Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, Tigmanshu Dhulia, R. Madhavan, Sheeba Chaddha, Abhay Deol & special appearances by Salman Khan, Kajol, Juhi Chawla, Sridevi, Rani Mukerji, Karishma Kapoor, Deepika Padukone, Alia Bhatt, Remo D’Souza, Ganesh Acharya
Director: Aanand L. Rai
I feel split, terribly so. Split not just in two clean parts, each whispering contradictory things, but rather in one neat half saying one thing, while the other is ruptured in several small bits, each feeling and saying different, divergent things.
First, the big, neat part — Shah Rukh Khan.
Shah Rukh Khan has what the other Khans, Kumars, Devgns et cetera don’t have — he has daring. Real daring.
He takes risks. Not just small, silly risks with “negative” roles that may cast the Bhagwan-ka-avatar image of our heroes in a shade that’s mildly grey, but he risks everything — his stardom, his image, box-office prospects — not just by playing characters that our so-called heroes would simply balk at, but also by locating them in stories that are not straightforward, that are complex, which have nuances, layers. Stuff that the box-office loathes.
In Fan, and now in Zero, SRK has chosen to play characters that, in a sense, demean and poke at his star status as it’s come to be honed and defined by Bollywood.
He has chosen to play characters no one can aspire to, characters with seemingly no appeal, no redeeming factor, and then made them his own, in the process raising himself as an actor — a thinking, intelligent one who dares to wear his inner vulnerabilities on screen.
In Zero, at first the experiment of playing a midget seems mostly superficial, a VFX marvel, just. But it isn’t.
Zero, written by Himanshu Sharma and directed by Aanand L. Rai, is about a bauna, a midget — his life and dreams, mistakes and desperate love.
But Zero doesn’t want to tell the story of just one, but three aadhe-adhure characters who won’t stop wanting, going after what they want, who, despite their frailties, cracks and chips, love themselves and want to grab life and give it a long, hard smooch.
That’s the kernel of the story, the idea which, sadly, gets lost in the listless meandering that Zero is prone to.
With the opening scene itself, SRK’s Bauua Singh firmly roots the film in Meerut with his kachcha-baniyan and sadak-chaap banter.
And in a matter of minutes, with his quick, sharp, funny and self-deprecating dialogue-baazi, he breathes life into the character, giving it a personality, a context, an interior cosmos that aches and yearns.
Often, while watching Zero, I wondered whether the entire cast and crew of the film were on drugs.
I mean, did they all come in the morning, sign in and were duly handed big, fat doobies that they all had to mandatorily smoke?
Must be, because there can be no other explanation for the tortuous turns to nonsense that the film repeatedly takes.
I mean, they are all intelligent people. Shah Rukh, Anushka and Katrina are A-listers, stars who have earned their special space in the Bollywood pantheon.
And Rai directed Tanu Weds Manu, which was written by Sharma.
Why else would all these people get together to create something that has a fun beginning, is seemingly substantive, but then takes off in directions so hair-brained and boring that it’s difficult to sit through?
Must be drugs.
Zero opens in Meerut — not in the land of katta-carrying men in open jeeps, but in a house where a bauna lives, and dreams.
Bauua Singh (Shah Rukh Khan) plans his dreams and in them he casts his father and maid in pivotal roles. This is how he would like his life to play out... Him playing the hero, always.
The film’s opening scene will make you smile, and you’ll keep smiling as the crackling family dynamics, made delicious by Sheeba Chaddha and Tigmanshu Dhulia (who play his mummy-daddy), unfolds.
It includes Bauua’s pal Guddu (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub), who arrives to tell us a few significant things.
The 39-year-old midget is desperately looking for the love of his life while his heart throbs loudly for film star Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif). So while he visits Singh Saab of the marriage bureau to look for a wife, he also fills in a form to compete in a dance competition to meet Babita.
It’s through the bureau that he meets Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder (Anushka Sharma), a scientist purportedly with Nasa, though here it’s called NASF or some such. She’s a brilliant brain who has discovered water on some celestial thing, but also one who has trouble stringing a sentence together. Aafia has cerebral palsy. But Bauua doesn’t see that.
He sees their similarities, compatibility. There’s a lot of flirting, connecting, romancing, both joyful and dreary...
Meanwhile, Babita is drunk and weeping over yet another lover who has ditched her bad. Her heart is broken, she is in a funk, and doesn’t care that her mascara is running.
Though Aanand L. Rai’s Zero wants to tell the story of three broken people — Bauua, Aafia, Babita — but it is, in fact, madly in love with Shah Rukh Khan and can’t seem to get enough of him.
Rai’s Zero savours every second of SRK’s chichora act, which is fabulous, and watches his high-jinks boasts and laments lovingly. When it’s with him, the film rise, and when it leaves him, it dips.
At its core, the film’s story — which wants to mainstream and normalise both, cerebral palsy and dwarfism — is interesting, brave even. But its screenplay is to overwritten, so overwrought, that it literally drowns and kills Zero’s soul.
For example, it’s a mystery why Aafia is made half-Afghani, half-Sikh.
Am also not clear about what the deal with Gullu’s eyesight was, or the great super power, vested in one of the lead characters, which comes and goes.
Not only is it not explained, but it also undermines the character of Aafia, the scientist who is working towards making humans a multi-planet species.
About the film’s climax — drawn as it is from those last-minute dashes to railway stations and airports — the less said the better.
Watching Zero wasn’t just acutely boring. It also irritated and made me sad because it has excellent performances, not just by the supporting cast, but the lead actors as well.
Katrina, who makes her appearance with impossible pelvic gyrations, making me roll my eyes and think, “Babes, I’m like, bored already”, actually starts acting and is not bad at all.
Anushka too, though laboured and conscious, was memorable.
And Shah Rukh Khan, of course, creates a character who will live with you much longer than the film itself.
For no reason, Rai’s Zero keeps hurtling to scenes and songs that drag on and on, with very little in them to hold our attention.
This listless meandering becomes routine all too soon and the film, in the second half especially, when it’s in America, becomes phenomenally stupid. The long sequence involving a chimp whose trip to Mars is nicked by our hero after he floats about in a zero-gravity zone to have “the” conversation with “the” love of his life have consumed minutes of my life that I will never get back.
A tighter screenplay, with a little more focus on its aadhe-adhure characters would have turned Zero into a film that would have said meant something.
In its ambition, potential for brilliance, but disastrous sinking, Zero reminded me of Raj Kapoor’s Mera Naam Joker.
Someone once wrote that Shah Rukh Khan the actor is the sum total of five expressions.
I didn’t agree then and I vehemently challenge that silly comment now.
But there is this one thing that SRK does often that has always caught my attention.
One moment in most SRK films is where he dives inside, searching for his stardom to feel it first and then project it.
If you watch Zero closely, which can be a challenge, you will catch glimpses of it.
It’s not great acting. But it gives a peep into the man and his psyche — the star with the inability to feel his own stardom. A man who needs to first feel it to be able to wear it, as a persona.
To me that’s a man so beautifully real, complex and uneasy in his skin.
The vulnerability endears.
SRK as Bauua Singh entertains us by stripping down to his kachcha-baniyan repeatedly.
This carries a tinge of desperation which, for me, held deeper meaning, especially when the film takes some pathetic turns.
In the strangest, most awkward scene in Zero, all of Shah Rukh Khan’s part heroines turn up, amounting to nothing except, perhaps, for SRK to feel some love.
And then, another Khan arrives, to smile approvingly at Bauua Singh.
To play his characters, SRK is drawing more and more from inside, and that is both dazzling and intriguing.
But when he feels he needs to roll out other stars to entertain us is when it gets a bit worrying and pathetic.
This lack of confidence, that’s too apparent and visible in some scenes in Zero, made me stop caring about the film and wanting to have a conversation with Shah Rukh Khan.
It also made me shed a tear.