, who do not visit mosques but do visit dargahs in large numbers. The Sufi song at the dargah, Bhar le jholi meri ya Mohammad, expresses the sentiment of approaching God to get a wish fulfilled, a sentiment with which millions also go to Hanuman temples on Tuesdays.
Dargah Ashmuqam, the 14th century shrine in Kashmir of Sufi Zainuddin Wali, where the sequence was shot, was attacked by Lashkar in 2005. Islamists have attacked many dargahs both in India and Pakistan for being centres of syncretic devotion, where women also participate along with men, which hardliners see as “shirk”.
The film thus asserts popular devotion, true dharma and mazhab, both Muslim and Hindu, against the rigid versions of religion propagated by Islamists and Hindutva proponents. It provides a balanced view of modern-day Hinduism, with the pure-souled Bajrangi contrasted to his fanatical father and a group of saffron-clad men who violently attack the Pakistani embassy.
The film is not quite as balanced in its presentation of Pakistan, though, which emerges as a paradise of sorts. Every ordinary individual Bajrangi encounters helps and supports him, risking their own safety, including a maulvi who happily says “Jai Shri Ram” when Bajrangi cannot bring himself to say “Khuda Hafiz.”
Even the Pakistani police are remarkably tolerant. They allow Bajrangi to cross the Rajasthan border without a visa, and later, though they naturally suspect him of being a spy, the officer-in-charge halts his beating when he gets to know the real story, and, at considerable risk to himself, engineers Bajrangi’s return to India.
Cinema is about desire, though, and the desire here is a Gandhian one. Gandhi had asked Hindus to see Muslims as younger brothers and treat them with indulgence and forgiveness; he also wanted independent India to view Pakistan as a younger brother. At the time, this metaphor annoyed many Hindus as well as Muslims.
Salman Khan’s subtler version of the metaphor, tapping into deeper layers of desire for rapprochement in both countries, has succeeded in India and also appears to have gone across very well in Pakistan (it probably helps that Pakistan is shown winning both cricket matches with India that appear in the film!).
The term “Bhaijaan” is used only for an older brother, not a younger one. At the end of the film, the Pakistani crowd chants “Bajrangi Bhaijaan”, while little Munni, finding her voice, screams “Mama”. A woman’s brother is supposed to be a protector for her and her children. The chant is reinforced by the last image of Bajrangi holding up Munni in the no-man’s-land between the two countries while supportive spectators watch from both sides.
The only false note the film strikes is the chicken song. As a caring avuncular figure, Bajrangi rightly overcomes his revulsion in order to get Munni the food she wants to eat. But tolerating the eating practices of others is very different from celebrating the torture and slaughter of chickens.
Despite this misstep, the film answers Hindutva with Hindu devotion and Islamism with Muslim devotion, which, in my view, is the only effective answer. Salman, the son of a Hindu mother and a Muslim father, grew up in a home where puja coexisted with namaz, and he is a Muslim who has helped carry the Ganesh murti during Ganesh Chaturthi festivities. His family represents the syncretic traditions of Indian devotion that the film expresses so powerfully.
Ruth Vanita is a professor at Montana University.