A Salman Khan release during a devastating pandemic is an apt reminder that life is fragile – and precious. The theatres are shut but, to paraphrase Percy Bysshe Shelley, “If Eid comes, can Bhai be far behind?”
The result is Radhe, streaming on Zee5, pairing him and an appropriately aged actress, Disha Patani, who was -4 years old when the star made his debut. (Or maybe -7 years old.) There are other actors, too – not that it matters – such as Jackie Shroff, Randeep Hooda, and other lesser mortals who occupy the rest of the frame, while Bhai does Bhai Things (intimidating, singing, thrashing, dancing, sermonising, joking and, when time and inclination permit, acting).
Like most Bhai movies, Radhe follows a template. A city in danger, negligent cops, powerful villains. Drugs have destroyed the youth (despite copious warnings from Navika Kumar and Rahul Shivshankar). So, in light of persistent real-life police brutalities, we get some heartfelt social commentary via the main protagonist, Radhe (Bhai). He’s an encounter “specialist”, whose CV reads like a serial killer playing an IPL-like tournament with human lives: 97 encounters, 23 transfers, 10 years – a “beraham officer” for “beraham log”. But what do I know? This is a Prabhu Deva actioner, co-produced by Bhai, so I left my brain at home. (The joke was on me, of course, as I saw this film from home.)
Bhai, as expected, is introduced through an action scene; the fast-cut CG hides his age and reveals his character. Before murdering more than a dozen people, salvaging the honour of “auratzaat”, the feminist hero looks at the camera and says, “Eid Mubarak”. Like Bhai, Radhe is a star. When he’s called for a special operation, the cops are star struck. They give him a rousing welcome, shower praises, want to click selfies. Their boss, Avinash (Shroff), is a bumbling buffoon. He has a ‘younger sister’, Diya (Patani) – the age difference between the two actors is 36 (or 39) years – who is a model. Radhe meets her, lies to her that he’s also a model, and she falls in love with him.
The stage is set: a cruel villain, a tough hero, a naïve heroine – action, romance, item song – and in the end, good squashing the evil. Radhe is such a tired film – perpetually gasping for breaths of originality – that it doesn’t need a rewrite but an oxygen concentrator. The makers know that none of it matters. In fact, the film is littered with random meta references, as if mocking the audiences’ expectations for anything novel. So, Radhe says, “Ek baar jo maine commitment kar di, toh main apne aap ki bhi nahin sunta” (a line from Wanted, again a Khan-Deva collaboration). The filmmaker is so proud of this meta wink that the line recurs in the climax. The title track, ‘Radhe Radhe’, repeats the word “Wanted” numerous times. (The film’s tagline? Your most wanted Bhai.) Diya’s photographer friend (who is of course effeminate) tells Radhe, “This face isn’t cut for Bollywood. You should try Web series or… Big Boss.” Radhe, as if responding to the syllabus of a Bhai film, soon takes his shirt off.
This isn’t a film as much as a solar system: The Bhai is sun, and the rest of the characters orbit around him. But not just that: the others have to be dumb, so that Radhe can shine. Khan has been a star for more than three decades, but he has the insecurity of a petulant pre-teen. Avinash is a laughing-stock; the other cops are servile; the villains are walking punching bags. Even Diya, Radhe’s love interest, is not his equal. One scene after the other establishes that she’s dumb – a clueless young thing with, there’s no polite way to say it, (grand) daddy issues? But no amount of cheering can hide Khan’s evident disinterest. During the song sequences, for instance, Patani puts in a committed dance, while he manages a bare-minimum sedate twist. Bhai thinks performance is like sunshine; if the blazing star is present, the rest sorts out itself. (Except that it isn’t and, to extend the astronomical metaphor, he’s a black hole.)
By now, we’ve understood that a Khan film is a sacrosanct contract between the star and his audiences, to the extent that even being an inert observer feels like scandalous trespassing – almost akin to walking in on your parents having sex. The mindless masala is not a problem; the escapism is fine; even the obvious celebration of the leading actor is okay – popular Hindi cinema, like any other genre, isn’t bad by default – but to watch a 55-year-old actor repeat the same old tricks, in the evolving age of streaming platforms, seems anachronistic and embarrassing. Worse, the escalating levels of regression and laziness reveal a stark contempt for the audience.
But Bhai knows how to pay reverence. He does it once in Radhe, and the timing and the object of adoration is striking (if not surprising). Before pummelling the villain in the final few minutes, he breaks the fourth wall and says – absolutely devoid of any context – “Kehte hain ke kal kabhi nahin aata. Lekin kal, kal ayega, and I’ll clean the city up. Swatch Bharat. Jai Hind.” Makes sense, Bhai, for there’s a lot in common with your hero: marital status, disdain for the media, a nation swooning over your chests, fanatic fans. The (random) reference fits like a glove: one narcissistic star deifying the other.