To be Zero is to be complete

Figures and numbers: A still from the Shah Rukh Khan film Zero.

Figures and numbers: A still from the Shah Rukh Khan film Zero.  

The SRK film is a ‘manifesto for feeling’ that unexpectedly offers three complex and deeply nuanced characters

Anand L. Rai’s Zero is a film about what rage does to people in a world limned by rejection and abandonment. It’s not a film for those looking for entertainment alone, although it speaks the language of a campy, commercial cinema that its director, Rai — the maker of the Tanu Weds Manu series — has a way with.

Each of the main characters — Bauaa Singh (Shah Rukh Khan), a 39-year-old ‘dwarf/baunaa’ from Meerut in Uttar Pradesh; Aafiya Binder (Anushka Sharma), a space scientist with a movement disorder restricting her to a wheelchair and making it difficult for her to speak; and Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif), an alcoholic film star desired by millions but struggling to find acceptance in her love life — by turns reject, or coerce the object of their affections to stay. And while each of them struggles with feelings of being 'inadequate' in different ways, their inadequacy lasts only until they find a way into their feelings and beyond them.

Three strikes

In the case of Babita Kumari, she must use rage as a prop to achieve this. She must allow herself to feel the rage of being abandoned before she can transcend it. In a scene from the film, that brings the strange relationship between Bauaa and her to a close, he must coax her to insult him in harsher and harsher ways until she has expelled him from her home and with that expelled into the open, as it were, her bottled-up rage for the man who repeatedly cheats on her.

In Aafiya’s case, she must, by contrast, transcend the rage she feels for Bauaa, who has abandoned her at their wedding mandap, to feel what is below that. What she feels after the tyrannical grip of rage loosens is something more fluid and moving that facilities forgiveness. The brilliant scientist, whose life is a study in overcoming odds, must feel the love she has not just for just for Bauaa, but also for herself although, or because, she has failed. But it is Bauaa, who has the most difficulty with rage. He has internalised his rage to such an extent that he is able to produce a completely ‘acceptable’ and even ‘charming’ self out of his supposed congenital failing. He is a koel (cuckoo) not a kauwaa (crow), he tells us. And he perches on the line between acceptance and abandonment, not willing to commit, koel-like, to others or himself in admitting what he feels for them.

Sentiments and sensibility

His is the classic quest for completion, dramatised to tellingly absurd levels in this film. He has deluded himself into thinking of greatness/fullness as the condition of completion but is, in fact, running scared of being reduced even further if he permits himself to feel. He has found a way to deal with humiliation, but has no idea what to do with being loved and accepted.

He too must vent his rage and mad-ness at being abandoned before he begins the journey into self-acceptance as someone worthy of love. He must undertake a journey to Mars, no less, in order to be convinced that to love is not just a matter of being ‘brave’ (and great) but also of ‘caring’, as the film reminds us in a key moment towards the end.

Zero is ultimately about what we feel when faced with the immensity of existence itself. That we should have to fall into the bottomless depths of pain as rejection or the volcanic depths of pain as anger makes no sense in a universe where our life itself makes no sense. Yet, we must allow ourselves to feel and care. Because if we turn away from our feelings, we will never know that they can be transcended.

Zero is not a perfect film, and it has drawn mixed responses from audiences and critics, some of whom have taken issue with its lack of intelligibility. I was not expecting to be surprised at its artistic acuity when I decided to buy tickets to this film. But I came away unexpectedly satisfied with the people written by screenwriter Himanshu Sharma and satiated also at having digested my own feelings by the end of the film.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 4:34:26 PM |

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