Zero Review: Aanand L Rai reimagines the Shah Rukh Khan myth in a middling film
Zero struggles to contain the monstrosity of its leading man in a film about a dwarf with a big ego
Zero goes off the rails, unsurprisingly enough, once Salman Khan shows up. Up until then, the film moves with the droll deliberation of the typical Aanand L Rai fare, luxuriating in the details and dialect of a decked-up Meerut, setting up characters and dynamics that — though not flat out real — seem based in some lax reality. All of which goes out of whack once Bhaijaan struts in, dancing and blinking in a cameo meant to back up his superstar buddy (a teaser of this song was released ahead of Race 3, so it works both ways), and the film turns into the same stargazing toolkit the first half looked to upend.
Director: Aanand L Rai
Cast: Shah Rukh Khan, Anushka Sharma, Katrina Kaif, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub
Expectedly, we get more such cameos, including one by late actor Sridevi in her last onscreen appearance, but they all grate with a narrative that makes much about its (apparent) lack of artifice. Later into the film, an underperforming chimp gets let off from a prized experiment for failing to consistently turn up with tricks. This is what writer Himanshu Sharma does to his plot too — bidding it farewell to allow in gimmicks that, perhaps after a long time in a Shah Rukh Khan film, appear totally unnecessary.
So admissible is the initial set-up. Bauua Singh (SRK) — a 39-year-old dwarf in Meerut — wakes from curry-western daydreams and spends his days mooning over a movie goddess. Bauua, a brat and a spendthrift, likes to address his father by the first name of Ashok, a common UP quirk made funnier by the fact that the dad is played by Tigmanshu Dhulia, an actor who once famously chided his onscreen son in Gangs of Wasseypur for watching a Shah Rukh Khan film. ‘Tumse na ho payega’ is pretty much what Ashok thinks of Baaua too, and thus decides to marry him off in a bid to get rid of him.
Marry off to? Anushka Sharma as ‘NSAR’ scientist Aafia Yousafzai Bhinder, with whom Bauua has a brief pre-marital romance. Anushka plays a woman with cerebral palsy; her affect is hasty and unconvincing, as though pasted-upon by an indulgent gesture coach. Plus, we are expected to buy that she's an Amity Global School alumnus who went on to discover ‘water on Mars’, and would lunge dramatically from her wheelchair to pick up a pen from the floor, just because Bauua challenged her to.
Eventually... Bauua sprints, a short man in search of a taller love, led on by an outsized ego to abandon Aafia and chase after Babita Kumari, a Bollywood superstar so fairytale-ish Meerut folk believe she must have wings. What ensues is a love triangle that plays out like a watered-down Manmarziyaan, also produced by Rai’s Colour Yellow Productions. Surprisingly enough, the Katrina Kaif portions of Zero are the most affecting. She plays an approximation of herself in a role that busts many myths about fame and stardom, the kind of myths that exist to serve fans like Bauua Singh, and, by effect, draw craze around a film like Zero. Katrina makes joyous and effective use of this meta-venting: giving the bird to clamorous shopping-mall crowds and picking on sleaze-hungry paparazzi. She also plays a jilted alcoholic stuck up over a Kapoor lad — the kind of one-the-nose muckraking we’ve missed in Hindi movies. Katrina owns her part in scenes you wish played out longer.
Like Raees and Jab Harry Met Sejal, Zero is another film torn between two visions, two worlds. One is the SRK myth-machine, full of passionate staredowns and outstretched arms, a time-tainted imagery by no means altered but only shrunk in size. Another is the grounded affection of an Aanand Rai romance, brimming with family and feel, struggling to make room for the monstrosity of its shortened subject. The struggle is real: Rai shoots most romantic scenes featuring SRK in strategically placed mid-shots, the preferred shot size for the swoony superstar, revealing his tiny legs and limbs only in comic, outdoor or montage scenes. The deception is subtle, but doesn't hold up long. Shah Rukh, in return, tries to adapt the roguish front of a UP bloke: he says ‘jhand’ with a passionate tic of the head — all-knowingly — but slurs up knottier phrases like ‘lapua margaya’.
We must mention the others who stand witness to this awkward standoff: eternal best friend Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub with a fake 'Made in China' eyeball; eternal eligible groom R Madhavan as a scientist with a glistening mop on his head, as though shampooed in a rush; and the usually terrific Sheeba Chaddha as a loving mother who — for once — doesn't mince her words. There is sufficient production value in the visual design of Zero, signalling an ambition that, if only mirrored by a faithfully-written script, should have yielded more.
This film reimagines the all-consuming charisma of its leading man with a cool spin, but constantly cushions it in padding just in case he falls. The result is a middling vaudeville occasionally lifted by a clever line or a peak in the music score, pushing towards a trite and predictable climax that can be seen from space.
For a film about a dwarf, Zero bets too much on size. It needed to be a far more intimate film to actually work.
Aanand L Rai should have known… even Shah Rukh Khan started small.