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Bauua Singh (Shah Rukh Khan) is an obnoxious runt — a 38-year-old, three-foot-four-inch dwarf with a bad mouth who flicks off stars from the night sky with a swipe of his finger, as if swiping stuff on a cell phone. Later in the film he calls himself a ‘makkaar’ [dissimulator; a two-faced trickster] — not that anyone would disagree; he wears the tag with smug acceptance. His father (Tigmanshu Dhulia) calls him out for what he is: a good for nothing, and belts him — not that the beating would beat the wickedness out of him.

Then things change.

Desperate for marriage, he digs out a picture of a woman from his matchmaker (Brijendra Kala). She’s not right for you, the matchmaker says. Bauua doesn’t budge. “She shakes a lot,” the matchmaker continues. Bauua replies: “So what? I’ll shake with her.”

The woman, Aafia Yusufzai Bhinder (Anushka Sharma, superb), shakes because she has cerebral palsy. And at that moment, you want to smack the grin off of Bauua.

It’s the same feeling you get when watching the film; at times, you want to smack screenwriter Himanshu Sharma and director Aanand L. Rai (the duo responsible for Tannu Weds Mannu) — but then, you don’t. The whimsical, erratic tone compels you to give Zero another five minutes.

If you did, you’d be glad you did or, if you didn’t, you’d be cross with yourself for not giving the film a chance. It depends on one’s mood, but not the power of the story which, in its heart, is a weird Bollywood take on Forrest Gump.

Shah Rukh Khan’s Zero is a weird take on Tom Hanks’ Forrest Gump

Like Gump, Bauua’s journey is fantastical and far-fetched, especially when he becomes an astronaut for NSAR (not NASA) — where, unsurprisingly, Aafia works as a top-scientist on a Mars mission (yeah, right!)

Bauua, though, gets whatever he wants. On his to-get list is Aafia, whom he woos with typical Bollywood bravado, and the girl of his dreams Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif, in what could be the best performance of her career).

Babita is a film actress tormented by the deception of her last lover (Abhay Deol). Because Bauua is damn lucky, she kisses him full on the mouth in a drunken stupor when they first meet. The actress then proclaims that no one will believe Bauua’s story of kissing her, even if he yells his lungs out.

By now there’s no need to tell you that the characters are weird, persecuted by their own inner demons or self-centeredness. The biggest, walking talking example of this is Khan himself, who fashions Bauua as a truly detestable, warped version of himself.

Khan’s personal tilts — the NASA angle, the not-so-glam lives of Bollywood stars, the overtly melodramatic second half — are evident signatures of an actor who wants the story to focus on a character with deep significance. To achieve that, the filmmakers exaggerate every aspect, ultimately becoming overwhelmed by the ambition of doing too much to give themselves a broad spotlight (one sees that trait with Tom Cruise and Will Smith as well).

Khan’s charisma, coupled with the direction of the story, severely derails one’s affection in the second half, whereupon the film runs clueless. L. Rai’s grand ambition, to tell a big-budget spectacle full of emotional wallops, succeeds partly.

The visual effects are startling and, at times, so complicated that I could almost sense the composite and match-moving team’s nightmares when assembling scenes (these department track the movement of the camera, and mix and blend visual effect elements).

In the song Mera Naam Tu (music by Ajay-Atul), the camera moves in long takes, as Bauua jumps over the furniture in a long hotel corridor, throwing smoke-thick, coloured powder in the air as sunlight from a set of windows cuts through. Add to that a group of child dancers, and you have a very, very complex shot.

The film is full of such spectacles — some shots, more intricate than others, some with irregularities in height and body mass.

Given the fast flow of the narrative, however — and especially the storytelling authority of the first half — one forgets about the effects soon enough. It’s the peculiar nature of the story, the divergent middle act, and the odd culmination at the end that nags you after the experience is over. Whether you like it or not depends on your mood to tolerate a weird little fantasy.

Published in Dawn, ICON, December 30th, 2018