Tubelight is a film about the power of belief, the power of love over war and the beauty in naivety all through the metaphorical lens of a flickering tubelight. It is directed by Kabir Khan (Bajrangi Bhaijaan) starring real life and on-screen brothers Salman Khan as Laxman and Sohail Khan as Bharat. Om Puri appears in one of his final roles on-screen as Banne Chacha, who guides Laxman through his separation anxiety.
Tubelight is a touching family drama that tells the story of brotherly love in the face of separation and how a small town deals with the anguish of war. However, it is Laxman’s naivety and growing belief in himself to bring his brother back home, despite the realities, which really guides us through the narrative. It is set in a North Indian town called Jagatpur and it reminds us of Kabir Khan’s love of a small mountainous village that is picturesque in its visuals and near-utopian in its village life. The cold mountain-tops complement a manicured forest and grass that is greener on every side.
Kabir Khan has a way of humanising complicated political tensions through the plight of the innocent and he has certainly mastered that art in Tubelight. In Bajrangi Bhaijaan he dealt with India-Pakistan relations with the help of a lost Pakistani girl, here he deals with India-China relations through the Sino-Indian War.
Salman departs from his macho on-screen image once again and you could argue that he is rehashing his character, Pawan, from Bajrangi Bhaijaan and to a certain extent that is true; both are idealistic in their desires and naive in their understanding of the real world. If Laxman and Bharat had a third brother, it would’ve certainly been Pawan. However there is enough nuance and ability in Salman’s acting to see a different character and that is beautifully complemented by Sohail as Bharat, an otherwise stern man who is reduced to a puddle of giggles around his brother. In fact, Bharat accommodates Laxman to his detriment and when he eventually leaves for war, Laxman is an emotional wreck.
This is where the wise and comforting presence of Om Puri’s character Banne Chacha comes in; he consoles and guides Laxman through his conflicting and nescient understanding of the nature of war by introducing him to Gandhi’s teachings of having faith and his non-violent resistance to the British. He tells Laxman to befriend Guo, a young Chinese boy, rather than embrace the blind nationalism of some of his fellow villagers who hate him and his mother Liling for being of Chinese descent. There is a beautiful message of inclusion throughout the film despite the hostile backdrop, there is a real sense of hope even when Narayan is seen constantly abusing and taunting Laxman for befriending Guo, there’s a sense that Narayan’s efforts are doomed to fail.
However, Narayan’s villainy is also a reminder of the weak narrative arc of this movie. As the sole village bully, he doesn’t really have much power, and he is barely committed to his nationalistic pride and hate for Guo and his mother, Liling. That is not to say that there aren’t physical consequences of his hatred, but there are certainly no consequences to him as a character, at the very end he seemingly redeems himself in the eyes of Laxman and the village through no real effort and the narrative suffers as a result.
Kabir Khan has committed to isolating a few social issues such as racism and nationalism and projected them through an anti-war lens to send an inclusive message across borders however in doing so he glosses over nuances in other aspects of the story and the film feels a little monotonous in material as a result. However, the soundtrack is befitting the movie, there is a good variety of dance and soulful songs, ‘Radio’ and Main Agar’ are two stand-outs which really complement the scenes they are used in.
Shah Rukh Khan’s cameo is refreshing and befitting the role he played, a travelling magician, who assists Laxman to spread the magical wonders of faith. His character begins Laxman’s journey and at times becomes the only reason his faith in himself moves mountains, coincidentally yet quite literally.
Tubelight is visually stunning, and a glorious feel-good tear-jerker, but that is all it is. Tubelight is Laxman’s given nickname yet its flickering is also a metaphor for his emotional intelligence, and Kabir Khan’s efforts. Whilst the impact of the movie will flicker in your mind for a few days, it will pass and soon be a distant memory that leaves no lasting impression, certainly not the impression that either the filmmakers or the audience would’ve wanted. It will forever be in limbo, a reminder of a film that just missed the mark to being great.