In a pivotal scene in Aanand L. Rai’s “Zero”, protagonist Bauua Singh is trying to pull off his most famous magic trick – making a star fall from the sky – in front of an eager crowd. It’s a trick he knows well and has performed hundreds of times, but this time, it doesn’t work.
He snaps his fingers, gestures wildly and waves his hands at the sky, but there is nary a star in sight, let alone a falling one. The crowd starts melting away, some mocking the vertically challenged man who claimed he could make stars fall.
There could not be a better summation of “Zero” than this scene. Director Rai and writer Himanshu Sharma try every gimmick, every trick to make magic happen, but it eludes them and the film at every step. What we get instead is an overlong, overwrought, jumbled plot that has no idea where it is going.
“Zero” begins well with a Western-style dream sequence that introduces Bauua (Shah Rukh Khan), who lives in Meerut and uses his acerbic wit to make up for his stature. He has angry confrontations with his father who thinks he’s good for nothing, roams the city’s crowded alleys with his friend Guddu (Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub) and dreams about his screen idol Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif ).
Bauua doesn’t care for the consequences of his actions because, as he tells Guddu, what’s the worst God could do to him that he hasn’t already? So when he begins a fling with Aafiya (Anushka Sharma), whom he met through a matrimonial website, Bauua doesn’t stop to think of the end result. She is a brilliant scientist with cerebral palsy and confined to a wheelchair, but is taken in by the protagonist’s self deprecating humour. Bauua woos her unabashedly, Bollywood-style, with songs and extravagant set pieces but that is just for effect. His heart belongs to Babita Kumari.
A chance encounter with the movie star causes Bauua to abandon everything else to try and get closer to the woman he thinks he loves. As Babita, a fading star who cannot be bothered to put up a façade, Katrina Kaif is the best thing about this film, but after her exit, “Zero” turns irredeemable.
There are surreal scenes in the second half, including one involving a baby, a chimpanzee, and a mission to Mars. Rai’s take on a romantic fairy tale between two differently abled people goes haywire, and every plot twist seems to be there just to provoke some emotion from the audience, not because it fits in with the story and how the characters should behave.
Khan, who has been beset by bad movie choices in the last few years, is earnest and effectively sardonic while delivering some pithy lines in the film, but in a story that essentially reduces him to a CGI-shrunk crowdpuller, there isn’t much he can do. Sharma’s character is no less contrived and her acting suffers, perhaps because of that.
“Zero” has lofty ambitions but when it comes to delivery, it falls too short.