Shah Rukh Khan as Shah Rukh KhanSuperstars are made by the audience. For a film, they are a bankable element that will, regardless of the story or script, guarantee a great audience, in the first three days of the film’s release, at least. In India, audiences are segregated between ‘single screen’ and ‘multiplexes’.
Superstars are made by the audience. For a film, they are a bankable element that will, regardless of the story or script, guarantee a great audience, in the first three days of the film’s release, at least. In India, audiences are segregated between ‘single screen’ and ‘multiplexes’. Broadly speaking, loud action flicks with an invincible hero do well in single screen theatres, while films with a contemporary theme, content and culture are preferred in multiplexes.
In Bollywood, there are really only three major superstars—Salman Khan, Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan. All three of them come with their own audience sect.
Salman Khan knows his acting limitations. He restricts himself to ‘bhai’ roles that have one footing in morality and another in muscle-pumping action. Salman knows that his films are for single-screen audiences, who hoot, whistle and clap for character introductions, dance moves, action scenes and punch-lines. Aamir Khan appeals more to multiplex audiences, ones who consider cinema to be more than just entertainment.
Shah Rukh has the best of both. He gained popularity in the 90s, when multiplexes didn’t exist. In the early 2000s, he did critically diverse roles in Swades, Devdas and Chak De India and managed to retain popularity in multiplexes. Shah Rukh is smart enough to choose diverse roles like Aamir, but present them with the familiarity of Salman.
Shah Rukh has thus tried a variety of genres, but never missed out on a dance number. With Zero, he attempts a similar feat, which you can see from his character’s introductory shot itself. Opening with a dream sequence, set like a western, Shah Rukh’s face slowly emerges from beneath a hat, providing the audience with ample time to hoot, clap and whistle. Like a true Hindi film hero, he almost manages to save the damsel in distress—only to wake up from his dream. This opening scene perfectly encapsulates how Shah Rukh is quite literally ‘King Khan’, who appeals to all audiences. But given how
hard Shah Rukh tries to please
everybody, one can’t help but feel like Shah Rukh, despite decades at the top of the Hindi film industry, remains insecure.
Before Zero, in his films Fan, Raees, and Jab Harry met Sejal, he played an obsessed fan, a real life criminal, and an Imtiaz Ali-hero, respectively. These films were filled with the contemporary content and pop culture ideologies of multiplexes. Shah Rukh seems to be trying really hard. He has been taking on a variety of roles, all very demanding, but none of his recent films has connected with either audiences or critics. He’s attempted another similarly demanding role in Zero.
Here, Shah Rukh plays ‘Bauua’ a vertically challenged, courageous, but ultimately selfish man struggling to find love. He hides his insecurities through quick jabs at the people around him, and attempts to buy their respect, throwing wads of money at everyone. As intriguing as it sounds on paper, on screen, you cannot help but see Rahul, the boyishly irritating charmer made immortal more than 20 years ago by Shah Rukh in Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge. As with Rahul, Shah Rukh manages to create empathy. In the film, you often don’t see Bauua, but Shah Rukh Khan, the hero we’ve seen romancing heroines since we were little. As a result, the audience empathises with Shah Rukh, rather than his character.
In Zero, Bauua falls for Afia Yusufzai Bhinder’s photo and decides to meet her, only to discover that she is wheelchair-ridden with cerebral palsy. Afia, played by Anushka Sharma, doesn’t care for Bauua and this bruises the little man’s ego, resulting in Bauua pursuing Afia through grand romantic gestures, trying to convince her that he is truly in love. Afia, the brilliant NSAR
(the film’s version of NASA) scientist, sees right through him, but falls in love nevertheless. Bauua’s pursuit ends when Afia agrees to have sex with him, and this results in one of the best character-driven motivations in Indian film in recent times—Bauua rushes to the bathroom and takes a selfie. He has accomplished his mission.
We then follow Bauua down a path of self-destruction. When his marriage is arranged with Afia, we want him to get married, but he runs away. We don’t want him to pursue Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif), the depressed alcoholic actor, but he does so anyway.
The film is intriguing at times and many individual performances are sometimes brilliant. Katrina Kaif is absolutely convincing as a heartbroken actor, almost as she’d lived it herself. She is introduced in a bathtub, crying, with smudged mascara. Her staff is pooling money to see if her ex will answer his phone. He doesn’t pick up. She gets up in boxers, pays everyone what she owes, goes to an event in the same attire, and gives middle fingers to the world. Her character, however beautifully developed, is not given a fitting end. Her scenes with Bauua feel rushed and her story is incomplete.
The duo of writer Himanshu Sharma and director Aanand L Rai has given us films like the Tanu Weds Manu series. These films are known to present complex but flawed modern characters in intriguing dramas. In Zero too, the characters are similarly intricate. We see ourselves in characters like Afia, who constantly justifies falling in love with a vertically-challenged person by saying that she is most comfortable talking to him. The writer and director falter, however, in designing scenes.
A scene attempting to present Bauua’s vulnerability is ruined by a barrage of cameos from female actors—Kajol, Juhi Chawla, Alia Bhatt, Karishma Kapoor, Deepika Padukone and even the late Sridevi. All of them look beautiful in the scene, but this results in the audience being taken away from Bauua and forced to watch Shah Rukh Khan act alongside his former co-actors. This is a big conundrum on its own.
Films about people with disabilities wouldn’t exist in India if there wasn’t a superstar attached to the project. But a superstar of Shah Rukh’s stature implies that people are watching him rather than the character.
Relegated to doing comedy roles, people with dwarfism have always been grossly misrepresented in Bollywood. They are presented as someone to be laughed at. This continues even today, with 2018’s Dhadak where the lead’s sidekick and comic relief is a short-statured person. Shah Rukh’s decision to accept this role should be commended. A little person as a lead was attempted famously in 1990’s Appu Raja by Kamal Hassan, a man Shah Rukh deeply admires. But no other film about these characters has ever come close to the popularity of Appu Raja. Audiences just do not turn up to see a sad Indian film about a vertically challenged person. A new up-and-coming superstar would never agree to play a little person as they’d risk becoming a laughing stock with serious repercussions for their career. In that aspect, the Khans of Bollywood were the only bankable actors whose careers wouldn’t be affected, even if the film flopped miserably. Commercially speaking, Shah Rukh was the best actor for this particular role.
This film in particular needed a different tone and feel to it. Sadly, Zero is absolutely zero.
Director: Aanand L Rai
Writer: Himanshu Sharma
Actors: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif