Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif
Director: Aanand L Rai
Babita Kumari storms out of her bathtub. The movie star is late for a public appearance and has decided to go as is, alarming her handler who frantically interjects, asking about her clothes, hair and makeup. She’s in a T-shirt and boxer shorts, wears her hair down, and then declares herself so fair she doesn’t need to care about makeup. The heroine looks like a hot mess, but played as she is by Katrina Kaif, there’s the heft of honesty to the line about her complexion. India would let a fair-skinned girl get away with murder — or at least lipsticklessness. Zero is a film about preconceived notions.
One of Babita’s biggest fans is Bauua Singh, a man from Meerut who showers the movie screen with banknotes and yells, “Bring on all three of your Khans, here I stand meri jaan.” Shah Rukh Khan — one of the three Khans Bauua challenges — plays this coarse and cocksure dwarf. Singh is defined by his defiance. His whole approach is devil-may-care because he believes god has already done his worst.
Directed by Aanand L Rai, Zero is made for those who don’t fit in. It is a strange film, one that lets Shah Rukh Khan do what he does best — by way of swooning overture — but also a film that takes him where we wouldn’t expect. Zero becomes odder and odder as it goes along, and while the end is impossible to take seriously, the entire film is meant to be a fable. Even in the movies, it takes a misfit to stand out.
Like too many of us, Bauua Singh is bred on the movies. When told he isn’t sophisticated, he claims to have watched enough English movies to feign class. In one scene, where Singh is all but bursting at the seams to break into a dance, he barks for a Shammi or Rishi number, both of which the DJ doesn’t have. The ballroom awaits. His entire body wriggles with anticipation, for he is a Hindi movie man, and cannot possibly make a grand romantic gesture without song. His final instruction to the DJ is plaintive: play any damn Kapoor song. It’ll work.
And it does.
Anushka Sharma plays a NASA scientist named Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder — in a neat nod to Malala— and she can’t help marvel at this impudent man. Singh calls his father by name much like Bart Simpson, and is as rude. Khan, however, makes even obnoxiousness somewhat loveable, and his character’s biggest win with the scientist he courts may be the lack of pity for her cerebral palsy. To Bauua, she’s a girl who didn’t give him the time of day, which astonishes him, since everyone stares at the dwarf; his own father suggests he be used as a sideshow attraction. To her, he is a massive change from the deference she has earned and the overcompensating politeness she routinely faces due of her condition. Soon she’s drunk on him. Even the name Bauua, from her struggling mouth, sounds like a burp.
There is more to this little man besides his insolence. He’s magic. He looks up at the stars and swipes at them dismissively — as if toying with intergalactic Tinder — and as he counts down from 10 to nothing and waves a finger, stationary stars turn into shooting ones. Now this isn’t a trick he can do much with, but it does dazzle his outer space lady who fears what moons this man may shatter if he so casually breaks stars.
The first half of Zero is flat-out fantastic, an unabashed charm-offensive from Rai, Khan and the film’s writer Himanshu Sharma. The dialogues crackle with spontaneity and inventiveness. Bauua Singh is routinely whipped by his father (a superbly grumpy Tigmanshu Dhulia) and when this threat is made with the family lying under the stars, Singh wonders aloud whether his father now wears a belt with his boxers or whether he now intends to whip him with the naada, the elastic band holding up the shorts. Sticks and stones don’t hurt this hero, though names go some way in denting him.
It is as the film continues, and gets more fanciful, that the seams start to show. Rai is aiming high with this fable, but the director’s usual issues show up. The film threatens to become yet another romanticisation of an obsessive hero who refuses to go away and to take no for an answer. Rai is unbeatable in the small-town milieu, but the film outgrows Meerut, and its wit dries up even as the drama heightens. This is where the film should have embraced the lunacy and gone entirely bonkers. The melodramatic approach it takes robs Zero of its essential lightness, and the metaphor becomes clumsier. Yet there is something fascinating going on here: a woman, tired of a man, literally imposes space on him.
Sharma infuses a strong sense of pride into her character, a serious space scientist who has given her heart away, and only lets her vulnerability peek out in occasional glances: the way she looks at Khan when cradling his face, say, or the way she desperately laughs in order to prod happiness out of her distraught father. Her speech patterns are a bit inconsistent, but one can’t doubt Sharma’s commitment to the part. Kaif, meanwhile, plays an intensely self-aware part, that of the lovelorn, cheated-upon superstar, and the actress impressively endows her vainglorious character with a serrated edge.
Shah Rukh Khan measures up. The visual effects lack continuity and he looks more like a dwarf in some scenes than others, his deformity occasionally more pronounced while he looks like a spookily smooth tiny-Khan in other sequences. The actor, however, glosses over this with a dominating performance and tremendous energy. Bauaa Singh is a severely flawed character made irresistible by his pluck, and it’s remarkable how much Khan brings to the part. And he remains the best lover in the business.
Ladies, enforce your knees. He might be wearing an outlandish Dhoom 3 costume, he might have hair like Razzaq Khan, and speak in English so fractured it doesn’t allow him to lie about his age. Still that Shah Rukh charm is dashed hard to deny, and, as he boasts to his lover in the film, those dimples aren’t store-bought. This is why romantics across the country are safe no matter how limited the DJ’s repertoire. Any Shah Rukh Khan song will do.