Salman Khan tones down his tough guy persona to play a naive but principled man in Bajrangi Bhaijaan. His performance is a much appreciated reminder that Salman is capable of delivering more than just punches and kicks.
The opening credits roll over gorgeous footage of the snowy mountains of Kashmir, establishing that this is more than the story of one man, and that it takes place in a world grand enough to make any individual seem small. Throughout the film, director Kabir Khan shoots characters from high vantage points in order to emphasize how small they look in the greater scheme of things.
The mountainous terrain in the opening credits is home to Shahida (Harshaali Malhotra), a six-year-old Pakistani girl who can’t — or won’t — speak. Her mother takes Shahida to pray at an Indian shrine renowned for curing muteness. On the ride home, precocious Shahida gets off the temporarily stopped train to help a lost lamb. The train restarts suddenly, leaving Shahida on the Indian side of the border with no identification or ability to communicate.
Shahida’s curiosity draws her to a festival where she watches Pawan (Salman Khan) lead the dancing. Although he doesn’t know how to help her, Pawan can’t bring himself to abandon the little girl. Since she can’t tell him her name, he calls her Munni and brings her to the family home of the woman he loves, Rasika (Kareena Kapoor Khan).
Pawan isn’t perfect. He’s neither book smart nor street smart, and he’s trusting to a fault. He’s also unsure if aiding Munni is his responsibility. Yet his honesty and sense of duty inspire others to help him, despite their own cynicism.
Pawan’s trusting nature becomes a source of jokes after he meets a freelance reporter named Chand Nawab (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). With Pawan’s plan to return Munni to her family stalled, Chand enlists Munni to pull off some tricks that will help them progress. Even at 6, Munni is more savvy and morally flexible than Pawan.
Director Khan trusts the audience to get why the jokes at Pawan’s expense are funny. He allows his moral of empathy across national and religious boundaries to develop without wacky sound effects or overly emotional musical cues.
Yet Khan abandons that approach in favor of a corny, populist climax. Various individuals assist Pawan and Munni in order to make the point that there are generous people of every creed, caste, and nationality. Instead of trusting the audience to understand that the helpful individuals are representative of a larger body of good people, the outcome of Pawan’s mission hinges on thousands of people gathering en masse. It’s cheesy and unnecessary.
Leading up to the climax, Khan also employs a variation of the overused “man on the street” Bollywood trope: the viral video. People all over India and Pakistan gather around mobile phones and laptop screens to watch a video Chand Nawab posts to his blog.
There are two problems with this trope (besides the fact that we have no reason to care what any of these random people think). First, this is not how videos become viral. Links are disseminated electronically, and individuals watch them alone, not gathered together as if listening to a World War II radio report in the 1940s.
Second, a human interest news piece about a good Samaritan helping a lost child is not the kind of video that goes viral. “Gangnam Style” goes viral. “What Does the Fox Say?” goes viral. Most people don’t fervently refresh awaiting a call to civic action.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan features one of the most nuanced characters Salman Khan has played in years. Pawan undergoes a compelling transformation when he realizes he can’t trust anyone else to care about Munni’s safety as much as he does. Salman and Nawazuddin make a much better pair of on-screen buddies than one would expect. Kareena’s Rasika is wise, but not so cynical that she can’t appreciate Pawan’s innocent worldview.
Little Harshaali does an admirable job, especially given the physical limitations of her character. Munni seems like a very real kid: too curious for her own good, but also smarter than adults might give her credit for. That Harshaali is cute as a button certainly helps, too.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan is among the best kind of Salman Khan films. He gets to beat up some bad guys, as we’ve come to expect, but his character grows and changes. One need not be a hardcore Salman fan to enjoy this movie.