There’s an old show business adage, attributed to the early Hollywood comic W.C. Fields, that says “never work with children or animals.” What Fields meant is that kids and animals are scene stealers and completely unpredictable. Actor Salman Khan and his fellow producers cheerfully and thoroughly ignored this advice when they made the hit Bollywood melodrama Bajrangi Bhaijaan. At various points in the film Khan shares the screen with sheep, camels, goats, chickens (cooked ones, anyway), and one very human little girl. And it’s a good thing, too. The girl in question, 7 year-old actress Harshaali Malhotra, nicely holds her own acting in numerous scenes opposite India’s superstar Khan, and manages to steal quite a few scenes while she’s at it.
Bajrangi Bhaijaan tells the story of a simple, religiously devout Indian man played by Khan who promises to reunite a mute Pakistani girl (Malhotra) with her parents. At its heart it is a story about love and devotion, though it also carries a strong message about the need for reconciliation between India and Pakistan. The contrast between the Indian and Pakistani cultures is often played for laughs, and is nicely captured in Khan’s character’s bewildered reactions to the young girl’s preferences in food and in sports teams. The vast differences between the two characters are underscored by the young girl’s worldly, common sense reactions—convincingly played by Harshaali—to the naïve Indian’s good-natured honesty, which often gets the pair into trouble. India’s critics and film pundits have universally cheered the bright-eyed cherub’s winning performance. “India Today” proclaimed: “Harshaali Malhotra, not Salman Khan, is the real star of Bajrangi Bhaijaan.” The Hindustan Times effuses: “The biggest weapon in director Kabir’s artillery is the angelic Harshaali Malhotra. She’s refreshinglingly unaffected. She seems unfazed by Salman. Harshaali has a heart-breaking innocence. For the viewer, it’s love at first sight.”