Cinema in India has for decades served as platform to spread social values and political ideals. In Tamil Nadu, the Dravidian parties — including chief ministers like Annadurai, M.G. Ramachandran, Karunanidhi and the present incumbent, Jayalalithaa — have written stories, and acted in, movies that were blatant political propaganda. In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, one-time chief minister N.T Rama Rao, essayed Hindu gods like Rama and Krishna to tug at popular sentiment, and this did win him votes. Even the nationalist Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) now ruling in New Delhi and several states used movie stars to up mass appeal.
So, it is only a given that Bollywood’s “bad boy,” Salman Khan, 49, should have chosen to co-produce and perform in a film, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, that pushes not just a strong Hindu doctrine of love and peace, of truth and non-violence, but also for a rapprochement between two warring nuclear neighbors — India and Pakistan. (Carved out of the subcontinent into two nations in 1947, they have been fighting over Kashmir with each claiming the region as its own.)
Accused of physically assaulting his former girlfriend and actress of repute, Aishwarya Rai, Khan’s popularity dipped. Later, when he was charged with poaching the endangered black buck in a territory whose people held the deer in sacred reverence and finally convicted after 13 years for driving in an inebriated state his luxury car on sleeping pavement dwellers in Mumbai, killing one and injuring four others, Khan knew he was in hot broth. Now out on bail with a five-year prison term waiting, and with millions of rupees riding on his movies, his producers too are anxious to see the star remain free.
So, a film like Bajrangi Bhaijaan comes along and Khan jumps at the chance it possibly offers him to try and clean up his image and reputation. The movie has done singularly well, being the fastest Hindi-language work to reach Rs 100 crores ($15.7 million).
Khan plays Pawan or Bajrangi, a devotee of the Monkey God Hanuman, ardently worshipped by Hindus. Pawan would not eat meat, would never lie, would illegally cross the border along Pakistan, but plead with the soldiers there to give him “official permission” to go into their country without a visa. For, he has a divine mission to fulfil, that of uniting a mute six-year-old Pakistani girl with her mother, a child who gets lost during a pilgrimage to a Muslim shrine in Delhi.
Khan wears many hats here in the film: a devout Hindu in a country where Muslims have had an uneasy relationship with the ruling BJP, a seeker of truth and a noble samaritan who would go to any extent to get the girl back home, even if that means being called an Indian spy and beaten out of shape. Scenes of him bowing his head in veneration every time he sees a monkey may be both hilarious and loaded with the kind of message Khan wants to send out to the powers that be. What is more, the scene of people on either side of the border uniting over Pawan’s valiant and successful bid is a tear jerker all right — the right ingredient to let the heart rule.
Maharashtra where Khan lives is run by the BJP and the hold of the Shiv Sena, another Righwing Hindu political party, is also particularly strong there — and the actor needs their support if he were to stay out of jail.
This may not be easy, though he managed to dodge conviction in the drunken driving case for 13 years. He tried desperately to ensure that the verdict never came. At one point, he even asked his driver to lie to the court that he, not Khan, was at the wheel on the fateful drive.
In India, where popular sentiments have often played a role in judicial proceedings — with the media sometimes — conducting its own trials on television or in print — Khan might just about hope that movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan, where he is seen as a do-gooder, would help him win public sympathy and affection — and in the process keep him out of prison.
This is apparent when we watch the climax in Bajrangi Bhaijaan: the crowds on either side of the border break the iron barrier between India and Pakistan to help Pawan walk into his country as a free man. The Pakistani forces are shown covertly helping him by becoming mute spectators, while the little girl herself finds her voice. A victory for Pawan, a brownie point for Khan. Or, so he would like to presume.
Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with two of India’s best regarded daily newspapers, The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years, and who now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.