Hindi Reviews

Zero Review: A Film That Never Recovers From Its Problematic Theme

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Director: Aanand L Rai

Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Madhavan

Composer: Ajay-Atul

Singeetham Srinivasa Rao and Kamal Haasan made and released the film Apoorva Sagodharargal in 1989. Made at a time when CGI didn’t exist (definitely not in India) and filmmakers had to work within the limits of what cameras could record.

Almost 30 years later, Aanand L Rai and Shah Rukh Khan have released Zero. When CGI is often the only thing that sells a film (Hi 2.0). The big conceit of both films is the lead actor who plays a dwarf. Or as Team Zero said, “vertically challenged”.

The other big conceit in Zero is the belief of the film’s writer, director, stars, producer and everybody else involved in thinking they can accurately depict disabled persons, and portray them with agency, with empathy. And the final conceit is that a story with three big stars – one of whom claims to being a feminist – still seems stuck in 1980s tropes.

*****

In Zero, Shah Rukh Khan plays Bauua Singh, a short person with tall ambitions. Anushka Sharma plays Afia Bhinder, a disabled (cerebral palsy) scientist. Katrina Kaif plays Babita Kumari, an actress. Madhavan plays Madhavan playing Karthik Srinivasan, a scientist. There are cameos by Salman Khan, Alia Bhatt, Sridevi, Deepika Padukone, Juhi Chawla, Karisma Kapoor, Kajol, Rani Mukherji, and others.

The film was written by Manu Sharma and directed by Aanand L Rai, produced by Gauri Khan for Red Chillies Entertainment.

*****

Bauua Singh is a young man from Meerut, with an obsession over film actress Babita Kumari. Bauua Singh is also a brahmin whose sacred-thread is constantly flashed on screen and probably has a more active public life than Bauua’s mother or the other women of the household.

Bauua is also short. And just to show how tall he is – which is not taller than a 13-year-old kid – we have elaborate scenes involving kids in schools, kids at dance parties, kids at various places, and lines of dialogue about how short the man is. Every scene involves someone helping Bauua onto stools, chairs, bar counters, and other surfaces. Because the man’s short.

Bauua has a friend Guddu. Played by Zeeshan Ayub with prosthetic eyes. He’s half blind. He’s also Bauua’s partner in crime when it comes to obsessing over Babita Kumari.

Bauua wants true love and so calls up a marriage broker/matchmaking website and thus spots the photo of Afia Yusufzai Bhinder. Love at first sight happens and Bauua lands up at a talk Afia is giving. And realises she is wheelchair bound and disabled. And so he mocks her, taunts her, insults her. Which, as any cinema-going person will tell you, is the true way to make the girl love you. He makes her crawl on the floor – disability be damned – to prove to him she can pick up a pen he’s thrown down. And oh, because Afia has cerebral palsy, she has difficulty speaking and coordinating limb movements. So the best thing for filmmakers to do is to cast an abled person to play a disabled one. Why bother with actually disabled actors?

This allows for Anushka Sharma to turn up all the dials of her performance and it looks like every bit of her face moves in a different direction while her hands and wrist and fingers turn at random angles through different parts of the film. If this doesn’t win her a Filmfare award next year, I don’t know what further levels of stereotyping the jury expects.

And so Bauua and Afia fall in love, make love, and prepare to get married.

And oh, Bauua has a magical ability to make stars disappear in the sky.

Meanwhile, Babita Kumari plays Katrina Kaif, an actress. Babita Kumari has just been dumped by her true love. So she does what all women with considerable beauty, power, riches, and a team of assistants do: get drunk and land up at a mall to throw a tantrum. At the very mall where Bauua and Guddu are waiting to get a glimpse of their star. Babita, her work done, speeds away in a powerful SUV driven by a professional chauffer. Closely followed by scores of men in bikes wanting to get closer to their star, and Bauua and Guddu in a Bajaj scooter with a sidecar. Bauua very ably chases down all these men in more powerful bikes, and drives them away.

For reasons I still haven’t understood, Babita stops the car here and gets down to talk to Bauua. Then she kisses him, says no one will believe him that she kissed him, and speeds away. And so love happens a third time at first sight for Bauua.

He rushes back home, where wedding preparations are at full swing, and on the evening of his Baraat, he calls off the wedding, breaks up with Afia and runs away to Bombay. And thus we go to intermission.

So far in the one-and-a-half hour of the film, there have been four brand name mentions, and dozens of in-film product placements. Clearly Bollywood got something right.

When we come back after an extremely well deserved break – I wanted to make sure I was still alive and awake and not dreaming a situation where everybody in this modern cinema hall were applauding every scene in full command of their senses – Bauua has taken part in a reality show. Dance your way to the top to dance with Babita Kumari. Needless to say, Bauua wins all the levels and is at the final.

The final is judged by Salman Khan. And so Shah Rukh Khan, err Bauua Singh, wins. At a party that follows, Bauua Singh wants to display his special ability to turn stars into shooting stars and star dust. Of course this scene demands that all the stars Shah Rukh Khan has ever acted with – Sridevi, Kajol, Juhi, Rani, Alia, Karishma, Deepika – make an appearance. Bauua discovers he no longer has the ability to make stars disappear, and so the other stars taunt a short man and disappear. Just in time for Babita Kumari to discover her inner philosopher and to say Bauua has broken someone’s heart and thus no longer the pure soul who could command celestial objects.

That’s exactly how things work.

Over the next hour of the film, Babita and Bauua strike up a good friendship and he becomes her confidant and film industry weathervane. And continues to give him well-meant advice couched in well-fabricated lies about going back to the woman he loved and left.

Meanwhile Afia – who wanted to be the first Indian woman space scientist to send a mission to Mars from India – because it is cheaper and better and will earn pride for India, has moved to the US and is working for an organisation that cannot be called NASA. Where she runs into Karthik Srinivasan who falls in love with, and has proposed marriage to her. She accepts.

Back in Bombay, Bauua devices an elaborate show-down with Babita and gets thrown out of her house, and along with Guddu, lands in New York City. Where he interrupts another talk Afia is giving, discovers that he has a child, attempts to steal the baby, is asked to get out of Afia’s life, hands over all his money to sex workers, gets beaten up by kids-as-muggers, dances in the middle of the street, runs back to retrieve his money and possessions, meets Karthik Srinivasan and lands up at the not-NASA centre where a recruitment drive is happening.

Here he discovers Afia is sending a monkey to Mars and that she’s also getting married to Karthik. And meets Mallika Dua as Mallika Dua playing a Delhi person who can speak English with a British accent and Hindi with a Hindi accent, which for reasons I haven’t understood yet elicited the most laughter in the theatre.

In a series of scenes that follow, Bauua passes a series of tests and is recruited as an astronaut and is shortlisted for the Mars mission. But Afia would rather trust a monkey than a man. Understandable. Allowing Karthik to speak the only funny-intelligible sentence in the entire film. He asks Afia if “her maths is right.” She insists, but he has a knowing smile.

We are at some three hours into the film and we’ve heard a dozen or more brand names, seen all the news and media channels that were listed as “partners” at the start of the film, had every cliche ever perpetuated. So I was hopeful for a decent ending.

Spoke too soon.

Midway through her wedding to a decent man, Afia realises she still loves Bauua. So she runs across an American city – in much the same fashion that heroines of the past ran across Napier Bridge, Central Station and LIC/Mount Road. And talks to Bauua Khan and professes undying love to him while he is onboard the rocket. A scene which is live-telecast across the entire world. She says she will wait for him. Bauua blasts off into space.

*****

If this review had plot spoilers and revealers, thank me. Not that there was much new in the story of the man who depends on sexual harassment to get the women he wants to fall in love with him, or in the story of a man who strays from the straight and narrow and falls into “bad” company only to realise he still loves the good woman.

The only thing new in the film is that a bunch of people came together to mock every disabled person.

*****

The Zero review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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