A man child. Or a child-like man. Salman Khan has had long practice of playing one or the other kind of male, and has aced both. His latest alter ego takes the child-like aspect of man several notches higher. Salman’s character Laxman Singh Bisht is called, disparagingly, ‘tubelight’. Why? Simple. It flickers. It takes time to switch on. And then, and then only, there is light.
Because it is Salman, we go in looking for a plot designed to propel him, and us, towards that light. And because it is Kabir Khan, who has the ability to layer mainstream with meaning, and who has given the star one of his most memorable films, Bajrangi Bhaijaan, we hope for the magic to work again.
But this time around, in which the director and the star set their sights on China, it is not to be. Tubelight presents Salman in full Forrest Gump mode. Laxman, the golden-hearted simpleton, not only loves his brother Bharat (Sohail Khan), he also teaches us to love our neighbours, during peace or strife. It matters not where the borders are; love conquers all.
The message is perfect, especially apt for these manic times. The messenger is far from. The effort, on Salman’s part, to come off slow-witted, shows in every frame. It’s all feels constructed, and on the surface, with no nuance. Instead of Hindi Chini bhai bhai, it is more like Hindi Chini, bye bye.
Which is a pity because Kabir pulled off a most entertaining ‘aman ki asha’ with Pakistan. In Tubelight, he goes back 55 years (it’s set in the backdrop of the 62 war): Bharat enrolls in the army, goes off to fight, and then vanishes, leaving Laxman devastated. A ‘Chinese’ looking mum-and-son (Zhu Zhu and Matin Rey Tangu) becomes the target of the villagers’ ire. Of course, everything is their fault.
Of course, the duo is Indian. Done better, the two Khans (three actually, because Sohail has a significant share of the screen as well as a production credit) could have said something very important about racism and widespread discrimination against north-easterners, called ‘chinkies’, and other humiliating names. Yes, they are as Indian as anyone else. But Tubelight squanders that opportunity.
Some of the film’s more likeable moments are shared between Laxman and the little boy, who’s completely edible, and an absolute natural. The supporting cast is solid. It includes the late Om Puri, as a father-figure to the brothers, and Zeeshan Ayyub as a local hothead, among others. And Sohail reprises his familiar act as the caring ‘bhai’.
But when the main act isn’t convincing, the film becomes just like the title: mostly flicker with a little late glow. The one word that’s used almost in every other line in the film is ‘yakeen’. The film should have been infused with it. Here we just don’t buy it.