Zero is an ambitious leap of faith even for Shah Rukh Khan, who has made a career out of selling dreams

Zero is an ambitious leap of faith even for Shah Rukh Khan, who has made a career out of selling dreams

Over 20 years ago, Shah Rukh Khan proclaimed, in all his modesty, that he aspires to conquer the world. "Chaand taare tod laau, saari duniya par main chhau," was his aspiration, as he spelled out in the Yes Boss song. Rather than questioning his conviction, fans saluted his ambition. They believed SRK was not only capable of achieving, but also deserved all that and more. "Main zyada nahi maangta," he would say in an ensuing line.

In 2018, SRK may have been cut down to half his size physically, but he does boast of the superpower to shoot stars with a flick of his finger. He believes in conquering Earth (and beyond) as much in Aanand L Rai's Zero, but that comes at the cost of being labelled as a long faded star holding on to every last glimmer. After making a career out of selling dreams and demonstrating true love, SRK has reached a point where his latest film Zero, a disruptive blend of love and dreams, is rejected as a disaster of astronomical proportions.

I admit I am a little late to the party as I saw Zero only two weeks after its release. By that time, all the criticism towards the film had subsided, just like its box office figures. Going into the film, I was aware that it is more rooted in fantasy than realism. It submits itself to the parallel abstract world that SRK has evoked through his films.

I saw Zero a week after I watched Rohit Shetty's cop drama Simmba, and I must admit I would always encourage a high concept film with a flawed execution like the former over a more mainstream event film with a regressive yet safe treatment like the latter.

Zero, conceptually, is a flip on the 'hero'. The implication is not limited to the physical form of the protagonist (a vertically-challenged man as opposed to a beefed up macho man). With Zero, SRK enters into a space where he does not sell dreams. He just dreams, hoping his audience would echo the ability to dream. Throughout his career, he has banked on successfully selling dreams to amass countless brand endorsements. But with Zero, he pays little heed to the commercial takeaways and takes an ambitious leap, for he wishes to. For a man who has been the poster boy of ambitions and dreams all his career, a leap of faith is bound to be as bottomless as a suicide pit.

In Zero, SRK plays Bauua Singh, a vertically challenged man and blames the shortcoming on both his fate and father. But he finds steady comfort in his ability to dream (even that he is a cowboy rescuing a damsel in distress) and believing that it is only an extension of his reality. His family, being non-Zeroes, cannot wrap their head around his ways. He finds a fellow Zero in Anushka Sharma's Aafia, a scientist with cerebral palsy. Her vision to develop a normal life on Mars also stems from her ability to translate her vision, by believing that it is as real as her elbowing her way to grab a fallen pen that Bauua had challenged her to pick up in her wheelchair-bound state. Bauua and Afia are not limited by their physical selves as their abilities go beyond their bodily functions.

Disability is in fact established as the new normal in Zero. Madness here is the default mode, since those who are challenged by physical limitations are bound to evolve mentally and spiritually into fierce individuals with an indomitable spirit, a crystal clear vision and an unwavering commitment to the cause of achieving the unattainable. Bauua and Afia connect because they are both disabled, hence both mad ("gawar pasand hain mujhe") by the virtue of being Zeroes. Zeeshan Ayyub, who plays Bauua's best friend, is also disabled as he only has one eye, and is thus depicted as a partially rational force in the film.

The dark horse here is Katrina Kaif's character of Babita Kumar. She brings a reality check to a fantasy film. An actress, struggling to move on from a break up, she delivers a tight, harsh slap to Bauua's dreams by planting a kiss on his lips. She dares him to tell everyone that Babita stepped out of her car in a dark Meerut lane to kiss Bauua. She gains proximity to his uninhibited self when she is drunk but fully aware that the intoxication is only temporary, she tells him no one would believe him, and her words ring true. The fact that he was the closest to merge his dream of romancing longtime crush Babita with reality is not even believed by his fellow Zero Aafia. As he gets smitten by Babita, he loses the shiddat (devotion) that drives him, which leads to his break-up with Aafia. They no longer share the same line of vision as Bauua leaves his hometown of Meerut to pursue Babita.

Ironically enough, he loses his ability to dream in Mumbai, the 'City of Dreams'. His vision gets tainted by shades of betrayal that the film industry is riddled with. Bitten by the forbidden fruit of glamour, Bauua even loses his power to shoot stars in the sky. As he is surrounded by a galaxy of stars both in the sky and on the ground (his leading ladies in cameos as themselves) in a Bollywood party, he fails to demonstrate his ability to shoot the stars above. Juhi Chawla, who launched her former production house Dreamz Unlimited with SRK, tells him, "Humne toh bahut stars launch kiye hain," reminding SRK of his heydays gone by. Kajol, who starred opposite him in the recent dud Dilwale, mocks him with a "Better luck next time!".

The worst blow comes from Deepika Padukone. "Tumhare alawa bhi koi chaand taare todne ki baat kar raha hai," she tells someone on the phone. While a large chunk of the audience assumed she was talking to husband Ranveer Singh, I believe she was talking to SRK, the moviestar, himself. After Bauua fails to move a star or two, Deepika is the last to leave. "Aur chaand? Chaand gira sakte ho?," she asks him, taking a potshot at his 'Chaand Taare Tod Lau' days. It is also a potshot at his character in Om Shanti Om, who tells his mom, "Aaj uss chaand ko chhoo kar aa raha hu," when he meets the 'Dreamy Girl', Deepika Padukone, also an actress in that film, for the first time.

Bauua, an alter ego of SRK in some parallel universe, fails to get why his kainaat-backed shiddat stands diluted, till a drunk Babita tells him that it is because he betrayed Aafia. In the subsequent scenes, he takes a journey to arrive to the realisation that he was not being himself. He was still dreaming, but not the kind of dreams that had made a vertically challenged man like him touch the skies so far. He was betraying the dreams that made him what he is in the first place. It takes him a sober yet reformed Katrina to tell him he is still a Zero. In the process, she takes a journey of her own and becomes a Zero as well, gaining the ability to rise above worldly pains and embrace the state of being.

At the end of Zero, when Bauua takes a flight to Mars, he and SRK become one. Realising that he lost his way after delivering eccentric and ambitious films like Fan and Jab Harry Met Sejal, he corrects his course to do exactly the same thing all over again. He dreams like a Zero instead of posing like a hero. Instead of going back to the Happy New Years (his last blockbuster), he goes ahead and signs Saare Jahan Se Achha, the biopic of Rakesh Sharma, the first Indian to enter space.

Navigating the world beyond, shooting one star after the other out of his way, it seems like a journey SRK relates more to. It is a dream that he shares with the man. It is the state of being he thrives in. It is a feat impossible that we know was conquered. Even if SRK would not know that, he would still go for it, crooning in all his modesty, "Bas itna saa khwab hai".