There's a whiff of a promising idea at the heart of "Tubelight", a film built on good intentions and a flimsy conceit. It's intended as an uplifting tale about the "taakat of yakeen" (or the power of self-belief), but it's weighed down by a wafer-thin plot, cloying sentimentality, and a central performance so labored, so contrived it's painful to watch.
Salman Khan has made a career and achieved dizzying heights of success playing parts that have barely required him to break a sweat. Ironically, one of Bollywood's most controversial stars found his groove playing various iterations of the mild-mannered, pure-hearted simpleton, most notably in Kabir Khan's entertaining and emotionally impactful "Bajrangi Bhaijaan".
"Tubelight", which Kabir has officially adapted from the American film "Little Boy", about a tiny-built eight-year-old who becomes convinced that he can bring his father home from the trenches of World War II through the sheer strength of his faith, remodels the central role to accommodate the 51-year-old superstar.
Salman plays Laxman Singh Bisht, a slow-witted but endearing fellow in the mould of Forrest Gump. He's a child trapped in a man's body; naïve enough to cheerily embrace the idea that faith can move mountains – literally. Laxman lives happily with his protective younger brother Bharat (Sohail Khan) in a small town up in the hills in North India. Frequently mocked by the local bullies for his lack of sharpness, Laxman is nevertheless loved by the townspeople…much in the same way that we tend to love the three-legged stray that has wandered into our street.
The film is set in 1962, although the only effort by way of attention to detail seems to be ensuring that there are no mobile phones in sight. When Bharat enlists in the army to fight in the war between India and China, Laxman is heartbroken. As the war rages on and uncertainty looms over his brother's fate, Laxman must put his faith to the test.
These are bold ideas and they rest completely on Salman's ability to portray the character without a hint of artifice. And he tries. Which is the kindest thing I can say about his performance. Far from pulling off naïve and innocent, Salman comes off sounding and behaving like a patronizing adult goo-goo-gaa-gaa-ing to a baby. In the more intense, emotional scenes, he's clearly out of his depth, and you watch transfixed as he struggles like a non-swimmer, flailing arms and all, who's been thrown into the deep end.
On the upside, there's a charming subplot about the friendship between Laxman and a little boy named Guo (Matin Rey Tangu); their scenes together are the film's best moments. Guo and his mother Liling (Chinese actress Zhu Zhu) are Indians of Chinese origin, and their arrival in town during the Sino-Indian war is met with anger and violence. Kabir, who has co-written the film's screenplay, seizes the opportunity to address racism and question our notions of patriotism and nationalism.
The director surrounds his leading man with an ensemble of dependable actors who don't disappoint. The late Om Puri, Brijendra Kala, Yashpal Sharma, and particularly Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub are all in good form. To be fair, poor Sohail Khan has very little to do but he delivers without any major hiccups.
A film like "Tubelight" which espouses the power of faith and belief through the uncorrupted eyes of a man-child needed a lightness of touch that is conspicuous by its absence here. Tubelight is well intentioned but overtly manipulative and doesn't so much tug at your heartstrings as it punches you in the face demanding that you care. It's also over-long at nearly 2 hours and 30 minutes, and excruciatingly slow and boring in parts.
It's a crushing disappointment on all counts. I'm going with one-and-a-half out of five