[A shorter version of this appears in the Sunday Business Standard]
Meta-films – or movies that self-consciously comment on the movie-making process, thus breaking the fourth wall between the film and its audience – date back at least to 1924’s Sherlock Jr, with Buster Keaton as a theatre projectionist who walks right into a film screen and becomes part of the plot. In the decades since, the genre has included abstract movies (such as Jean-Luc Godard’s Contempt, about a screenwriter reluctantly bending to the demands of commerce and endangering his marriage in the process) as well as relatively straight narratives about the industry and its denizens (e.g., Billy Wilder’s superbly written and acted Sunset Boulevard, about a once-famous star living with her memories, Miss Havisham-like, in a decrepit mansion).
As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, mainstream Hindi cinema has seen a lot of indulgent self-referencing and in-joking in recent times: rival actors make “friendly appearances” in each other’s films, movies are titled after songs from earlier films, you get the impression that everyone is part of one big happy family that squabbles and makes up with equal aplomb. This reached its high watermark in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om, which spoofed the phenomenon while simultaneously participating in it (and parts of which were impossible to understand without reference to Shah Rukh Khan’s career), and in the more recent Rab ne Bana Di Jodi, with its refrain made up of movie titles: “Hum Hain Rahi Pyaar Ke, Phir Milenge, Chalte Chalte”.
While this sort of back-patting and nudge-winking can be very enjoyable (especially if you’ve grown up with Bollywood and have a basic affection for it), I never expected that a mainstream film loaded with big-name cameos would attempt to thoughtfully engage with the workings of the industry. So I was pleasantly surprised by Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance, a solidly performed and directed film that uses the intersecting fortunes of two wannabe actors, Sona (Konkana Sensharma) and Vikram (Farhan Akhtar), to examine what it takes to survive in this big bad world if you aren’t to the filmi-khandaan born. (Luck? Talent? A combination of both? In what proportion?)
The cast list includes celebrities in tiny appearances as themselves (Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Karan Johar, Kareena Kapoor, Abhishek Bachchan, many others) as well as actors like Hrithik Roshan and Dimple Kapadia in fleshed-out parts, playing...not quite themselves, but people who can, in a certain light, be seen as variations on themselves. (This means that there’s always the danger of reading too much between the lines: in one scene, when Dimple’s character Neena Walia – a still-beautiful former star – seethed about entering the industry at age 16 without any family backing and having to do unsavoury things for producers, I overheard someone in the hall confidently saying, “Yes, that’s her true story – Raj Kapoor exploited her badly.”) There are also hilarious short roles for, among others, Anurag Kashyap, cleverly cast as a writer trying to exceed his brief by incorporating arty “film-festival” bits into a script rather than quietly acquiescing to a commercial-minded producer. All this creates an assortment of scenes where you’re aware that the line between fiction and reality is being blurred, only you’re never quite sure to what extent, and that’s part of the fun. (At times I was reminded of how Silsila – a meta-film of another kind, which played on public perceptions of the Amitabh-Jaya-Rekha relationship - made audiences feel uncomfortable by confronting them directly with their appetite for gossip.)
Luck by Chance could very easily have played it safe. Given the line-up of stars she had at her disposal, how tempting it might have been for Akhtar (and how much more audience-friendly it might have made her film, if the success of Om Shanti Om is anything to go by) to turn this into a hug-fest – a threadbare plot embellished with celebs waving at the viewer, assuring us that all is well in their world. Like the awards-ceremony scene and the “Deewangi” song sequence in OSO. But the best scenes in Luck by Chance – and many of the performances, notably those by Isha Sharvani (as Neena Walia’s bored daughter Nikki, in the grooming to be a starlet), Rishi Kapoor (as a producer named Romy Rolly), Kapadia and Roshan – have an edge to them, a disturbingly off-kilter quality.
A small example of the ambiguities that are set up by this film, and its complex use of self-referencing: when Sona is bluntly told by her producer that she will always be relegated to side roles, that no big hero would want to work opposite her, it’s a commentary on the industry’s attitude to someone who defies the Bollywood standard for what a heroine should look like (as the real-life Konkana Sensharma does), even if she happens to be one of the best actors in the country (as Sensharma is). But what adds irony to this scene is the viewer’s knowledge that Sensharma – Aparna Sen’s daughter – comes from a filmi background in real life, and that this undoubtedly made it easier for her to get that initial footing than it would be for the luckless Sona (and even then, she's basically seen as a non-mainstream actress, though that's mostly by choice).
At any rate, Madhur Bhandarkar no longer need worry about making a movie titled “Film Industry”. It’s been done now, and done with more nuance than he would have managed. Bhandarkar’s “topical” films (at least the ones I’ve seen – Page 3 and Corporate) set up their high-pulpit moralising by drawing a clear line between the Good Guys and the Bad Guys, who may as well belong to two different species – so you rarely get a sense of the slow, almost subliminal process by which well-meaning and idealistic people can get corrupted; how you can get subsumed into a system without even realising it. Also, the protagonists in his films – the people who provide an entry point for the viewer – are innocents abroad (the Konkana character in Page 3, the Bipasha character in Corporate) who manage against the odds to retain their integrity, whereas the two leads in Luck by Chance are people who gradually learn about making concessions. Akhtar’s film has a better understanding of the subtly escalating nature of compromise in a world where only the fittest survive. There are few safety nets here and this is a more interesting landscape of people: just when you think you’ve got a “fix” on a character’s greed or hypocrisy, he does something that allows you to see the shades (e.g., Rolly introspecting about the humiliation he puts himself through when he kowtows before the star-sons whom he saw in short pants when they were growing up).
This is not to say Luck by Chance is an unqualified masterpiece – I thought it had many high points and a few low points (such as the scenes depicting the shooting of the movie that Vikram lands the lead role in, and his off-screen romance with Nikki), but the highs are so bloody good that it almost doesn’t matter. Some other things I liked:
– Kapadia’s character Neena is described as “a crocodile in a chiffon sari” at one point, but watching her lord it over her starlet-daughter Nikki, I was reminded more of a large black spider wrapping its victim in a beautiful silk shroud before sucking out its life-juices. (I chuckled at the scene where Neena interrupts her daughter playing Little Miss Muffet alongside a giant spider prop for a photo shoot, and thwacks the unfortunate arachnid away with her hand.) Also enjoyed her foul-mouthed outburst after reading a magazine article about an affair between Vikram and her daughter.
– The lovely little vignette with Zafar Khan (Hrithik Roshan) sitting inside his car, making faces at urchins who are pressed against the window; the pan shot that takes us into the car, removing the children from the frame and leaving us with a Zafar grimacing at his own reflection. (“I think of Zafar Khan as someone other than myself – a persona that I’m responsible for safeguarding,” he says, echoing words that Shah Rukh Khan has apparently used in real-life interviews.) He’s a boy-in-a-bubble here, much like Nikki Walia in her sterilely pretty pink room.
- Some of the fleeting appearances are very effective. I never thought I would apply the word “sinister” to anything involving Karan Johar, but the set-up and composition of the party scene where he appears is just that. Here, Johar looks something like a Dracula figure at a gathering especially held for creatures of the night – very different from the politely effete, eloquent host we know from that well-lit TV talk-show. The scene towards the end where Vikram – on the road to stardom – meets Shah Rukh Khan has a similar effect: on the surface there’s nothing menacing about it (an informal pub setting, SRK in jeans and a loose shirt casually inviting the newcomer over to his table for a chat and some tips, mostly in the form of platitudes about staying grounded) but I felt a brief chill when SRK rolled his eyes and hissed “It’s insane” in response to Vikram wondering what a superstar’s life must be like; for a few seconds, it reminded me of Laurence Olivier’s Crassus, drunk on power, giving political instruction to the youthful Julius Caesar in Spartacus.
Incidentally Shah Rukh tells Vikram never to lose sight of the people who knew him when he was a struggler – “they are the only ones who will always be honest with you”. Now I hear that SRK’s latest film Billu (also known as Billu Barber or Billu Chief Hair Executive Officer, if you prefer) casts him as a superstar who renews acquaintance with a small-town barber who knew him before he was a star. Is this to be the next step in the evolution of the Bollywood meta-movie, I wonder: a film containing a mini-trailer for another film due to be released a few weeks later? And is it ever again going to be possible for Shah Rukh to play a role where the fourth wall is firmly in place?