Review: Zero is one of the strangest Hindi films of the year

With Race 3, Thugs of Hindostan and now this strange new film, the triumvirate of mediocrity has well and truly been completed.

Chimpanzees play a huge role in Zero.

Anushka Sharma is Aafia Yousufzai Bhinder, a wheelchair-bound NSAR scientist afflicted with cerebral palsy who has just created a zero gravity simulator on Earth and aims to see man inhabit the Red Planet one day. Whether or not this acronym refers to a hitherto unknown National Society for Ape Research remains an unresolved question, for this is a film in which simians screech and jump up and down on stage while a scientist unravels the mysteries of interplanetary travel with an Andy Weir-like flourish. “This is the face of hope,” she declares while addressing an understandably stunned audience, and it is a scary one at that. It doesn’t pay to take the mickey out of Stephen Hawking—though the events that unfold here wouldn’t entirely be out of place in another famous Stephen’s novels
—and this Yousufzai is not one worth celebrating.

The film’s title, of course, is one that works on multiple levels—depending on how you choose to interpret it, this could be an allegory to the leading character’s diminutive standing both in physical stature and in society, as well as a reference to T-minus countdowns and weightlessness—and I wish the movie itself was half as smart. Shah Rukh Khan plays Bauua Singh, a cocksure dwarf with a mop of unruly hair who is a “matric pass” and finds it hard to converse in the Queen’s Tongue. More a small blunder than a Small Wonder, this Zero is dark and well over his thirties, relentlessly in the search of, well, A Suitable Girl. Khan tries gamely to lend some of his characteristic swagger to the part, but he is hobbled by the inconsistency of Aanand Rai’s direction: on more than one occasion, for instance, we see him draw himself up to his full, real-life height, and that is just sloppy, inexcusable filmmaking.

Anushka Sharma is a reasonably accomplished performer, but her histrionics here are as contrived as they are overwrought. Aafia is a Margarita with a flaw, to put it succinctly, and this is a character who shakes, shudders and drawls in the name of scientific accuracy. It almost borders on being offensive, as does Katrina Kaif’s portrayal (or the lack of it) of a smug, smirking Cinderella with Gothic eye makeup, who leaves golden high-heels in her wake. There are occasional glimpses of magic—like a lovely little shot of waterdrops splashing in slow motion onto yellow-coloured gulaal—but a film about outcasts carving out a niche for themselves in the world needs to find its own footing first.

It takes a full 180 days for the hero to complete his space training, and the movie feels just as long. Khan waves goodbye, thrusters are finally launched into action, and the film gets propelled into an altogether new orbit of silliness even as it ventures into predictably tear-jerking territory. The background score swells dramatically when a bride-to-be leaves the altar as she should—and as we know she will—trying desperately to amp up the proceedings when things get too convoluted. Or too meta, for that matter: in a most ill-advised display of scriptwriting tomfoolery, writer Himanshu Sharma assaults us with one nonsensical scene after another, with a whole bevy of tinsel-tainted celebrities deciding it would be against conventional (over)acting wisdom to decline an RSVP from Red Chillies. Poor Alia, for one, finds herself taking selfies yet again in what might well pass off as a reprisal of her Diwali-themed advertisement for Nokia. This Christmas, Miss Bhatt, do only what you ought to do.

Rai’s film might speak of gravity in “four or five dimensions”, but it has only one to speak of. A small step for man, a giant leap for K-Khankind this ain’t. Even Remo D’Souza and Bhai make an appearance—an ill omen if ever there was one, for those of us who were scarred by the duo’s latest exercise in cinematic poopery—and this is a sequence which ends with one Khan leaping onto the other’s shoulders, staring into his eyes and smooching him. Bring on the champagne, they seem to be suggesting: with Race 3, Thugs of Hindostan and now this strange new film, the triumvirate of mediocrity has well and truly been completed. “I trust in the chimp more than the man,” Aafia says at one point, this being a creature who has just held up a ‘Will You Marry Me?’ signboard for her consideration. She would know better. This is her Monkey Baat.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Shreehari H. is a lover of films and an even greater lover of writing.

Anushka SharmaCinemaKatrina KaifMovie ReviewShah Rukh KhanZero