Every day, on my way home, I pass two single-screen theaters. In India, these theaters are renowned for their cheap tickets and, to put it politely, outspoken atmosphere. And, every day since last Friday, I have been facing bottleneck traffic jams around the two theaters. The reason? The release of "Kick," Salman Khan's latest blockbuster.
Khan is one of the subcontinent's biggest stars and arguably its most bankable one. While his international draw is not as strong as Shah Rukh Khan's, in India he has led seven films into the billion-rupee club, all in the last five years. No other star comes even close. The list of the ten domestically highest grossing Bollywood movies contains five Salman Khan titles.
A huge reason for that sterling record is the festival of Eid. The month of Ramzan is usually a lean period for Bollywood; as Muslims all over the country fast, producers and distributors shy away from testing their products in the marketplace. However, the occasion of Eid ul-Fitr marks the end of fasting and beginning of festivities.
This is a highly profitable corridor for Bollywood, and one that Salman Khan has virtually made his own. Before "Kick," three of his billion-rupee grossers had hit screens over the Eid weekend and broken box-office records with unerring aim. Last year, he ceded the coveted spot to Shah Rukh Khan and "Chennai Express," which went on to have Bollywood's biggest opening weekend at the time. With "Kick," he has come back into his element.
On the Monday after the release of "Kick", the day of Eid, devout Muslims gathered in Bhopal, a city in central India, for namaaz. Their Maulvi had a specific warning for them in his sermon: "Every year [Salman's] film is released on Eid and you go and watch it. It is my request that you do not watch any film today." The Maulvi's berating was too little, too late. "Kick" had already collected Rs. 840 million ($17 million) in its first three days, registering the year's best opening weekend. That it didn't shatter the billion-rupee barrier by Sunday itself can perhaps be attributed to the fact that a sizable portion of Khan's fanbase was still fasting then. It also earned a healthy $1.1 million in the U.S., while racing into the billionaire club at home within five days. At the time of writing, it is the year's top grosser and has an open field for at least one full week.
That "Kick" will be one of Bollywood's highest grossers for a while is a fait accompli. This doesn't say anything about its quality, though. Khan has had such jaw-dropping success recently because each of his films carefully and cleverly panders to his fans -- not just with the release date. He has a larger-than-life persona attached to him now that is the biggest attraction of whatever he in turn attaches his name to. Affectionately called "Bhai" (big brother) by fans (and disdainfully so by skeptics), Khan gave up on inhabiting characters a long time ago. He now plays riffs on himself.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. Who can remember the last time Tom Hanks didn't play Tom Hanks…even when he was supposed to be playing Walt Disney? Khan's recent characters, however, are built on a specific kind of machismo that's quite disturbing upon further analysis. Violence is a laughing matter and/or completely justified; misogyny is paraded in the guise of chivalry and "heroism" is to be inferred from self-aggrandizing behavior. In general, it's impossible to believe why any of the female characters in a Khan blockbuster fall in love with his character. In "Kick," this stage is deemed so unimportant that it's covered in just one scene as Jacqueline Fernandes' character, Shaina Mehra, walks home and realizes she is in love. Fernandes, by the way, plays a psychiatrist, in casting that makes Denise Richards seem believable as a nuclear physicist.
The biggest problem with "Kick" is that it tries to be two things: a suave thriller along the lines of a Bond flick and a typical masala entertainer that Khan and his fans revels in. For the former, it cooks up a convoluted plot involving heists and car chases while globetrotting from Delhi to Poland. For the latter, it shoves in a romantic track, the corrupt "system" and that perennial Bollywood favorite: amnesia.
The mix doesn't mesh. The plot is aggressively stupid. The action could be praised for matching Hollywood standards technically. But it's also sterile and stale, unless you've never seen a toddler-wheeling mother get in the way of the hero's vehicle. The 146-minute film could trim at least 20 minutes of flab. And then there's various other flaws: the musical numbers are placed worse than arbitrary dream sequences, the Polish healthcare system doesn't abide by any logic and it's apparently acceptable for an Indian cop to converse with his European Interpol colleagues in Hindi.
For inspiration on how to do a film like "Kick" correctly, Khan need only look at his own "Dabangg," a 2010 release that gave him a simple, archetypal plot to loosen himself and display his natural onscreen charisma, in the process birthing his first billion-rupee grosser and most iconic character ever. It's just boring to see him attempt the same thing repeatedly and somehow get worse at it.
None of this prepares the viewer for the stunningly bile-inducing finale. The plot takes a nosedive for schmaltziness, as ill and handicapped children invade the screen. A character wonders if all the hijinks have been for their aid. Khan grins and replies that he's not doing it for them but for himself, to get an adrenaline rush. (Cue applause, I guess.) In the last scene, a key supporting character looks at Khan and, out of nowhere, addresses him as "Bhai." Khan then breaks the fourth wall as he delivers his punchline, but the barrier has already been broken and the message is clear.
This is not a film about any characters; it's a monument Khan has had constructed for himself.