Bharat had a strong opening in India and has emerged as one of Bollywood’s highest revenue earners in 2019. While reviews in India have been lukewarm, Western audiences (as opposed to Western critics) are likely to be more patient and engaged with this character-driven drama. They will also learn something about India’s recent history and the events that have shaped its recent political and cultural trajectory.
The story begins during the Great Partition, a violent separation of what is now Pakistan from current-day India in 1947. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed as Muslims, Hindus, and Sikhs clashed in riots and nearly 15 million people were displaced as they sought safety. The movie opens as Bharat’s father (Jeffrie Shroff), a Hindu station master in what would become Pakistan, scrambles to put his family on the last train to India and presumably safety. As 8-year old Bharat climbs to the top of a train car with his mother and his siblings, his sister Guidya loses her grip and falls into the throng. Bharat’s father makes young Bharat promise to keep the family together until he finds them at a family owned store in Delhi.
The movie follows Bharat (Salman Khan) as he tries to live up to the promise, putting the needs of his family above his own even as he finds sporadic success and love. At the same time, the audience is given a street-level view of how India evolved through the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s. Each snippet in Bharat’s life reflects a particular phase of India’s social and economic evolution, from his attempts to raise money through the black market to his job as a stunt performer in a traveling Russian circus. He works in the oil fields of the Middle East and then as a seaman on a merchant ship in pirate infested waters off Somalia. Bharat suffers through dogged unemployment as India slogs through an economic period of agonizingly slow economic growth. He discovers the meaning of romantic love (Katrina Kaif) as India grapples with cultural modernization and economic liberalization.
At its core, Bharat is a human drama, a story of tragedy, sacrifice, social change, and personal growth. Bharat’s choices reflect the times in which he makes them as well as the broader changes that reveal new, often dangerous, opportunities. Bharat’s story is not an existential one — he never forgets that he is the one responsible for making those decisions and accepting the consequences of his actions. He also must resolve for himself the value of staying true to a promise he gave as a young boy.
Bharat is in Hindi with English subtitles. While the story is tight and holds together very, very well, evaluating the quality of the acting is a bit difficult — we’re often too busy reading subtitles. However, the movie includes some of Bollywoods best-known actors, including Salman Khan (as Bharat), Katrina Kaif (as his lover Kumud), Tabu (as Bharat’s sister), Sunil Grover (as his best friend Vilayti, a muslim), Jacki Shroff (as Bharat’s father), and Siha Patani. Western audiences interested in getting a taste of modern Bollywood, learning something about India, and pulled in by dramatic, character-driven stories should find enough in Bharat to leave the theaters satisfied.