Review: Luck By Chance / Victory

Posted on January 31, 2009


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A heartfelt (yet cold) tragicomedy about the film industry brims with devastatingly observed vignettes. Plus, a cricket saga that’s not bad, but not much good either.

FEB 1, 2009 – ZOYA AKHTAR LOVES FILMS. It’s not just the projected product she loves, but also the process. She loves the extras who play cops and dacoits and pharaohs and astronauts. She loves the tailors bent over the creation of sequined ensembles. She loves the unnamed extras who dance behind the leads and sing in the chorus. She loves the chaiwallah, the choreographer, the painter of hoardings, the projectionist, the makeup artist, the sound recordist, and even the men who stand guard outside the formidable gates of Filmistan Studio. Filmmaking is nothing if not the most collaborative of arts, and over these loving images of little people in the opening credits of Luck By Chance, Zoya expressly acknowledges that if it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be films.

And given a little luck, a little chance, some of these little people turn into big shots, oftentimes with egos and insecurities almost as big. Luck By Chance is a heartfelt look at this process of transition – what it entails, and what it means. This is the kind of film where a superstar like Hrithik Roshan (playing a superstar named Zafar Khan) puts his personal demons up on screen for all of us to see, as he looks across a party floor at Vikram (Farhan Akhtar), a struggler until not too long ago who’s now a hero because Zafar weaselled out of the part. And you can almost hear Zafar/Roshan wondering if he did the right thing, if he has inadvertently created a possible agent for his own destruction, if this new hero will eventually ease him out.

Vikram, meanwhile, battles his own demons, when he submits his name for an audition and when Abhi (Arjun Mathur) wonders if perhaps he should too. Abhi is Vikram’s friend, so the answer to the question should be yes, but Abhi is also a fellow struggler, and therefore competition. You can see the wariness in Vikram’s eye even as he endorses Abhi’s idea. (The exquisite, wordless payoff to this scene occurs much later, when Vikram is signing autographs at a theatre, while Abhi looks on longingly, clutching that most instant identifier of someone on this side of the screen: a bag of popcorn.)

Vikram finds it far easier to be supportive about the career of his girlfriend Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma, who, needless to say, is exceptional), because they will never have occasion to fight over the same parts (unless, of course, Vishal Bhardwaj is casting a net far and wide for a Portia for his remake of The Merchant of Venice). And yet, despite his words of encouragement and his hastily scribbled declarations of love, theirs is the furthest thing from an ideal love story. It isn’t that Vikram doesn’t love Sona; it’s just that (like most showbiz people) he loves himself more.

When a costar (Nikki, deliciously played by Isha Sharwani) makes a move on Vikram, he doesn’t resist, and when Sona decides to surprise him by trekking to his location spot, he’s annoyed by this unanticipated inconvenience. In a moment of stunningly casual cruelty (rendered all the more cruel, because Farhan Akhtar’s surface is so wonderfully placid, so refreshingly free of “acting” baggage), Vikram asks Sona where she’s staying. (She assumed, naturally, that they’d be together.) And as she storms off, he appears as shocked as we are by the depths he’s capable of sinking to. Later, when a gossip rag sniggers about his affair with Nikki – it’s a terrific sequence, where a number of people read the story in their own voice – his subsequent actions paint him in even viler colours.

But at no point does Luck By Chance insist that these people are monsters. If anything, these insecurities, these eggshell egos, make them all the more human. Javed Akhtar captures a stark snapshot of the free-floating anxiety that pervades showbiz in his lyric for Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy’s magnificent composition: Sapnon se bhare naina, to neend hai na chaina. A few decades ago, Gulzar (in Do nainon mein, from Khushboo) wrote about the inability of the eyes to accommodate sleep when they’re filled with tears. Akhtar extrapolates this conceit to dreams, showbiz dreams, which fill your eyes with stars and render you restless. As the song plays, Vikram enters a room filled with aspiring actors, each one as likely to land the part, and you instantly sense what it must be like to be a struggler in a sea of strugglers. Where films like Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon isolated the anxieties of a single showbiz aspirant, Luck By Chance gives us an eagle’s eye view.

Luck By Chance is strongest when it deals with these characters, and it is weakest when it resorts to caricatures. Perhaps when you are filled with so much love for the people and the pictures, as Zoya undoubtedly is, you cannot be wicked enough to make your jabs truly pointed. The satire comes off as soft as Rishi Kapoor’s unapologetic midsection. The actor is perfectly cast as Rolly, a hapless producer strung along by the whims of stars young enough to be his children, and he offers some priceless double takes. (My favourite is when he approaches a corporate house for funding and they ask him about the “property.” When Rolly doesn’t understand, they explain that they are referring to the script. A bemused Rolly replies, “Yahaan to property ko hi property kehte hain.”)

But when Rolly is reduced to a buffoon – the kind whose faith in astrology is oh-so-easy to skewer – it doesn’t stick, and these broad, Bollywood Calling outtakes are an uneasy fit in a film that’s otherwise so understated. (At least, Rolly isn’t outlined in black-and-white like Vikram’s aunt, who’s contemptuous of his efforts as a struggler, but later, predictably sycophantic over his success.) I also couldn’t see why the film-within-this-film had to be so obviously trashy, the kind we used to watch in the eighties where hero and heroine would roll down the hill locked in each other’s arms, but carefully positioned side-by-side so their loins didn’t lock. (It’s even called Dil Ki Aag.) Considering the period Luck By Chance is set in, when Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na is playing at a Mumbai multiplex, why invoke visions of a Bollywood that’s all but extinct?

Despite these half-hearted concessions to Bollywood as a crazy circus (explicitly acknowledged in the staging of a dazzling song sequence), Zoya isn’t so much entertainer as examiner. She’s a thoughtful miniaturist – even her shots are carefully composed, their ins and outs cautiously in tune with the emotions of the scenes. Zoya’s touch is so delicate, it’s not till a wife demands an explanation that you fully register that the husband has been having an affair all along. As a result, Luck By Chance is a somewhat cold film. The discrete emotional beats don’t quite accrue into an epiphany. In an early scene set in acting class, after underplaying a part, Vikram is told that commercial cinema needs “projection” and “energy” – and these two qualities are most visibly absent in Luck By Chance as well. Zoya wants to underplay a story about the most overplayed of film industries, and there are times this approach makes her film appear less than the sum of its sharply etched vignettes.

But what vignettes they are – illuminated as much by the themes up front and centre as the throwaway moments (Rolly’s phone ringing to the tune of Jab hawayein, the love duet from his Dil Ki Aag; Vikram’s photo on a table amidst the pictures of hundreds of others, literally making his selection a matter of luck by chance). In one of the film’s best scenes, Zafar, in his car, is accosted by urchins on the street. He ignores them at first, but he gives in and makes faces to entertain them. In that brief instant, he’s almost one of these little people, one among them – but then you see that the windows are still up and he’s locked away in a world of his own. Other films may have better captured the dynamic ebb and flow of this world, but few have cupped an ear to its chest and listened so unflinchingly to its erratic heartbeat.

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ONCE UPON A TIME, THERE LIVED A LAD named Vijay (Hurman S. Baweja), a cricketer blessed with talent, but cursed with luck. He twirled the willow like a wand, and yet the selectors were unmoved by his wizardry. Then, within a span of roughly fifteen minutes, he played his first Ranji match, scored a double century, made it to the Indian eleven, shepherded his team to victory, and was declared Man of the Match, Man of the Series and ICC’s Batsman of the Year. He landed the biggest marketing contract ever in sporting history, and no less a personage than Navjot Singh Sidhu predicted that he would change the course of cricket.

As sporting fairy tales go, Ajitpal Mangat’s Victory would appear, at first blush, little more than an invitation for sniggering and eye-rolling – except that stranger things have happened. Who could have predicted, for instance, that Baweja would be back on our screens so soon after Love Story 2050, which, by all rights, should have put its hero’s career in cold storage till, well, 2050? (Note to Mimoh Chakraborty: Chin up, young man. There’s still a shard of hope.)

In the interest of fairness, however, it must be said that Baweja’s second outing is significantly better than his first. Victory seems, initially, a reworking of the Iqbal formula – or, indeed, the Star Wars formula. When Vijay’s father (Anupam Kher) falls back on hopeful clichés like ummeed during an attempt at consolation, a whiny Vijay points out that they live in Jaisalmer, where even hope takes its time getting around to. (The line is nicely shaped: Duniya ki aisi kone mein jahan ummeed ko bhi pahunchne mein der lagti hai.) In this, he shares a kinship with Luke Skywalker, who whined about his home of Tatooine, “Well, if there’s a bright centre to the universe, [Tatooine is] the planet that it’s farthest from.”

In films of this nature, destiny usually has a plan for its protagonists, which is to map their course from zero to hero. But just as we’re warming up to this aspect of Victory, it shape-shifts into a morality tale reminiscent of Wall Street, where a zero becomes a hero, sells his soul and returns to being a zero, redeems himself and becomes a hero again. After a string of successes, Vijay shifts to Mumbai, which – as anyone who’s seen a Madhur Bhandarkar movie will tell you – is merely another name for The Underworld. (A leering Gulshan Grover plays Satan, luring poor, pure Vijay into an unending abyss of booze and babes.) And soon, the balls that were routinely being deflected off Vijay’s bat towards the boundary ropes now crash unerringly into the middle stump.

Victory could have been a real rouser. At least, it’s single-minded enough – despite the presence of Amrita Rao (who elevates the thankless girlfriend-in-the-wings role) – to sideline the mandatory love angle in favour of Vijay’s story. The problem is that the chapters have little elegance or emotional heft (which makes the shock-twist at the end particularly distasteful, a desperate attempt to finally make us tear up). Dalip Tahil (as the Indian team’s coach) and Kher lend some dignity to the proceedings. (The latter has a moving moment where he apologises for foisting his cricketing dreams on his young son.) But Hurman Baweja faces the camera as if posing for a passport photograph, with his face perpetually frozen in anticipation of a good shot. He needs to loosen up a little if he plans on being anything more than just the man who survived 2050.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi