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BAJRANGI BHAIJAAN.  Director:  Kabir Khan.  Players:   Salman Khan, Kareena Kapoor, Harshaali Malhotra, Om Puri, Nawazudin Siddique, Sharat Saxena, Meher Vij.  Music:  Pritam.  Hindi with Eng. Sub-tit.  Theatrical release (Eros)

Salman Khan made his mark first with spot-on drama (Maine Pyar Kiya, Hum Aapke Hain Kaun) and then with lucrative hyper-action entries (Kick, Bodyguard, Dabangg, Ready). Khan has thus far avoided roles with heavy political content, although his rogue Indian spy falling for a rogue Pakistani spy in Ek Tha Tiger pointed in that direction. With Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Khan leaps forward to having his own blockbuster movie with a decided political angle. Bhaijaan, a well-dressed story about re-connecting with one’s roots through lost identities is a fine entertainer that resonates with a surprisingly sharp why-can’t-we-just-get-along pan-South Asian ring.

The gifted Vijayendra Prasad has amazingly scripted not only the recent box office juggernaut Bahubali: The Beginning but also Khan’s huge hit Ek Tha Tiger. For an encore, Prasad now takes a much more restrained posture with Bajrangi. A young mute Pakistani girl (Malhotra) on a pilgrimage to a Muslim shrine in New Delhi becomes separated from her mother (Vij). Pawan Chaturvedi, AKA Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Salman Khan) rescues her from the streets and then reluctantly—passports and a heavily trip-wired border be damned—agrees to accompany her back to Pakistan relying on little more than determination and the sheer will of his devout Hindu convictions.

Prasad’s story exploits stereotypes, tapping into the antiquated caste system to create pseudo-divisions in the rank. Bajrangi’s patron is Dayanand (Saxena), whose body-building school for men who, like the camp’s founder, are presumably all also (upper caste) Brahmin.

Not knowing the background of the lost girl, now named Munni, Dayanand’s camp assumes that she must be Brahmin because she is fair-skinned (sic). Bajrangi coming upon Munni praying in a mosque decides that her being Muslim must be kept from everyone except Dayanand’s daughter Rasika (Kapoor), a school teacher that Bajrangi takes a shine to.

In a role first offered to Aamir Khan, who recommended Salman Khan instead, this Khan comes across as a subdued simpleton who, except for one unscheduled stop at a brothel, is a grounded, bumpkin-ish upcountry distant cousin of his action-hero usual self. For Salman Khan, this is a hugely refreshing twist. The counterpoint to Khan is not Kapoor’s level-headed Rasika. Instead it is Munni played by pint-sized newcomer Malhotra to precocious perfection. Malhotra aces projecting an air-tight sense of what it must feel like to be left behind; feeling abandoned and forced to navigate a new country, all without uttering a single word. At some point her fears become our collective fears.

Bajrangi is at heart a road movie, since chunks of narrative are comprised of the trip that the vagabond and the shy girl with a 1,000-watt smile take from Delhi to Pakistan controlled Kashmir—by foot, truck, rickshaw, bicycle and train and at times even in drag. Boosted by Puri as a wise-owl teacher and village elder and Siddique as a Karachi TV paparazzi on the prowl for a juicy story—a profession he spins with seriocomic flair—much of the low-tier adventure is trying to stay one step ahead of Pakistani border guards and local cops.

At press time, PK, Bahubali: The Beginning and Bajrangi Bhaijaan—all released since Christmas 2014—have the 1-2-3 ranking for the all-time biggest box office movies from India. These numbers are adding up. Forbes magazine recently reported that by 2016, Indian movies will generate $4.5 billion in revenue (compared to about $10.5 billion for Hollywood) and that two of the top ten highest paid actors in the world are Salman Khan and Akshay Kumar who each took home about $30 million in 2014. These impressive numbers point to a bright future for India’s film industries.

Released under Salman Khan’s own SKF banner, the producer and director enlisted a talented international crew to architect Bajrangi Bhaijaan.

Filmed entirely in Delhi, Rajasthan, Punjab and Kashmir, with some jaw-dropping mountain scenery captured by helicopter and drones, the filmmakers also rounded up 7,000 extras for one crucial border crossing scene. In musical accompaniment, Pritam’s score includes Atif Aslam’s lilting “Tu Chahiye” and Vishal Dadlani and Nakash Aziz’s catchy “Selfie Le Le” number have dominated the charts.

Despite this sprawl, the lasting impressions from Bajrangi are those smaller, human moments from slices of everyday life. It is Bajrangi rescuing Munni from the clutches of human traffickers. It is Bajrangi amusingly surrounded by traditional body-building wrestlers in their male-cleavage plumage. It is also a helpless Munni—lost as ever—dutifully making time at a New Delhi mosque to pray and Munni innocently and fatefully stepping off of a train to rescue a lamb. Bajrangi is no ordinary lost-child story. There will not be a single dry eye within miles!


Aniruddh C.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.