One wasn’t expecting much more than headbanging cheap thrills from the new Bollywood action movie “Jai Ho,” in which Salman Khan, a.k.a. The Muscles from Mumbai (that sobriquet is our own invention), carries to a new level of slapdash vulgarity the blunt-force, post-”Matrix” style of action moviemaking that rules the roost now in Hindi cinema. When you set your sites that low, and still emerge disappointed two-and-a-half-hours later, that’s a sad day at the movies. Because Salman Khan is one the fabled Three Khans, Bollywood’s top film stars for over two decades, the earnings of “Jai Ho” are being measured against the recent huge hits of Shah Rukh Khan (“Chennai Express”) and Aamir Khan (“Dhoom 3″). At $3.5 million for its first two days of domestic release, about half what those record-breaking pics pulled in, “Jai Ho” is so far considered only an “average” hit.
Start with the fact that we have no idea what Khan’s character in the film, Jai Agnihotri, does for a living — although we do learn that he was once in the Army, until he was cashiered for disobeying a superior in border to rescue a throng of refugee orphans in picturesque tattered rags. Now as a civilian, Jai is incorrigible: Whenever he encounters a fellow citizen in need, he can’t resist the urge to jump in.
When a beggar girl is knocked down and injured at an intersection, Jai pummels the perpetrator and pulls him through the erupting windshield of his car. Jai goes to high school classes to serve as a stand-in writer during exams for a lovely girl who unfortunately has no hands. He’s for all intents and purposes a superhero, wielding a steel I-beam like a cricket bat and barely flinching when an actual cricket bat is shattered against his thick neck and skull, creating a shimmering back-lit cloud of slo-mo splinters.
The film is a remake of the over-the-top Telugu-language hit “Stalin: Man for the Society” (2006), whose writer and director, A.R. Murugadoss, also created “Ghajini” (2005), a bullet-time action duplicate of “Memento” that was re-made to huge success in 2008, in Hindi, by Aamir Khan (“Dhoom 3 “). Murugadoss himself directed the remake, so he can be held at partly responsible for getting Bollywood hooked on the uncut adrenaline of South Indian-style extreme action.
Salman Khan was the first actor to follow Aamir down the bullet-time path, reviving his flagging career in 2009 with “Wanted” (2009), a violent crime film, which was followed in short order by “Dabangg” (2010) and ” Bodyguard” (2011). Once a perpetually boyish and likable romantic leading man, Salman Khan has seemingly committed himself, as he approaches 50, to becoming “The People’s Man,” as the “Jai Ho” posters put it — a tireless equalizer driven to distraction by the contagion of injustice. “Stalin” was a punch drunk variation on “Pay it Forward,” and “Jai Ho” retains that premise.
“Your ideology has united many people,” says Jai’s sister, played by the splendid actress Tabu. (Stately-tall and with the profile of an Egyptian princess, Tabu is operating here several kilometers beneath her gifts.) Despite her assurances, though, it would be hard to say exactly what Jai’s “ideology” consists of. All he ever really says is that he hates those who “Think about [themselves] and to hell with the people.”
The people in “Jai Ho” include throngs of uniformed schoolgirls, enough of them to fill a sports arena, who dance behind the stiff-moving Khan in his big production numbers. There is also a string of salt-of-the-earth supporting characters such as an upright Minister (Mohnish Bahl), a kindly cab driver (Mahesh Manjrekar) and, our favorite, a rock-jawed army captain (Suniel Shetty) who rides to the rescue, on a freeway, in a tank, to ferry the wounded Jai to the hospital.
In a chilling sequence, the sneering head bad guy, a corrupt Minister played by veteran Bollywood icon of evil Danny Denzongpa, is swarmed and presumably torn apart by a crowd of “the people.”
To be clear: this is not a snobbish knock on populist “entertainers.” Far from it. There’s nothing easier to like than a tear-jerking, action-packed melodrama that knows no shame. But a minimal amount of skill and sensitivity are required, lest at the end of the experience we lie back feeling used and embittered, eager to catch the first bus home and drink ourselves to sleep.