FAN (Dir. Maneesh Sharma, 2016, India) – Star Studies

fan

Fan is facilely about the political and psychological chasm between stardom and fandom. On paper, this seems like a very tasty proposition indeed; especially considering SRK has not made a good film in quite a while. The doppelgänger, a ubiquitous motif, suited to the fragmented, interruptive form of popular Hindi cinema, is familiar to the star persona of SRK, an avatar that he has adopted on many occasions in the past, producing an ambivalent response to the say the least. A project as narcissistic as this one could only suit the self-aggrandizing star imaginings of SRK, a man who has literally disappeared into the pretentious vacuums of stardom. There was a time when SRK knew which projects to pick, and while Fan attempts to rectify this forlorn nostalgia for the SRK we once knew and respected as both a credible actor and likable star, film audiences desire to see him cast against type remains prescient. Whereas Salman Khan’s troubled stardom, augmented by recent intriguing films, notably Bhajrangi Bhaijaan and the forthcoming Sultan, has been somewhat in the ascendancy, SRK’s demise as an actor could have been prevented a long time ago. Fan certainly stakes a claim for a revival of sorts but even this film falls short of the kind of epic actorly comeback one expected from SRK. A central problem with Fan is the film’s shaky and chaotic narrative, forever moving from one situation to another with no real momentum or consistent stylistic impulse. What the film should have been about is that central relationship between star and fan, which unfortunately gets capsized by a commercial propensity to suture in set pieces, ironically enough permitting SRK to practice his over-recognised thrills for his real fans!

Why not excise the stylised edges, and just go for a really simple film style, one or two locations, and actually debate the politics of stardom in an open and earnest way. Unsurprisingly, the Yash Raj authorial studio stamp gets in the way of such utopian aspirations, explicating SRK’s stardom as a product of a globalized, disaporic imagining of Bollywood; justifiably so. In many ways, Fan is simply not edgy enough for a film that claims to do so from the marketing and promos. I was hoping SRK would be really pushed to the edge, not held ransom by consumerist mono-cultural devices such as Madame Tussauds. Alternatively, this could be read as a reflexive critique of the superficiality of stardom. Surprisingly, for a songless Hindi film, there are some pretty serious issues here with pacing. Fan emerges as an overlong chase film in which a man chases his shadow around the world, or double in the Dostoyevsky sense of the word. I guess the lengths to which SRK goes to reclaim and protect his stardom becomes a metonym for star power and also the anxieties film stars undergo when their star image is threatened especially from a devoted fan or the media.

But I assure you I am not trying to be reductive in my understanding of the film as there are some notable aspects to the film that did resonate with me including Gaurav’s grotesquely over-animated facial augmentations, the initial prison cell encounter between fan (Gaurav) and star (Aryan) which should have been replicated in the film’s narrative throughout, and of course, the morally abstruse denouement. In many ways, Fan is salvaged by an ending that we expect but once delivered sits uneasily with what we know about SRK’s ‘everyman’ public image, and the film finally and reluctantly questions the moral integrity of the film stars which populate the Bollywood filmic universe. As SRK looks on at his fans, the image of Gaurav coming back to haunt him, I could not help but think of Guru Dutt’s Kagaaz Ke Phool (1959), perhaps the greatest and melancholiest commentary on stardom that has come from Indian cinema, in which the star is held ransom to an idolisation that is both ephemeral and beguiling, masking an adulation that we all furtively crave. Fan may in fact be a very complicated study of stardom and only on a closer examination will we be able to determine if it stands up as an instructive postmodern parable of the contemporary Bollywood film industry.

RA. ONE (Dir. Anubhav Sinha, 2011, India)

Ra-One

The first rule of stardom – never believe your own hype. Not unless you are SRK who has not been making the best career choices of late. When was the last time SRK really made a great film that he can lay claim to? You might have to go back to Paheli, Swades or even Asoka – all respectable films which were well received. The same cannot be said for poor SRK’s recent choice of films, which have not only been terribly inflated vanity projects but measured by a desire to emulate the feel easy stylisation of mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. Oddly enough two of his most recent films – Chak De India and My Name is Khan have in fact saw SRK come closest to his real life persona and even tapping into his ambivalent Muslim identity. Both films seem to have something valuable to say about stardom whereas Don 2 and Ra. One offer a version of romantic heroism, which is precluded on a strangely pretentious narcissism. Ever since SRK hit the gym after Om Shanti Om, his face has gone through a period of star transformation whereby the new, leaner and metrosexual SRK feels like a conceit driven to indulge deeper personal fantasies to do with body worship. The trip to the gym seemed to work for someone like Salman Khan but only because he never truly took him or any of his films that seriously to begin with. Dabaang brought Salman to a much wider audience than ever before, helping to kick start a re-interest in the masala action film genre and reconstructing the romantically infatuated male protagonist into a new age revenge machine.

Ra. One was touted as a big budget science fiction spectacular on par with Hollywood productions in which the special effects play a leading role. Some critics resolutely trashed Ra. One while some were unsure what to make of it all including SRK’s wooden performance. I never expected Ra. One to be a brilliant film but given all the hype surrounding the special effects, the film never really delivers in that category either. The story draws strong influences from the Terminator films, Tron, Lawnmower man and many different Hollywood comic book films. Ra. One attempts to merge familiar science fiction concepts with comic book heroism but suffers from a highly formulaic script, strangely OTT performances, ropey special effects and a schizophrenic narrative structure. In many ways, the film is a spectacular failure for a major film star who seems to going through an increasingly public middle life crisis. Had the film been able to harness the imagination and energy that went into the brilliantly executed Bandra train sequence that sees G-One (SRK) bouncing through the compartments to stop a runaway train (one of the few points in the film in which narrative interruption via the soundtrack feels justified) then the film may have had the potential to rise above its genre trappings into moderately pleasing escapist fare. However, not even this brilliantly executed sequence can save Ra. One from disappearing into the abyss of Bollywood stardom.

CHENNAI EXPRESS (Rohit Shetty, 2013, India) – Postmodern Masala

chennai express

This is an uneven action comedy from the Manmohan Desai school of filmmaking. Director Rohit Shetty is one of Hindi cinema’s most bankable directors and while it is tempting at first to lump him together with the likes of Sajid Khan, his postmodern sensibilities are much more palatable. While competency may not seem much to embrace, Chennai Express just about works and does so because of two very straightforward reasons: SRK’s star image and the intertexts to Tamil action cinema. Although it harbours the notorious problem of being thirty minutes too long, Chennai Express is an event film that arrived on Eid and has gone on to break numerous box office records. On a cynical level, it is a tentpole blockbuster purely out to make money, but we could say the same about most mainstream Hindi films. SRK has reached that point in a star’s career whereby self reflexivity has become a source of on screen humour and off screen critical commentary. Underneath the contrived situations are a site of postmodern intertexts that riff on the on screen Rahul persona cultivated by SRK and while postmodernity as a mode of address may be more common in mainstream Hindi films, it still demands a level of cultural capital from audiences.

In my opinion, Hindi ‘masala’ cinema operates on a number of levels with audiences and its not as simplistic as the narrative some of these films venerate. Since my knowledge and viewing of Tamil cinema is a cinephile blind spot, I probably missed a lot of these so called regional intertexts. It was only later I discovered the father is played by a famous Tamil actor and political activist Sathyaraj, who incidentally has more screen presence than both SRK and Deepika combined. I don’t object to ‘masala’ cinema since it is the lifeblood of populist Hindi cinema and offers more reliable entertainment than many of the Hollywood blockbusters currently clogging up cinema screens. In terms of thematic trends, Chennai Express could be situated amongst recent films like Singham and Dabaang since they all chart a ‘return to the rural’ by re-presenting the village as not only a symbol of tradition but a reminder to audiences that India has been masked over by a new post liberal shift. In many ways, the reinstatement of the village in the landscape of contemporary postmodern Hindi cinema could also be seen as a reactionary attempt to recall more conventional, if not, regressive iconography.