If you thought a 53-year-old Salman Khan was past his prime and nearing retirement, “Bharat” is here to tell you otherwise. The film, directed by Ali Abbas Zafar, wants you to believe in a future where even at 70, Bollywood’s favorite all-conquering hero will still pull off stunts and vanquish the bad guys better than anyone else.
In “Bharat”, Khan makes a departure from the roles we’re used to seeing him play – that of much younger characters. The titular character is first introduced to us as a septuagenarian, but age is just a number here. With his sculpted body, kickboxing skills and baritone voice, his cantankerous demeanor is the sole giveaway of his old age. We see him take on five bad guys single-handedly, punching his way to victory in a matter of minutes.
Based on the 2014 Korean film “Ode to my Father”, “Bharat” charts the life of one man, set against the backdrop of the milestones India crosses in the nearly 72 years since it gained independence from the British. Bharat’s fate is firmly intertwined with that of India, as we are reminded throughout the film.
His arrival in India on the eve of independence is a somber one. His family is among the millions to move to the country from the newly-carved out state of Pakistan in 1947. As his family scrambles to catch the last train to India, Bharat’s sister gets lost in the melee. His father stays behind to look for her, and the family is torn apart.
Bharat, his mother (Sonali Kulkarni) and two younger siblings take shelter at an aunt’s house in Old Delhi. Bharat tries to build a new life for his family in India, but the image of his father at the train station remains etched in his memory.
A young Bharat polishes shoes and does menial jobs to help his mother supplement their meager income. After spending years waiting in long queues outside the employment exchange, and in the absence of any gainful employment, he joins the circus, works in the oil fields of the Middle East, and captains a ship that sails the African seas – all jobs that involve much risk and good money.
He meets Kumud (Katrina Kaif), a feisty manager at the oil rig, and falls in love with her. Zafar spends a large part of the film’s bloated screen time on this romance, which is the only spark in this overwrought film. Kaif and Khan share genuine chemistry, and their banter is one of the best parts of the film. But even here, Zafar feels the need to inject dream sequences and dance numbers that are performed in designer outfits.
This desire to interject the film’s rather light-hearted tone with the same worn-out tropes we’ve seen in most Salman Khan films – the fight sequences, dancing and the aura of invincibility around the protagonist – is why “Bharat” falls flat. At 167 minutes, the film could have been trimmed by an hour and worked better.
The film also minimizes the roles of strong women. Kaif and Kulkarni are edged out, as is Disha Patani, who has a minuscule role as a trapeze artist and Bharat’s first love interest. These characters serve to prop up Khan and his character arc. Kaif’s Kumud is a progressive and independent woman, but the film pays lip service to her radical ideas. The one character who shares almost equal screen space with Bharat is Vilayti, his childhood friend. Sunil Grover, a stand-up comedian turned actor, plays the role with sensitivity and warmth.
Khan is the only thing that matters here, and to Zafar’s credit, he makes the effort to carve out a character that doesn’t depend entirely on the star status of his leading man. “Bharat” is too long, too overdrawn and too maudlin for it to evoke any genuine emotion.
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