This romantic comedy about a vertically challenged man’s attempt to reconcile his love for a female scientist with cerebral palsy with his adoration for a movie star ends up being an unwanted circus act. The film features A-list actors, respectable performers acting as extras, a deafening score by Ajay-Atul and cameos by Bollywood greats. The presence of a chimpanzee completes the sense that the film is a freak show whose main attraction is a greatly diminished version of one of Hindi cinema’s outsized idols.
The great madness in Rai’s film, based on a story and screenplay by Himanshu Sharma, is about Bauua Singh (Khan), a resident of Meerut who is less than five feet tall. Bauua, who is always the shortest person in the room and is often the target of ridicule, especially from his father Ashok (Tigmanshu Dhulia), has adopted a John Wayne-like swagger and a devil-may-care attitude. Bauua is 38 and single, and when he sees a picture of Aafia (Anushka Sharma) at a dating agency, he decides it will be her.
The photo of Aafia offers an incomplete picture of her. One side of her body moves uncontrollably, she speaks with difficulty, and she uses a wheelchair. If Bauua makes up for her lack of stature with her chutzpah and cunning, Aafia has a lot to offer: She’s a mathematical genius and a respected scientist who is leading a mission to send humans to Mars.
Bauua is undeterred by Aafia’s status. Believing that two atypical people can team up against a cruel world, Bauua courts Aafia in a way reminiscent of a certain movie star who spreads his arms to express his love and makes women offers they can never refuse. Lost in the sweet music of wedding bells is an alarm bell that goes by the name of Babita Kumari (Katrina Kaif).
The future of humanity lies on Mars, Aafia declares, and Zero takes her advice to heart and plunges into the unknown without regard for the consequences. Written without any irony and largely campy, Zero only comes off well in a handful of scenes. Better than the outrageous moments between Bauua and Aafia are the scenes with him and Babita. Katrina Kaif is good in the role of Babita, a cynical and disastrous celebrity who adopts Bauua as her pet and builds a relationship of empathy and mutual understanding with her friend. Kaif has rarely been this good, and he becomes the surprise element in Zero.
The seriousness of Shah Rukh Khan’s performance is repeatedly undermined by the visual effects, which turn him into a stripped-down version of himself. Bauua is supposed to be a brave fighter whose dreams cannot be contained by the confines of the earth. But the visual effects of a shrunken Khan are never more than distracting, and they undermine Khan’s efforts to convey Bauua’s romantic problems. Like a meme or a gif inserted into a serious study, Bauua never quite fits into the setting, feeling less like a real person and more like the product of a clever machine trick.
Among the parts that belong on Mars and not in this film’s universe are the songs in which Bauua capers with children and dances in favor of Salman Khan, and Bauua’s attempt to impress a bevy of Bollywood beauties, all of whom have appeared with Shah Rukh Khan in his films.
Bauua might have been more believable if he had been played by an actor with less power than Khan. Like Khan’s 2016 film Fan, Zero offers a side commentary on Khan’s recent troubled career trajectory. In Fan, Khan played a movie star modeled after himself and a troubled fan who looked like him – an idea that probably sounded intriguing on paper but confused audiences who didn’t quite get the meta-analysis joke.
Khan’s fan base will likely be even more baffled by Zero. In trying to play the man next door instead of a larger-than-life personality, Khan has literally let himself go down the tubes. The romantic declarations are less effective, the conviction with which Khan performed more modest romances is absent, and the package is smaller than before. When the space rocket takes off for Mars, the superstar goes supernova, and it goes nowhere.