'Tubelight': Film Review

A macho Bollywood star tries on the role of a developmentally disabled man-child. It doesn’t end well.

Salman Khan stars as a simple-minded villager who calls on the power of faith to bring back his MIA soldier brother during the India-China war of 1962.

There are some things that actor Salman Khan does very well — like barreling through action scenes, romancing women and dancing to Bollywood songs, with or without a shirt.

Delivering a nuanced performance in the role of a developmentally disabled man? Not so much.

Tubelight, a patriotic drama written and directed by Indian filmmaker Kabir Khan, has likewise barreled, romanced and danced its way to box-office success on this Eid holiday weekend, despite its burly star’s weak performance (the man is impervious to bad reviews).

We have Indian English to thank for the epithet that provides the film’s name — a “tubelight” (a fluorescent bulb that flickers slowly to life) is a slow-witted person, so the word becomes a cruel nickname for Laxman (Khan), a dim bulb of a boy growing up in a hilly rural village in a corner of northern India that abuts China.

The orphaned Laxman and his brother Bharat (Sohail Khan, the actor’s real-life sibling) are inseparable. Throughout their lives, Bharat protects Laxman from local bullies, but when an impending war with China hits close to home, Bharat is compelled to join the army, leaving Laxman to fend for himself. He's still victimized by bullying adults, to be sure, but also supported by a few helpful souls, including a compassionate uncle played by veteran Om Puri, in his final film role before his death earlier this year.

A traveling magician performs a trick that leads Laxman to believe his faith is a superhuman force for good, inspiring him to harness it as a way to end the war and bring his brother home again:

“Do you believe you can do this?”

“I believe I can do this!”

Sound familiar? That’s because Tubelight is unofficially (some might say shamelessly) “inspired by” Alejandro Gomez Monteverde’s 2015 drama Little Boy.

Where that earlier film addressed tensions between Americans and Japanese during World War II, writer-director Khan sets this story against the backdrop of the India-China conflict of 1962, which still has repercussions along India’s border.

The director has turned in solid work in the past, on patriotic thrillers like Ek Tha Tiger (also starring Salman Khan) and Phantom (starring Saif Ali Khan). But the tender emotion demanded here seems to push him out of his comfort zone into mushy feel-good territory.

Despite some excellent acting by Puri, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub in a vivid turn as Laxman's relentless tormenter, and superstar Shah Rukh Khan in a brief appearance as the charismatic magician, Kabir Khan can’t draw a believable performance out of his leading man.

Playing a mentally challenged character has by now become a rite of passage in Bollywood — Salman Khan’s A-list box office rivals, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan, have both portrayed characters on the autism spectrum with skill and sensitivity, in My Name Is Khan and Dhoom 3, respectively; while Hrithik Roshan’s attempt to play an intellectually disabled character in Koi...Mil Gaya and its sequels — like Khan’s awkward performance here — was an exercise in mouth-breathing and curious twitches.

Though the film's story is borrowed and its execution mawkish, Pritam Chakraborty’s musical numbers take full advantage of gorgeous locations in Manali and Ladakh as well as a cast of hundreds of colorfully costumed extras. For a few brief moments, Tubelight flickers to life.

Production company: Salman Khan Films
Distributor: Yash Raj Films
Cast: Salman Khan, Sohail Khan, Zhu Zhu, Om Puri, Matin Rey Tangu
Director: Kabir Khan
Screenwriters: Kabir Khan, Parveez Shaikh
Producers: Salma Khan, Salman Khan
Executive producer: Rajan Kapoor
Director of photography: Aseem Mishra
Production designer: Rajnish Hedao
Costume designers:
Mallika Chauhan, Alvira Khan, Ellawadi Leepakshi, Ashley Rebello
Music: Pritam Chakraborty, Julius Packiam
Editor: Rameshwar Singh Bhagat

171 minutes

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