Forget, for a moment, the fan on screen. Maneesh Sharma’s fourth film is, first and foremost, a tribute to fans of Shah Rukh Khan, the actor, the star, the middle-class-boy-to-millionaire myth. When I first heard about the film, I thought of Misery, The King of Comedy, The Fan, those other thrillers about the rich and the famous besieged by monomaniacal fans, but Fan is a uniquely Bollywood creation, a uniquely Shah Rukh Khan creation. It’s possibly easier to write a thesis around the movie and what it says about one of our biggest self-made stars than write a review about it. Watch Shah Rukh split his two sides – the overt crowd-pleaser with that high-pitched whinny of a voice, the grave actor who can vanish into a disgraced hockey coach – into the two roles of Gaurav Chandna (the fan) and Aryan Khanna (the star). Did you catch the star’s name, which is that of the real-life Shah Rukh’s son? There’s also a character named after his daughter. And doesn’t ‘Gaurav’ roll off the tongue the way ‘Gauri’ does? Thus, watch the conflation of on-screen and off-screen Shah Rukh. A scene that pits Gaurav against Aryan plays out in front of a splotchy mirror, which yields reflection after reflection of these boys from modest homes in Delhi – you could reflect on this single visual for days.
Watch Shah Rukh sportingly allude to the moolah he made (and probably still makes) from dancing at the weddings of the well-heeled. Watch a scene riff on Shah Rukh being detained by US authorities, who had little regard for his Shah Rukh-dom back home. Watch Shah Rukh playing his own… Duplicate. Watch Shah Rukh play Sunny Deol’s part in Darr, while the Shah Rukh part is played by… Shah Rukh. Watch Gaurav pretend to be Aryan and molest a woman, thus destroying Aryan/Shah Rukh’s reputation as someone who values women enough to put his heroines’ names before his own in his movies. Watch Shah Rukh play a mega-star threatened by the rise of younger stars in a Bollywood more conversant with English than Hindi. Watch Shah Rukh face his biggest fear – not Gaurav, but an empty auditorium. Watch Shah Rukh in a Yash Raj production that unfolds in foreign locations – but without a song in it, and without a heroine for him to romance. But wait. Consider Gaurav’s ring tone, which is one of Aryan/Shah Rukh’s most famous songs, Tujhe dekha to yeh jaana sanam. It’s a testament to a fan’s love for his star (in a sense, Shah Rukh is playing his own heroine here), and given that both roles are being enacted by the same actor, perhaps even a testament to self-love, the narcissism that’s such a part of being a big star. A star’s biggest fan is… the star himself.
The first half of Fan, however, belongs to the fan, and it goes to great lengths to show how utterly un-star-like he is. Two key scenes underscore the discrepancy between who Gaurav is inside his head (a special somebody) and who he really is (a nobody). When he impersonates his hero at a local competition, we keep cutting between close-ups and long shots – the former tell us who he thinks he is, while the latter tell us (by dwarfing him amidst his surroundings) otherwise. And later, when he stands outside Aryan’s home in Mumbai, waiting with thousands of equally frenzied fans for a glimpse of the star, we hear his voice in the close-ups, as though he’s the only one calling out to Aryan. But the long shots tell another story. Gaurav’s voice is lost in the din.
Elsewhere, in a small scuffle in the Internet centre Gaurav runs (yes, this isn’t the part of Delhi with laptops; it’s Maneesh Sharma’s Delhi, which is as ordinary as Gaurav is), he manages to overpower three bigger men. A girl he’s soft on – though not as soft as he is on Aryan – asks, “Akele hero banne ki kya zaroorat thi?” Translation: This isn’t a movie. Why endanger yourself? But in his head, his life is a movie, an Aryan Khanna movie. Again, the difference between who he thinks he is, who he is. After he sets out to meet Aryan Khanna, we get a bigger action sequence, one that’s almost movie-like, involving a lot of leaping around a dilapidated building. (The action stretches are fantastically shot, edited and choreographed.) But at the end, he is overpowered. Gaurav may have been a star in his corner of Delhi, but Mumbai puts him in his place. Not every Delhi boy with dreams is going to get a warm welcome from the city that manufactures them.
But these are all externalities. Apart from his Aryan-worship, who is Gaurav as a person? He’s neither a figure of sympathy nor empathy. He comes across like a mild creep, an impression that’s furthered by his uncanny-valley resemblance to Aryan. (I was reminded of the two Kangana Ranaut characters in Tanu Weds Manu Returns, who looked the same… yet different.) Gaurav is scrawnier. His nose is straighter. His teeth stick out. There’s a scene set in Madame Tussauds in London – Gaurav could be a waxwork in progress. He even gets a line to this effect, that God made him from the leftover clay after He made Aryan. He regards, as many fans undoubtedly do, Aryan as someone who owes him something. “Main hoon to tu hai.” But I found myself nodding more at Aryan’s retort: “Tum apni jagah, main apni jagah.” Put differently, we end up caring more about Aryan. We understand that he’s royalty, that he doesn’t have time for every besotted fan. And we feel for him when he understands finally, what his tossed-off platitudes can come to mean to fans like Gaurav. Early on, he keeps saying he is where he is because of his fans. But after being stalked by Gaurav, he pauses when the line comes to his mind unthinkingly, automatically. I’m guessing it’s another meta moment, a star forced to face the things he says to remain a star.
It’s a great idea, in theory, to imbue Aryan with such unheroic (and therefore, human) qualities and to make Gaurav more than just a simplistic, psychotic villain (we feel terrible for his parents) – and it sits well with the film’s constant juggling of identities. First, Gaurav is desperate to find Aryan; later, Aryan is desperate to find Gaurav. First, Gaurav plays Aryan on stage; later, Aryan plays Gaurav on stage. First, Gaurav falls at Aryan’s feet, like a devotee before God; later, in a metaphorical scene… Aryan remains in the heavens, like a God, as Gaurav falls to earth. But these complexities might have played out better had the film taken the understated route of Anurag Kashyap’s Murabba segment from Bombay Talkies, which was about another deluded fan setting out for Mumbai to meet another self-made star.
Fan, instead, turns into a preposterous thriller. And it doesn’t have the pace to make us swallow the ludicrous contrivances. Like the fact that a superstar feels the police in India are not going to protect him. Like the fact that Gaurav can transform, overnight, into a globe-trotting, Ethan Hunt-like master of disguises. Like the fact that no one seems to be able to tell that Gaurav looks like Aryan. Perhaps the point is that the film is itself as much of a double-role player as its protagonist – one half meek and mild-mannered character-driven drama, the other a comic-booky superhero saga, one half an ode to the Shah Rukh of Chak De! India, the other a nod to his Chennai Express-es and Dilwale-s. But it remains a conceit, and the director cannot pull it off. The two halves never cohere, though the two Shah Rukhs certainly do. This is one of the actor’s finest hours. He’s terrific as Gaurav, and he’s even better as Aryan, a man who has everything, and whose ego will not allow him to apologise to a man who wants nothing more than a “sorry.” Who’s to say how much of Aryan is Shah Rukh not acting but being? After all, who better to play a super-entitled one-percent-er than a super-entitled one-percent-er?
- “Akele hero banne ki kya zaroorat thi?”= Why try to be a hero?
- Tanu Weds Manu Returns = see here
- “Main hoon to tu hai” = You exist because of me.
- “Tum apni jagah, main apni jagah.” = We live in different worlds.
- Bombay Talkies= see here
- Chak De! India = see here
- Chennai Express = see here
- Dilwales = see here
Copyright ©2016 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.