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.

COBRA (Dir. George P. Cosmatos, 1986, US) – Genre slippages

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Growing up, Cobra was one of those cinematic anomalies in the career of mainstream Hollywood action star Sylvester Stallone, a blip that was drowned out by the summer of 1986 in which Top Gun and Aliens projected fascistic rumblings, dreaming of an infantile militarized Americana. Although Cobra did decent business at the box office, the film wasn’t well received by critics. While the Wikipedia entry points to ‘overuse of genre tropes’ as a point of criticism, this in many ways is one of the undeniable strengths of the film, that it converses with a gamut of genres and does so in a way that renders it a charming pastiche. Most visible and transparent are the neo noir and horror accents, which contradicts the hard body action tag used to market the film. In 1986 Stallone’s stock was high and he had just departed from the Beverly Hills Cop project that would eventually launch the international career of Eddie Murphy. Cobra is certainly derided mainly because at that time Stallone was becoming a self-parody, explicating a narcissism that is fetishized in all aspects of the film. While the film is an obvious vanity project for Stallone’s international stardom this puerile aspect of the project is augmented by a neo noir sleaziness and exploitation horror aesthetic that recalls the vigilantism of Dirty Harry and the dystopian neon landscapes of The Terminator. Cobra is a melange of genres and film styles, and in many ways exudes an uncertainty about its own cinematic existence. You can almost hear Stallone saying back to himself; ‘how can I sell this to audiences?’

The original work print of Cobra was significantly longer than the theatrical version, around 2 hours in length. Now that does not necessarily mean the work print is probably a better film just because it is longer; some of the best films are those that comprehend the lost art of narrative economy. The problem here is we know that Stallone butchered the work print as he panicked when he saw the final product and edited the life out of the film, in fear of the filmic competition that year and also because he apparently didn’t trust or have faith in director George P. Cosmatos. Cosmatos had already worked with Stallone on the hugely successful Rambo 2 so this argument doesn’t really hold any credence with me. Furthermore, Cosmatos’s reputation as a more than competent genre director has been maligned by stories about his presence as a pseudonym, a cipher through which actors would perform directorial exegesis. This seems to be the case with both Cobra and Tombstone, two films that apparently Cosmatos did not direct but was merely on the film set cracking jokes with his cast and being paid handsomely. It doesn’t help that stars including Stallone have actually validated the perception of Cosmatos as a hack. Unsurprisingly, Rambo 2, Leviathan, Cobra and Tombstone, four of Cosmatos’s best genre work, is never really acknowledged as such, but instead derided and reduced to a fluke.

Cobra is certainly not one of the best films of neither 1986 nor the 1980s but it is worthy of a second look as it feels closer in tone and spirit to a loose collective of films that emerged in the mid to late 1980s, such as RoboCop, which project a vision of urban American society as not just nightmarishly dystopian, but manifest a nasty vigilantism, critiquing gender politics and decentring the establishment. I’m not arguing Cobra does all of these things but only be reclaiming genre cinema of this kind which is often glibly scorned upon can we begin to really fully contextualise and track the development and slippages of mainstream Hollywood cinema in this particular moment in time. But that also means giving Stallone’s career the candour that it deserves. In some ways Cobra already has been reclaimed, but by Nicolas Winding Refn, who has acknowledged the film’s influence on Drive, another genre pastiche.

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.