First things first, it’s great to see Om Puri one last time. Puri was one of the very finest actors our country ever produced, and Kabir Khan’s Tubelight marks his last filmed performance. Sure, he looks like he’s walked straight off the logo for Kentucky Fried Chicken, and is given trite platitudes to mouth instead of actual dialogue, but it’s still wonderful to watch him chew on watermelon and tell us how faith can move mountains. In fact, say I, we should all be grateful to Khan and Tubelight for illustrating to us just how true it is that dear Mr Puri is, indeed, now in a better place.
In Hindi movies, every Khan has his day. Kabir’s came two years ago with the emotionally impactful and highly effective Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which I enjoyed thoroughly. This time, it’s Sohail Khan’s turn, and he gets to outshine his celebrated brother simply by keeping a straight face. Tubelight is a Salman Khan film that kept me longing to have Sohail back on screen, and those are words I’d never thought I’d type. As with war, any escape is valid, you see. Tubelight is a remake of a 2015 American release called Little Boy, a film which sounds obnoxiously manipulative to begin with, and – going by synopses – the Hindi rendition seems slavishly faithful. Well, as faithful as it can be considering it stars a man 40 years too old to play the lead.
Little Boy is about an eight year old child coming to grips with the futility of war, indulged by townsfolk to believe in his own magic. A child who lives on mollycoddling and affirmation? It’s not hard to see why Kabir would cast this particular actor, though it is intensely problematic that the Salman Khan public relations initiative is plumbing such shameless depths. The message being sent out with this film is: poor little superstar who doesn’t know better. There might be something to that. Salman hasn’t had to actually act for a while now, though he has been making more of an effort in Kabir’s films. With this one, alas, he goes “full retard” as Robert Downey Jr dismissively scoffed in Tropic Thunder. While Khan could hardly be expected to pull off a Forrest Gump, what we get here is even worse than Koi Mil Gaya: Tubelight is the story of a developmentally disabled man whose superpower is making constipated sounds.
Set in September 1962, the film is about Laxman Singh Bisht (Salman) whose brother Bharat (Sohail) has gone across the border to fight in the Indo-Chinese war. Here, period authenticity and detailing basically equals to everyone wearing sweater-vests. The film is set in a small, fictional hamlet, where Laxman is loved and laughed at in equal measure, until one day a travelling magician (who also appears to moonlight as a motivational speaker) uses him in a trick and shows him he can move a bottle with his mind. This leads to Salman trying to move mountains and stop wars by sticking his arms out and grunting earnestly, over and over. These are supposed to be emotionally hardcore scenes depicting naive wholesomeness and a good heart. They come across unbearably farcical, crippled by what is possibly the worst performance of Salman’s chequered career. Tubelight means well, an anti-war movie that illustrates the pointlessness of battle and the importance of not actively hating those you are at war with, and while its simplistic message is timely and admirable, the film is rendered unwatchable because of the leading man.