Cutty Snark: Zero and male privilege

An edited version of this was published in today’s Hindustan Times.

When the trailer for Shah Rukh Khan’s film Zero dropped, the reason for the title wasn’t obvious. However, the truth reveals itself very quickly to those who watch the film. Zero is the number of people who were sober during the making of Khan’s latest film. It’s the only explanation for the ridiculous plot and once you know what you’re looking for, there are enough hat tips to alcohol to suggest intoxicating beverages played a significant part in the writing of the script. For instance, how do Bauua (Khan) and his lady love Aafiya (Anushka Sharma) bond? By getting drunk. What does Babita (Katrina Kaif) wave around in the air when we see her making a public appearance as a Bollywood superstar? A bottle of vodka. Hell, even the fictitious international space research centre in Zero sounds like a slurring drunkard trying to spell NASA (“NSAR”).

The best part about getting drunk is that it makes you believe every thought you’re having is a brainwave. So yes, while floating in an intoxicated haze, it might be funny to imagine a gang of mean dwarfs (played by kids) who lurk in New York’s alleys, looking to beat up other vertically-challenged persons. It may also seem logical that a school kid would mistake a 38-year-old person with dwarfism to be a fellow student, just because they’re both roughly the same height. Similarly, it may seem like a good idea to have your cerebral palsy-afflicted heroine writhe on the ground in one of her first scenes, trying to pick up a pen that was deliberately dropped on the floor to humiliate her and draw attention to her physical disability. Just like the decision to include a neurotic chimpanzee and a new-born baby in her second big introduction scene may seem like a genius tug at heartstrings when one is seeing double. Under the influence, you are forgiven for thinking candidates for space missions line up like those auditioning for So You Think You Can Dance and that the selection process to decide who will go to Mars is like a game show.

However, at some point, you should snap out of it and drink some coffee instead. When you don’t, you get a film like Zero. And this is particularly unforgiveable when you keep in mind that the ground floor of the Khar building that houses Khan’s Red Chillies Entertainment (one of Zero’s producers) is a gigantic coffee shop.

Briefly, this is what happens when you part with your hard-earned cash and spend 164 minutes watching Zero. CONTAINS SPOILERS. IF YOU CARE, SKIP THE ITALICISED PARAGRAPHS THAT ARE COMING UP.

Bauua (Khan) is the son of Ashok (Tigmanshu Dhulia; much fun) and his wife (Sheeba Chadha; excellent despite getting only about three scenes). He may be 38, jobless, wasting his dad’s money and short on stature, but Bauua Singh is big on confidence. And y’all know confidence and a Bollywood song sequence are what win a girl’s heart, so apparently it’s not a stretch of imagination when Bauua gets a rocket scientist for a girlfriend. How? Because he’s an offensive idiot who can — thanks to his father’s business — spend Rs 6 lakh on an orchestra, fake rain and dancing kids.

Enter Aafiya Yusufzai Bindra (Anushka Sharma; godawful), an America-based Afghan-Punjabi space researcher who is wheelchair-bound because she has cerebral palsy. Why did she need to be part Afghan? Why does she fall for a guy who thinks he can “break” stars (Bauua thinks his superpower is to turn regular stars into shooting stars)? Why doesn’t she just call him instead of showing up in Meerut and pulling out the wedding lehenga? Ask the vodka. The only part of the romance that does sort of make sense is the scene in which a drunk Bauua and Aafiya are hiding out in a bathroom and Aafiya decides she needs to pee, with Bauua present — as foreshadowing to indicate this is a relationship that’s going to piss her off and go to pot goes, this is excellent.

Everyone is mighty relieved that Bauua has found a girl, but not Bauua, who feels the whole relationship with Aafiya is going too fast. So he runs out of his own wedding and heads over to Mumbai, to take part in a dance competition, winning which will let him meet his favourite actress, Babita Kumari (Kaif; truly excellent. Who’d have thunk?).

Babita is an alcoholic, emotional wreck, thanks to her superstar ex-boyfriend Mr. Kapoor (Abhay Deol, forgettable) who just won’t quit playing games with her heart. Bauua joins her entourage and in another case of foreshadowing in the loo, Babita is seen throwing up with Bauua for company. At one point, she throws Bauua out, Bauua reunites with his best friend from Meerut Guddu (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub; very good, and very unnecessary) and the two of them go to America so that Bauua can apologise to Aafiya and get her back.

Does he actually apologise? Of course not. But he does arrive in America just in time to attend an event at a City Hall, where Aafiya announces that she’s heading up a program to send a chimpanzee to Mars. The chimpanzee comes on stage and goes nuts — it’s CGI, but even computer-generated chimp is driven nuts by Zero by this point — which clears the stage for Bauua to make his grand entrance. He learns that Aafiya was pregnant and that they have a daughter.

Yes, this is a scene that contains Mars, a chimpanzee, a dwarf and a baby. Not a big deal. Incidentally, the chimp will have more of a presence in the film than Aafiya and Bauua’s daughter, who in 72 days goes from newborn-ish infant to toddler who can sit up on her own (and be left alone in the house), and then disappears from the film entirely.

Aafiya is furious, which is understandable. I would be too if the workings of the Zero-game universe would let me have Madhavan as a rebound boyfriend but shroud him in a terrible haircut and ill-fitting clothes. Because god forbid Bauua have any real competition.

To win her back, Bauua signs up for as a volunteer for the space program. Because it turns out you don’t need astronauts for missions to Mars. No wonder the damned thing disappears for 15 years on its way back. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Bauua trains and beats the chimpanzee for the job of going to space. His one condition to Aafiya is that she must marry Madhavan just as Bauua’s rocket goes off. She agrees and obviously, seconds before lift-off, Aafiya’s at ground control, telling Bauua she’ll wait for him. She also asks him if he would consider abandoning the mission. Because obviously the project you’ve spent years and billions of dollars (and at least one chimpanzee) on is less important than the man you love. Take that all of you who think you have trouble striking a work-life balance.

So Bauua goes to Mars, does what needs to be done and then, when he’s on his way back, his spacecraft disappears. The shock of it apparently fixes the speech impediment Aafiya’s had for the rest of the film. After 15 years — Aafiya waits for him. Obvio — his capsule returns to earth. This, incidentally, is the film’s footnote.

And yes, practically every plot point was covered in the three-minute trailer released last month. So really,  Red Chillies Entertainment and Colour Yellow Productions owe me 161 minutes of life.

According to reports, Zero has had a record opening in Bihar and is doing well in Uttar Pradesh, which suggests that there’s something about an overconfident, Brahmin man-child who isn’t held back by his small-town background and lack of education that resonates with audiences in the states. I mention his caste because the film is fixated on it. One of Bauua’s affectations is to wind his janeu (the thread that identifies a man as Brahmin) around his ear. It’s something you’ll see men doing across North India and news flash: Shah Rukh Khan doing it doesn’t make the action any less ridiculous.

Much like in Raanjhanaa – the last film on which writer Himanshu Sharma and director Aanand L. Rai collaborated – Zero wants us to be impressed by Bauua’s small-town swagger and the way he doesn’t let reality puncture his ego. Bauua has no doubt he’s more than Aafiya’s equal, even though he’s barely passed school and she’s a celebrated scientist. He confidently takes a stab at playing footsy with Babita, undaunted by the fact that she’s a beautiful celebrity while while he’s a nobody with limited physical charms and dependent on her charity. Neither money nor geopolitics are a concern when he wants to go to America. Throughout the film, Bauua lives off others because he is at a physiological and financial disadvantage. Yet his sense of entitlement swells like a perfectly-risen soufflé.  

It’s mystifying that Khan as Bauua is warming the hearts of many men and women whose response can’t be attributed to a recent lobotomy or other medical conditions. At least the celebrity ‘reviews’ can be attributed to friendship or aspirations of friendship. However, there are others with no professional or emotional ties to Khan who seem to have been slayed by Khan’s performance, which isn’t bad but isn’t good enough to overcome the flaws in the writing. No matter how charming Khan may be — and he is a complete delight in interviews and public appearances — the separation between his roles and his persona is widening and as the films get worse, this is becoming harder and harder to reconcile. People want to like Khan’s films because they like him. While it’s probably true that he didn’t have to stretch himself much to portray Bauua’s cheerful, dimple-flashing swagger, one can only hope that if Khan wanted to impress a woman, he’d know better than to pretend he can turn regular stars into shooting stars – especially when the woman in question is the scientist responsible for discovering water on Mars. Plus, unlike Bauua, he’s not mooching off other people and hasn’t relied on privilege to propel him through life.

It might seem counter-intuitive to think of Bauua as privileged because of his dwarfism, but he is, in fact, one of the most faithful portraits of inherited social capital. He has no accomplishments, is physically at a disadvantage, and yet treats everyone around him like dirt. He can’t be made to feel small because he is bolstered by male privilege. His failures are forgiven, his wastefulness is tolerated and his insensitivity is forgiven. Suddenly, the much-flashed janeu makes sense. Upper caste is one of the privileges he’s inherited and it allows him to look upon everyone around him as his inferiors, tools he can use to fulfill his whimsical ends.

Meanwhile, the women are plagued with self-doubt despite their many achievements, which is frustrating but remarkably realistic in a film that is otherwise a hive of illogic. Aafiya and Babita let Bauua into their lives because they’re broken women with low self-esteem despite being at the top of their game professionally.     

Since the 1990s, heroines in Bollywood films have slowly transitioned out of writing “nubile” under “occupation”, but their careers have rarely been given much importance in terms of the script. More of than not, the heroine’s profession is important only so long as it helps the hero find the spotlight and/ or his mission. One reason to celebrate Zero is that it bucks this trend.

On paper, Aafiya could have given Bauua a run for his money because she has a lot of on-screen time. Unfortunately, the writing is as lazy as Anushka Sharma’s performance is an eyesore. On one hand, we get a scientist who is passionate about what she does. Even when there’s more vodka, tequila and lime juice than blood in her veins, she’s talking about work and her frustration at not getting recognition for her stellar achievements (is Bauua interested? Of course not. He tells her to shut up and stop whining about herself). It’s also an excellent idea to have this brilliant academic fall in love with someone who has a different kind of intelligence than hers, and who makes her feel normal and feminine. However, it’s appalling that to establish this normalcy, Aafiya has to enjoy being humiliated and mocked by Bauua. It’s almost as though the film wants us to believe that Bauua’s dwarfism gives him the right to be insensitive about Aafiya’s palsy. I hope a commissioning editor somewhere in India is asking a writer with disabilities to review Zero because I’d love to know how they reacted to Bauua and Aafiya. As flawed as the writing of Aafiya’s character is, Sharma’s terrible acting is what really pulls Zero down. Aafiya is a person with cerebral palsy, a woman scientist, a jilted lover and a single mother — she’s like the intersection of misfortune and disadvantage. And yet we feel nothing for her, thanks to Sharma delivering the worst performance of her career.

Scratch that. I felt a lot of things — all of them violent — when near the end of Zero, Aafiya asks Bauua if he would back out of the mission to Mars. Bauua says no, and just like that the credit for the mission goes to him. It’s fine for him to choose science over his love life, but Aafiya has to give Bauua priority over her life’s work. Charming.

In contrast, a role that could have been just a glorified cameo is lifted to heights of excellence by Kaif, who plays the actress Babita. Like Aafiya, she’s also a dedicated career woman. Sure, she may be struggling with heartbreak-induced alcoholism, but her profession makes demands of her and she meets them — all the while making the audience aware of the emotional cost of living in the limelight. Those depending upon Babita to work and earn a living (for herself first and then them) range from a freeloader like Bauua to the assistant who manages Babita’s work schedule. The script focuses more on Babita personal life: She’s been reduced to a mental wreck by her superstar actor boyfriend – one Mr. Kapoor – who cheats on her and thus joins the list of people who use the actor for their own ends. But Kaif never lets us forget that she’s an actress first, even while it’s her personal life on display.

This is a role that could have made audiences smirk slyly. Whether or not Kaif mined her personal experiences for her performance in Zero, she’s electric as Babita who has none of the immaculate composure that Kaif projects in her interviews and public appearances. Babita is temperamental and prone to acting out. She delivers middle-finger salutes, throws tantrums and kisses random men on UP highways (not recommended, no matter who you are and how many people you have in your entourage). She also honours her commitments, performs her own stunts and masterfully manipulates the celebrity-hungry media. In short: Babita deserves her own film, and my god, what a delicious celebration-cum-takedown of Bollywood that could be.

While the script does give Bauua these two solid career women (and a fantastic homemaker mother), Zero wants us to compartmentalise them, as though the emotional and professional lives of women turn them into Jekyll and Hyde. Not that anyone is really expected to notice. When you have an upper caste male clamouring for the spotlight and demanding you pander to his whims, what are the chances that anyone else will get a look in?