The word Bharat can be pronounced two ways – Lord Ram’s brother Bharat, or the country Bharat. In this film, the central character is named after the country and also, interestingly, pronounced thus. It is also, as Salman Khan’s central character explains, without surname so as to encapsulate the spirit of all of India.
Sometime in the middle of the film, this very character begins singing ‘Jana Gana Mana’ as part of a conversation, which made everyone in the theatre wonder whether to view it as a call to action and get up, or continue to watch the movie and treat the national anthem utterance as part of the dialogue (which it was). The audience in my theatre continued watching the movie, till someone (I am told there is one such individual in every theatre), screamed at everyone to get up, and we all did, dropping popcorn, spectacles, the old man in front of me requiring three helping hands to get up, and everyone breaking the flow of being within the story.
The inclusion of our National Anthem in Hindi films is a fairly recent, utterly manipulative trick to earn brownie points. It especially jars in a movie like this, which attempts to take a more progressive view at patriotism.
An adaptation of the Korean film An Ode to My Father, Bharat is an extremely entertaining and satisfying experience, provided you don’t go looking for too much depth or read too much into the metaphoric meaning of naming the character after the country.
The film is the journey of Bharat (the country and the man) through almost seven decades from 1947 Partition to 2010. The character (played by Salman Khan) experiences the trauma of losing loved ones during partition, goes through several life-threatening jobs to take care of his family, the story ending with his 70-year-old self with rippling muscles and a swagger walk.
In doing so, the film introduces us to some of the interesting happenings in the country (fictional and factual), like Amitabh Bachchan attending a circus and finding inspiration for his Easter Egg dance in Amar Akbar Anthony, and India emerging and growing with real-life heroes Shah Rukh Khan and Sachin Tendulkar etc. taking center-stage. Off late, a target of mockery, this film portrays former PM Manmohan Singh as a visionary heralding the country towards economic growth.
This has, wittingly or unwittingly, become Salman Khan’s brand of nationalism— less harsh, more inclusive, and attempting to please everyone. This brand of nationalism doesn’t straitjacket India or Pakistan, and instead talks about humanity over and beyond borders. It attempts to move above caste, creed, religion to talk about issues that affect everyone.
When he took a turn from doing romantic/comedy films to exploring other genres, this soft-nationalism became a common thread in Salman Khan’s recent intelligently-crafted mainstream films. In Ek Tha Tiger (2012), a love-affair between and Indian RAW agent and a Pakistani ISI agent is explored, where both eventually move beyond borders to let love triumph. In Tiger Zinda Hai (2017) the film has both Indian and Pakistani Intelligence working together against a common enemy.
In Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Salman’s Bajrangi, a devout Hindu Brahmin takes it upon himself to take lost child Munni back to her homeland Pakistan. In doing so, he has to challenge several beliefs he held true as part of his conservative upbringing.
Similarly in Bharat, people from both sides of the border are shown as being equally affected post-Partition. And when a character belonging to one religion is rescued and adopted by people from another faith, it is humanity that wins. The character is also consistently respectful of the leading lady, and they seem to have a modern, equal relationship with both following their own path.
Hindi films (excluding war films, where patriotism angle is intrinsic) have always shown-off patriotism in various forms. From the characters singing ‘I love my India’ in Pardes, to talking about Indian values in films like Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, to the completely unsubtle displays like in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, where an Indian mom settled in London goes ballistic when her child sings the Indian national anthem on the school’s stage, and runs towards him as Vande Mataram plays in the background.
I don’t care much for Salman Khan in his offscreen avatar. But onscreen, thanks the talented writer-directors, he has become the embodiment of a progressive mindset, and a more inclusive nationalism that benefits everyone. Especially the country.
Sonia Chopra is a critic, columnist and screenwriter with over 15 years of experience. She tweets on @soniachopra2