Director: Anand L Rai
Early on in Zero the novelty and the curiosity of watching Shah Rukh Khan play a vertically challenged fellow wear off…much to the film’s advantage. Bauua Singh of Meerut is all of four feet and six inches – we get it. But admirably Bauua doesn’t indulge in self-pity, and the filmmakers don’t make a play for your sympathy.
Bauua, in fact, is cocky, motor-mouthed, and charming in a rough-around-the-edges sort of way. He may be short in height, but he’s seldom short of confidence. It’s a great character, and in the hands of director Anand L Rai, writer Himanshu Sharma, and Shah Rukh himself, Zero opens with promise. They set up an authentic, textured world with characters that feel real. Bauua’s parents (Tigmanshu Dhulia and Sheeba Chaddha) are fed up of his wastrel lifestyle, never holding back for fear of hurting his feelings. His best friend (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub) meanwhile worships the ground he walks on.
The film switches gears when Bauua meets and falls for Anushka Sharma’s character Afiya, a brilliant scientist with cerebral palsy who’s confined to a wheelchair. Their meet-cute is a series of incidents where he refers to her as a “kati patang”, says things like “inse hilne ke alawa hota kya hai”, and in a moment straight out of a Farrelly Brothers-style black comedy he challenges her to lift a pen off the floor.
It made me question whether making jokes about someone’s disability is ok if the person making the joke is disabled or differently abled himself. The answer, I suppose, is in the fact that Afiya falls for him too despite his coarse manners.
Anushka, who can usually be trusted to deliver a competent performance, strains to portray Afiya’s condition convincingly. I don’t claim to be an expert on palsy but the acting is awkward and seldom consistent, and watching it made me cringe. Katrina Kaif does a lot better in the film’s other key role, playing Babita Kumari, a superstar actress whom Bauua has adored on screen for years. When we meet her, Babita has had her heart broken, and as a result she’s angry, permanently intoxicated, and, believe it or not, prone to kissing strangers on the highway. Katrina really gets into the part, bringing Babita’s pain and cynicism to the surface in a nicely realized performance.
It’s easy to see what the makers of Zero might have been going for – a story of three ‘damaged’ individuals, and how they end up healing each other. But that idea is buried under the weight of an overwrought screenplay that packs in much more than your patience can handle. By the time the second half kicks in, Zero feels like an entirely different film from the one we were promised.
Where’s the small-town, real-world charm that has been the strong suit of this writer-director pair since Tanu Weds Manu? How did we land up at a space research facility in America? Why is this film competing with Om Shanti Om to set a record for maximum cameos? These and a dozen other questions were swimming in my head as the film hobbled towards its climax, clocking in at nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes. The problem isn’t just that the film is too long. It’s that there are so many scenes that are completely incoherent.
It’s a shame Zero comes undone, because the ambition and the effort are visible. Shah Rukh Khan is especially entertaining in the first half while the script stays on track. But in the end, it feels as if the makers threw everything at the wall and decided to see what sticks. Unfortunately, very little does. I’m going with two out of five for Zero.
Rating: 2 / 5