While celebrating ‘Fan’, let’s not forget Kamal Haasan’s ‘Uttama Villain’. Or the fact that these films can be made only in India.
Watching Shah Rukh Khan’s Fan, I kept recalling Kamal Haasan’s Uttama Villain. Both films are not just about the characters these actors play (within the movie) but also about who these actors are – outside these films, and across the films they’ve made in their career. Thus, it’s impossible, if you’ve been following their work over the years, to watch these films as just films. You keep wondering if this scene is a reference to this earlier film, if that moment is a nod to that earlier moment. Both Fan and Uttama Villain cast an unflattering light on the protagonists, who are shown to be narcissistic and self-absorbed. And both films play with the notion of the death of a star. Uttama Villain does this literally, as the star at the centre of the film is dying. Fan deals with death in a metaphorical manner, saying that stardom will come to an end if your fans are turned off. You may face a fate worse than death: an empty auditorium.
But the purpose of this piece isn’t to compare the two films, fascinating though that pursuit might be. (Imagine the coincidence. Even the announcement of both films happened in the same year: 2013.) After Fan, I was curious if actors anywhere else in the world had subjected themselves to these meta-exercises masquerading as movies. But no. When I searched for “autobiographical films,” I found only the usual suspects. Fellini’s 8½, in which the protagonist with writer’s block (filmmaker’s block?) was based on the director. Cameron Crowe’s second-best film, Almost Famous (it’s terrific, but it’s no Jerry Maguire) – again, based on the director, on his years as a Rolling Stone writer. Then there’s Stardust Memories, Woody Allen’s severely underrated satire. It isn’t strictly autobiographical, but we can at least make the case that there’s a great deal of megalomania and narcissism on view, as is evident in the scene where a besotted fan asks the filmmaker to sign her breast, as though he were a Beatle.
But autobiographical films with actors (not bio-pics with actors acting out the autobiographies of others, but films about and around the actors themselves)? I couldn’t find one. But then, maybe films like Fan and Uttama Villain are possible only in India, where the cult of the actor is infinitely more potent than the cult of the director. Also, there isn’t another filmmaking centre in the world where stars come with such strong signatures. Take Leonardo DiCaprio. A huge, huge star. But when you think of iconic films – that is, not necessarily great films but films with moments that have slipped into legend – what do you have? Titanic certainly, with that arms-outstretched pose on the ship. The Revenant too, with that mauling by the bear. Maybe a couple more? Or take Brad Pitt. If you were to make a meta-movie based on his career, where are the grand, defining moments? Can you work in references to, say, Inglourious Basterds or Troy or Babel or Fight Club and expect audiences to instantly cotton on? Okay, maybe Fight Club, especially if he’s delivering one of his be-the-change mantras.
The difference is that Indian stars – especially the big, mainstream ones – are extraordinarily aware of their relationship with fans. They know what fans pay to see them in, see them do. This much could be said of international stars too. But they don’t go the extra distance Indian stars do, which is to route at least a part of their performance directly to the fan. (How ironic, then, that Uttama Villain flopped and Fan doesn’t seem to be doing all that well either. These films were culled from fanboy moments, and yet, fans didn’t exactly warm up to them.) In Hollywood films and foreign films, on the other hand, the performances are almost always contained by the framework of the character, by the vision of the director, by the fourth wall. So you get fandom along the lines of “Oh, he’s such a heartthrob,” or “Oh, what a good actor he is.” But not that many people go, “Oh, he’s mine and mine alone, and I have proof because he ignored his co-star and spoke directly to me… He even winked at me.”
And through the course of a long career, Indian stars accumulate so many of these “star signature” moments that you just need to string them along and you have a screenplay. (I’m exaggerating, of course, but you get the drift.) You can do this for Rajinikanth, Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Amitabh Bachchan, Ajith, Vijay, Salman Khan… Is there a downside to the self-referential strain that courses through their films? You could say this is why stars get trapped once they find what makes them click with fans. You could say this is why a Rajinikanth, say, finds it so difficult to deviate from the formula that made him the Super Star. But it is what it is. Stars are the creations of audiences. No actor became a star by doing something audiences did not like. This is what’s so endearing (and also scary) about mainstream cinema in India, that we seem to have a hand in shaping our idols’ career trajectories, to an extent unheard of anywhere else in the world. This is what explains a film like Fan.
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