Sunday, August 9, 2015

Bajrangi Bhaijan as a True Blockbuster: A Touching Cross-border Journey of Emotions

In the movie world, there is no pre-defined success formula; familiarity succeeds sometimes while novelty succeeds some other times, heroism succeeds many times but fails quite a few times too. Technical wizardry dazzles the box office occasionally but falls flat most other times if not supplemented by other cinematic elements. In India, apart from all these success factors, emotions, especially family emotions, play a major role in shaping a movie’s  success. The film director, as a manager of resources, from actors to departments and from finance to time, needs to have a success recipe probably customized to each genre that rules the heart as much as the mind. The challenge is particularly daunting given the heterogeneity of cultures, languages and nativities in India. Two recent Indian movie blockbusters, Baahubali and Bajrangi Bhaijan, have demonstrated that the Indian movie audience, despite its huge diversity, appreciates movies of completely different polarities.

Baahubali, the recently released Telugu blockbuster set in a background of mythical fiction, has some interesting lessons in this respect. Primarily, the movie which is a gripping story of warring royal brothers reinforces an easy to postulate but difficult to execute premise that across-the-board excellence from characters to departments, high on technology and visuals as well as valorous emotions assures success. On the other hand, Bajrangi Bhaijan which is a tender, heart-warming story of an innocent Bajrangi Bhakt risking his life to return a mute girl child to her unknown home in Pakistan has proved to be an equally sensational hit. This movie reinforces the commonly subscribed postulate that an emotionally gripping movie that has excellent characterization is an eternal winning formula for Indians despite the changes in family values.

My earlier blog post on Baahubali in Strategy Musings, July 19, 2015 addresses its success formula ( while this blog post looks at the success drivers of Bajrangi Bhaijan. But as a management blog, this post first takes some liberties of analysis. 

Dissimilarly similar

At first glance, Baahubali and Bajrangi seem as different as chalk and cheese. On the contrary, they are also dissimilarly similar, appealing to both mind and heart. The subtle but important difference is that Baahubali appeals to the mind first and touches the heart next while Bajrangi touches the heart first and appeals to the mind next. Both the movies are based on ‘lost and found’ theme; Baahubali develops it in a virtual mythical context while Bajrangi works on it in a real life geo-political context. Both the movies are based on heroism, with Baahubali focusing on raw physical heroism while Bajrangi focuses on sensitive emotional heroism. Baahubali makes extraordinary hero of a normal movie hero while Bajrangi portrays an extremely macho movie hero with extraordinary heroism of a charming simpleton. Both the movies seek to elevate commonly desired values to genuine humanistic purity; Bahubali messages that good prevails over evil while Bajrangi messages that love dissolves hatred.  

Baahubali makes the unfamiliar (Mahishmati kingdom) familiar in one’s imagination while Bajrangi makes the familiar (Indo-Pak border separation) disappear in one’s desire. In both cases, the directors prefer brevity to detail (fast paced tight screen plays) and rely on expansiveness to enhance visualization (vast climaxes). Both are products of meticulous preplanning and consummate choice of locations that are appropriate for the respective storylines. Baahubali bridges royalty and commons while Bajrangi bridges Hindu and Muslim religions. Baahubali makes us wonder if the hero or his mother is the real hero while Bajrangi makes us wonder if Bajrangi or the lost child is the real hero. Both movies impress because of a few important characters with powerful characterization and apt casting. And, finally the stories of both the movies, belonging to completely distinct genres, have been penned by the same creative writer K V Vijayendra Prasad!

Such stretched comparisons apart, the truth is that Bajrangi excels in doing something that only Indian movies can do – touch the heart and impress the mind, simply, sensitively and superbly!

Director’s blockbuster 

Bajrangi, as a blockbuster, is an out and out director’s movie. A director’s movie is one in which one feels the roles and never sees the actors, roles come to life from the first frame itself, and viewers themselves start living the roles. The emotions that one sees on the screen, from tears to raptures, are involuntarily experienced by the viewers. Typically, the viewers race with the movie to anticipate the outcomes that they desire. A consummate director brings out hitherto unseen talent from his actors. He makes the viewers feel that they have been in the locations shown in the movie at some point of time in their lives even if they have never been. To be able to do all of this, the director first makes all of his actors and technicians experience the impact of the movie as they come on board.  Kabir Khan as the director of Bajrangi has been able to provide this unique experience to his actors and technicians and, as a result, to the viewers in full measure leading to its blockbuster status. That he has been able to treat boldly issues of Indo-Pak relations and religious tolerance with a deft combination of humour and humanism speaks highly of his capabilities.

Although Bajrangi is racing to cross the earnings of all other previous blockbusters of Hindi screen (more revenues in lesser number of days than PK or Dhoom 3), a true blockbuster is characterized by different benchmarks. It draws viewers of all ages and of all backgrounds as well as different ideologies to theatres; it has viewers trooping in before the title card is played, has the viewers glued to their seats except for intermission and has them leaving the theatre only after the scroll of the last title cards ends. And more importantly, the viewers resolve that they must spread the message of the movie to their near and dear and long to return to the movie sooner than later. For a country such as India with diverse languages and multiple cultural subsets a blockbuster movie is also one that appeals universally without either retake or dubbing options. And finally, a blockbuster movie stands on its own despite other blockbusters released. Bajrangi fulfils all these criteria effortlessly (as does Baahubali too).

Defining moments

Bajrangi ranks extremely high on emotional quotient. Normally, blockbusters have impressive scenes but true blockbusters have defining moments. In Bajrangi, as the trains couple and decouple and chug off even as the child from Pakistan gets stranded trying to save a lamb on the ground is the first such defining moment. As the child helplessly tries to follow the moving train, the viewers get instantly connected with the child with their hearts shaken – and their journey for rehabilitation and re-joining of the child begins as much as it does for the child in the movie. Every time the child tries to connect with Bajrangi, the viewers merge with the screen trying to connect instead. When Bajrangi tries to disconnect (albeit reluctantly) from the child, the viewers revolt. Another defining moment occurs when Bajrangi leaves her with the travel agent (with the child helplessly waving from behind the glass door); and the viewers become truly relieved when Bajrangi reclaims the child from the travel agent’s evil designs (smashing the evil doers in the sole macho scene of the movie)! All this is made poignant by the fact of the child not being able to speak.

Continuing the emotional journey, viewers get excited when Bajrangi decides to go to Pakistan to return the child to her mother and father, completely and innocently unmindful of the adversities of crossing the Indo-Pak border without any documents and without any knowledge of her home’s location. One of the final defining moments comes when the child is able to spot her mother in the journalist’s video of Dargah. The defining moments of the movie are critically important as they touch the heart, tug the emotions and make us live the emotional journey of Bajrangi and the child. It is not that the movie does not have its lighter moments, all of them anchored around the childlike innocence of Bajrangi or the well-meaning efforts of the journalist. Even the lighter moments invariably warm our hearts. The sum-total of the defining moments makes Bajrangi Bhaijan a truly defining movie, with natural emotionalism expressed in the most delicate and sensitive manner. 
Cast to perfection

Bajrangi Bhaijan scores very high in terms of how roles have been defined and characterization effected. Each role in the movie is delicately etched and thoughtfully enacted. Three principal characters carry the entire film, in a manner of speaking.  The initial crowd puller, of course, is Salman Khan who played the role of a devout Hindu Bramhin and a Hanuman Bhakt, called in the film as Pawan Kumar Chaturvedi or Bajrangi. The real heart stealer, however, is Harshaali Malhotra who expressively and touchingly played the role of Shahida or Munni, a mute hapless Muslim girl from Pakistan lost in unknown land. The third is Nawazuddin Siddiqui who played the role of Chand Nawaz, an intrepid TV channel journalist who understands genuine human emotions with empathy. The great thing about the characterization is that the director brought them out as good, lovable human beings even if they are also prone to some ordinary human proclivities. For example, Bajrangi is an exceptionally innocent do-gooder but his first reaction to the child tagging along with him is to detach himself; similarly when he comes to know that Munni is, in fact, a devout Muslim child, he entrusts her to a deceitful travel agent to take her to Pakistan (to protect his guardian family’s emotional stability) not knowing the consequences thereof.  

Shahida, the girl child, despite being taken care of very well in Dayanand’s family prays with devotion when she gets into a Masjid or erupts with joy when she has the opportunity to eat non-vegetarian food. Chand Nawaz, who plays a major role in guiding and protecting Bajrangi in the hostile Pakistani territory and the cops on chase, initially follows Bajrangi and Shahida just to get a scoop on Hindustani jasoos (spies). All other roles have been portrayed with a similar touch of realism. Probably, the true idealist in the movie is Rasika, daughter of Dayanand (played by Sharat Saxena) and who loves Pawan for his simple innocence; she acts as the moral compass for the family, and more importantly to Bajrangi, beleaguered in a swathe of emotions from time to time.  It is the touch of absolute human normality in otherwise sterling hearts that makes all the characters come real without even a touch of superficiality. The script writer and the director have together brought to life a set of characters who resonate with the inner subtleties and innate warmth of typical humans whether they are jeans clad ultra-modern youngsters or traditional-to-the-core family elders of this highly materialistic era.

Emotive power and visual splendour

Indian cinema, as Indian movie goers are aware, has had a glorious record of heart-warming family dramas, each with real-life portrayal of sensitive human emotions by India’s famed thespians. Bajrangi Bhaijan, without doubt, represents another evocative evolution of the emotive dimension of the Indian cinema. The movie also demonstrates that movie makers and movie actors can cast themselves in roles contrarian to their past, and in less than three hours deliver soothing messages of human oneness and togetherness which decades of harangue fail to deliver. In addition, Baahubali and Bajrangi herald a new wave of globalization of Indian cinema. The movie, like Baahubali, is another striking example of what an insightful director with a clear vision can achieve in making blockbusters that could appeal universally. The Baahubali and Bajrangi Bhaaijan phenomena also demonstrate that movies that touch the heart and appeal to the mind, with added visual splendour and musical vibrancy, have all the potential to take the Indian cinema across global frontiers.

Posted by Dr CB Rao on August 9, 2015

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