Film review: Salman Khan can’t save the cloying melodrama that is Tubelight

The overwrought Bollywood film Tubelight has only flickering moments of quality.

Salman Khan in Tubelight. Courtesy of Salman Khan Films
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Director: Kabir Khan

Starring: Salman Khan, Sohail Khan and Zhu Zhu

Two Stars

When it emerged last year that Salman Khan's offering for Eid 2017 would be a drama called Tubelight, the immediate thought was that this must be a working title.

Surely, the slick marketing machine Khan employs (which was in full display last month when the 51-year-old Bollywood star arrived in Dubai for a swanky promotional event) would ditch such a daft title – it is a bit like calling your film “sock” or “towel”. But here we are, a big-budget Bollywood drama with arguably the worst name ever to appear on the big screen.

To be fair, within a few minutes, you understand what the title means. Tubelight is the disparaging nickname given to main character Laxman, the barrel-chested simpleton portrayed by Khan, because his mental ability is compared with a fluorescent tube – it takes a while for his brain to flicker on and for him to understand what is going on, just like a "tubelight" takes a few seconds to light up after you flick the switch.

Laxman lives in the picturesque mountain town of Jagaptur in North India in the months leading up to the 1962 Sino-Indian war.

He is the local gentle clown, a sort of naive man-child who views the world with such childlike innocence that his younger brother, Bahrat (played by Khan’s real-life younger sibling Sohail) takes it upon himself to protect Laxman from anything that might trouble his fragile disposition.

Their bond is tested, and the town’s harmony shattered, when the Indian army rolls into the main square looking for volunteers. When Bahrat heads for the front, Laxman is left without his security blanket.

As the war takes an ominous turn, an increasingly troubled Laxman consults the head of the local ashram, Banne Chacha (a solid final film performance by the late Om Puri), who provides him with a list of Gandhi-inspired teachings to soothe his nerves.

Tubelight is based on the critically panned 2015 Hollywood film Little Boy (starring Jakob Salvati and Emily Watson), and stumbles for the same reasons.

It is soaked in the same gooey sentimentality that plagued the American production. The film begins strongly enough by illustrating the deep bond the brothers share, but director Kabir Khan looses focus when the siblings are separated, and from then on the film jarringly flits from Bahrat’s war experiences to the small town follies faced by Laxman.

Tubelight's intentions are also confused. While it is in essence about the sacrifices made by soldiers and their families, the film rarely delves into this topic. Instead, we follow Laxman as he meticulously completes the list of exercises Bane Chacha gives him – all in the hope that they will answer Laxman's prayers and bring his brother back safely.

This means, for example, Laxman conquering his fear by diving from a steep mountain. Or befriending a Chinese family (a sequence featuring a classy performance by actress and singer Zhu Zhu) to learn the lesson “befriend your enemy”.

It all adds up to a script heavy on mawkish sentiment and statements (“self belief is a precious thing, but it doesn’t move mountains”) that offers little in the way of character development.

This is a shame – whatever your opinion of Salman Khan’s limited acting range, there is no doubting his dedication to a role. Perhaps acknowledging that his muscular frame might detract from his character’s inherent fragility, Khan hunches his shoulders, his eyes are open wide and he always appears close to bursting into tears.

A particularly affecting scene involves a cameo from his box-office rival, Shah Rukh Khan, as a circus magician. Laxman is pulled from the audience and asked to move a bottle through sheer mental force of will, which illicits mockery from the crowd. Khan’s tender and haunted look is superb acting.

However, such flickering moments of quality are rare and fail to convince that Tubelight is anything more than low voltage fluff.

Tubelight is in cinemas now