In 2015’s surprisingly poignant “Bajrangi Bhaijaan,” filmmaker Kabir Khan had even the most dogged of Salman Khan’s skeptics reaching for tissues, giving him the reputation as the one writer-director who could at last bring out a certain depth in the actor that, frankly, many of us didn’t think was there. So when “Tubelight” was announced as the duo’s next release, much of the excitement was rooted in the hopes of another winning collaboration.
“Bajrangi” and “Tubelight” have lots in common: Salman in the lead as a man-child with a golden heart. The lessons of loving thy neighbor and never giving up hope. An impossibly adorable child as Salman’s sidekick, pivotal to selling us on those messages. But where “Bajrangi” effectively harnessed the actor’s mega-star persona into a simple character that still — in true Salman tradition — had a significant moral undertone, “Tubelight” struggles to strike that balance, too often veering into naivety and exaggeration both in terms of performance and narrative.
The story, set in 1962, is an adaptation of the 2015 U.S film “Little Boy,” swapping out the original father/son bond for that of two orphaned brothers. For the developmentally disabled but exceedingly sweet Lakshman (Salman)—cruelly nicknamed Tubelight by many in his north Indian village of Jagatpur for being slow on the uptake before his inner lightbulb finally turns on—younger sibling Bharat (Sohail Khan) does triple duty as a parent and a friend. As India-China tensions erupt and Bharat is selected for the army, Lakshman is left with little to do aside from nervously waiting for his brother to return and listening as his kindly guardian, Uncle Banne (the late, great Om Puri, who shines even in the most simplistic of roles here), imparts Gandhian wisdom about the power of keeping the faith and having compassion for the enemy.
Lakshman sees his opportunity to put both concepts into action when a Chinese widow Li-ling (Zhu Zhu) and her son Guo (the scene-stealing Matin Rey Tangu) move into town. Despite bullies who alternately tease his undying conviction and accuse him of treachery, Lakshman befriends the new neighbors (who, as it turns out, speak fluent Hindi and consider themselves Indian thanks to a generation-spanning history in Calcutta), buoyed by his staunch belief that solidarity with them will end the war sooner and bring Bharat home.
For all of the emphasis that “Tubelight” places on the power of faith, one can’t help but wonder if Kabir Khan and fellow writers Parveez Shaikh and Manurishi Chadha have pushed this more abstract theme to distract themselves as much as the audience from the fact that their shoestring plot has little actual substance. Even if we can recognize the sincere motives behind the relentlessly touted messages, the intentions lose impact because so much is unconvincing, from the oversimplified racial tensions between the Chinese characters and the Indian villagers (all the more disappointing after prejudice was handled rather well and with some nuance in “Bajrangi”), to Khan’s almost offensively dimwitted portrayal of his character, especially during emotionally intense moments. As the overgrown kid, Salman plays the “wouldn’t hurt a fly” card way too often and way too aggressively, so that it quickly stops being charming and goes well into caricature territory. The schtick worked in “Bajrangi”; here, his watery smile and wide-eyed innocence are just grating.
Still, you’d have to have a heart of solid stone for some moments not to strike a chord. Sympathy bubbles up when Lakshman gets slapped around by his nemesis Narayan (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) as Guo looks on helplessly. The rapport between the two brothers is also effortless and touching to watch, though anything less than natural would be unforgivable, given that Sohail is Salman’s real-life younger brother, too. The casting reeks of nepotism, but Sohail proves his worth, shining in a performance that’s refreshingly understated next to Salman’s. However, it’s difficult to keep the faith in two leads who are both attempting to pass off as 20-somethings, when in actuality they hover at 50. The only thing we’re really tempted to buy into here is the recreation of 60s-era Jagatpur, its gently rolling hills and storybook homes exquisitely captured by cinematographer Aseem Mishra’s lens.
Ultimately, the film asks us to just “believe” in way too much else that’s indigestible. Having a bit more optimism in general isn’t a bad idea, but when Lakshman literally tries to move a mountain by way of telekinesis in the hope that doing so will stop the war, it becomes glaringly obvious that “Tubelight” way too often confuses uplifting idealism with idiocy.
“Tubelight” is currently playing in select U.S theaters.