22 May 2016

The Untamed Heart of India

My Mirror column for 22 May, 2016:

Sairat delivers both a compelling tribute and an astutely-aimed punch to decades of Indian film romance.


At a tense moment in Nagraj Manjule's Sairat, a middle-aged garage-owner (whom the film's youthful couple have called on for help) turns on them with a wan exhaustion at the prospect of what they want from him. "Movies and real life aren't the same thing," he says with a gesture of helplessness. "What your parents teach you, and what you do..." 

It is one of the sharpest moments in Manjule's consummately-executed film: simultaneously embedded in the on-screen lives of its characters, while also addressing the dense, criss-crossing matrix of filmi and real that constitutes our relationship to romance. Manjule, whose powerful first feature Fandry was a 2014 festival favourite, has taken a remarkable leap from that recognizable realist aesthetic into something gloriously hybrid: young love, complete with songs both slow-mo and zingy, into which reality seeps darkly. That's the thing that makes Sairat so clever. Through it, Manjule is speaking to us in both capacities — as a country of wannabe-lovers, a people who celebrate the idea of romance in every film we make a hit — and as a country of real-life haters, a people that responds with practiced violence whenever some poor delusional souls actually decide to take that idea to heart. 

So much of the sparky, filmi appeal of Sairat lies in the fact that its protagonists—brilliant first-time actors Akash Thosar and Rinku Rajguru, playing the teenage lovers Prashant 'Parshya' Kale and Archana 'Archie' Patil—refuse to play by the rules of "real life", which for most people in India is the same as "what your parents teach you". And yet Manjule makes it very clear that their gumption is foolhardy; that real life will have its way. Right from the opening, when Prashant sweeps his flailing village cricket team to effortless victory, we are made unmistakeably aware of the hierarchies that shape this world: the Dalit boy can win a cricket match, but the trophy will be awarded by the local political boss, a Patil (who turns out to be Archana's father). 


Later in the film, there's a remarkable scene when this caste hierarchy easily overturns another of the hierarchical pieties ostensibly honoured by Hindu tradition: respect for one's guru. Patil's son and heir—literally called Prince—is asked his name by an irritated teacher who sees him talking on the phone in class. He doesn't answer. He slaps the teacher. In another schoolyard scene, Prashant is being roughed up by Archana's cousin Mangya for no good reason. He is pinned to the ground, holding onto Mangya's collar—but still holding off on hitting him back. The words we hear Prashant say reveal both his anger and his fear: "You may be a Patil but I'll beat you up." 


Hindi cinema used to specialise in star-crossed lovers, but they were either shown to belong to two equal and opposite clans (this is the tradition in which we might place Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, or more recently, Ramleela)—or two different religions (most recently, think Ishaqzaade). If they had unequal social statuses, it was always class. Of course there are some exceptions — Love Sex Aur Dhokha, and more recently Masaan (which also contains a Facebook-search scene very like the one in Sairat)—but caste on the whole is that which dare not speak its name. Unlike the zillions of other life-and-death romances that Indian cinema has given us, Sairat takes caste head-on. 


And yet the reason it has been able to reach out to so many people—the film is reportedly hitting the 60 crore mark, the highest ever for a Marathi film—is that it delivers its unvarnished truths alongside all the things people go to the movies for: laughter, suspense, drama, music. The songs are particularly lovely, and memorably picturised, putting the green depths of stepwells and the verdant shadows of sugarcane and banana-groves believably to work as romantic oases in the arid landscape of Sholapur.


The cinema also appears as fantasy outside of the songs: a sleeping Prashant sees Archana tiptoe out of her house and walk down to his, in the middle of the night, in a spangly off-shoulder dress. As she demands to be kissed, Prashant panics. "You'll wake everyone!" And then we see that he already has. As his family alternately giggles and grumbles their way back to sleep, the camera pans to show us the small poster above him: filmstar Alia Bhatt in the same dress.
 

And when love actually happens, the lovers' fantasy is the same one we've seen at least since Maine Pyar Kiya—"You'll go to work," says Archie to Parshya, as they gaze into each other's eyes. "I'll do the cooking." But unlike a Maine Pyar Kiya, when these two do run away and set up house together, the fantasy is brought to life in a very real slum, with the all-too-real stink of garbage. Without making a big deal of it, Manjule gently reverses gender roles. The boy tries going to work and getting the girl to shop and cook, but she has no idea how to. So she gets the factory job, he does the cooking. 


At their most vulnerable—having arrived in the city but with nowhere to go and no-one to help—Manjule's young lovers must spend the night in public places, scarcely sleeping from discomfort and fear. After such a night, the bright light of day is welcome —but almost too harsh. So they go to the cinema, in whose dark embrace they find a few hours of solace. It is a marvellous scene. Manjule's protagonists may find an undisturbed peace in the cinema. But he has ensured that his audience does not.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 22nd May 2016.

16 May 2016

Of star-spangled banners

My Mirror column on 15 May 2016:

An award-winning documentary looks at the last surviving practitioners of a dwindling art form: hand-painted film hoardings.



In the summer of 2007, I met a painter of signs. The idea was that of my photographer friend and colleague, who thought 'juice-stall sign painter' was a perfect fit for a cover story on 'Odd Jobs' for the city magazine we worked for. I remember Charan Singh's workshop, off HC Sen Road in Old Delhi: a ramshackle shed full of painted plastic and rexine signs drying: hung on a clothesline, spread on a charpai. Charan had been painting signs since the 1960s, he was famous "in his line". He said he'd invented the Fruit Juice style: the bright seven-colour typography now characteristic of juice shops across North India. Depending on the client's budget and specifications, the sign could have only lettering, or a fancier design that included flowers, fruits (which he and his sons claimed a certain expertise in), even faces. The faces were invariably those of film stars. "Shah Rukh and Salman are the favourites, especially Salman after Tere Naam," said Charan. It was a hot day when we met, and the old man looked a little wilted. But as soon as I asked about the digital takeover of his profession, he perked up to deny it: "Computer mein itni show nahi hai, chamak-dhamak nahi hai. Aap dekhna, haath ka kaam hi chal niklega."


I remembered Charan recently when I watched In Search of Fading Canvas, a Films Division documentary directed by Manohar Singh Bisht that won a Special Jury Award at the recently concluded 63rd National Film Awards. Bisht spent two years filming with artists who make hand-painted billboards and banners for films. Almost every painter he interviewed for the film is over 70. Some are over 90. Several of the Bombay-based painters remember the films with which they began work -- Mehboob Khan's Aan (1952), Raj Kapoor's Aah (1953), Shaheed Latif's Sone ki Chidiya(1958).

At Alfred Theatre in Bombay, we meet S. Rehman, one of the last painters in the city to remain employed by a cinema. The owner continues to support Rehman's workshop, in which every banner is produced collectively, just the way a miniature was created in the Mughal karkhana: the master painter draws the outline and plans the layout, someone fills in the background, someone else does the text. Except here the art is one of scaling up, not scaling down. Cinema here is literally "larger than life".



It is remarkable how closely the painter's work is tied to the movie business. Rehman and his boys —his assistant painters — make a new banner by hand every week, and after seven days they paint over it to create a new one. This cycle of time is one aspect — as long as the film runs, the poster stays up. Sometimes the relationship went deeper than periodicity: the painter's fortunes could fluctuate according to the gambling instinct of those who ran the film trade. K. Chinappa, a painter from Bangalore, remembers the release of the Bachchan-starrer Naseeb. "The distributer came to me and said, will this film run? I said, Sir! It will be a superhit. He said, okay, if it is a superhit, I'll give you three times your Rs 30,000 fee. And he actually gave me Rs 90,000!" Other painters, however, tell Bisht of how their payments depended on the film's success: "Take your money when the next film releases, they'd say. And if the next release also tanked? Then no money again."

It isn't surprising, then, that most painters were deeply invested in the film doing well. In Lucknow, the ex-painter Parvez now sells Uttar Pradesh number-plates outside the cinema which once hired him to make banners. "We wanted to get the public into the theatre," grins Parvez. "If Pran was in the movie, whether he had any fighting scenes or not, we would put a small gun in his hand in the poster. Make the public think there is action..."

Despite a distractingly awful English voiceover and an insistence on introducing each town he visits with a flat shot of its railway station, Bisht's film remains winsome. His characters have character. One painter says he only wears white clothes to work, so that the reflected glare from his clothes cannot impair his judgement of the hues. Another lists things to avoid if the film is to be a hit — you can call them superstitions, or an acute grasp of the market he once catered to. Never use a green background. Never have a poster without any stars' faces. Never have type that runs vertically. Never set the image in a circle. "Any poster does these things, the film has flopped."

Painter Madan from Lucknow sometimes talks to the stars he paints. "Kucch toh kismat chamkao, Salluji!" he says with an affectionate nudge. "If they make Rs 200 crore, shouldn't we also reach Rs 200 rupees? Woh parde ke kalakaar, hum bajaar ke kalakaar." But these 'artists of the bazaar' can no longer turn a profit. The Haryana-born artists who now travel by two-wheelers, painting product ads on highways, are quite clear that digital has killed the hand-painted banner. "No new people have joined this profession in the last five-seven years."

Charan was wrong. The curtains will soon come down on the colourful world of the poster-painter. Computer chal nikla hai.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 15 May 2016.

9 May 2016

Twins from a Temple Town

My Mirror column for 8 May 2016:

Two recent Marathi films use a very similar set of ingredients to create different portraits of Pandharpur.


Films with a sense of place are always a joy. I recently watched two Marathi films — Ringan and Elizabeth Ekadashi — set in the pilgrim town of Pandharpur. Like much recent Marathi cinema, following in the footsteps of Iranian cinema in particular and neo-realist cinema in general, both featured child actors in central roles. 




Elizabeth Ekadashi, directed by Paresh Mokashi (whose earlier Harishchandrachi Factory was India's entry to the Oscars that year), was 2014's National Award winner for Best Children's Film. The plot combines a children's adventure story with a heartwarming moral lesson: a schoolgoing brother-sister pair from Pandharpur (Shrirang Mahajan and Sayali Bhandarkavathekar) decide to set up a stall during Ashadhi Ekadashi (the height of pilgrim season). Their plan is to earn a bit of money, defying their single mother's strict instructions — but only to help her repay a debt. 

Elizabeth Ekadashi opens with the ritual bathing of the idol in a Pandharpur temple, intercut with the equally tender bathing of a bicycle. The bicycle, it turns out, is called Elizabeth — the children's most treasured possession, not just because it reminds them of their late father, from whom it was a gift, but because it allows them access to the town in a way they could not have had without it. Mokashi's film uses the children's natural energy to help develop a lively sense of space —mapping the back terrace of their neighbour's house which offers them a secret escape route, following the kids as they sprint through the web of narrow lanes, allowing us to experience the swelling crowds and festive madness through their dazzled eyes, all the while emphasising the smallness of a town in which a child can barely avoid being recognized. 

That town, as the film shows irrefutably, is pivoted around the temple to Lord Vitthala, an avatar of Vishnu. Yet apart from naming his child-hero Dnyanesh, after the thirteenth century saint associated with Pandharpur, Mokashi steers largely clear of the religious aspect of his locale. Dnyanesh, in fact, sings kirtans in praise of science, anointing Newton and Einstein as gods. 


Makarand Mane's debut feature Ringan (The Quest), which is this year's National Award winner for Best Marathi film, is very different in its emphasis. A farmer, aging before his time, makes the journey to Pandharpur with his little boy because three successive years of drought have driven them to bankruptcy. The premise itself suggests the hope of divine intervention. "The one we're going to visit now, he will certainly help us," says the farmer to his tired, irritable son, who just wants to turn around and go back home. 

But their time in Pandharpur starts badly. In a plot twist clearly inspired by De Sica's neorealist classic Bicycle Thieves, a man steals the scooter, cellphone and money that are literally the duo's last possessions. The police are unhelpful, and father and son end up in the beggars' queue outside the temple. Here Mane's film, in contrast to Mokashi's, directly raises the question of belief, by placing the distressed farmer in conversation first with a spiritual figure on the ghats, and then in a bitter monologue addressed to a old stone statue of Vitthala that he finds lying on the street. 

Mane's ethical landscape is a little too heavily underlined, but his canvas is painted with a deliberate beauty. As long as things are going badly, the camera pans the dusty browns of Maharashtra's drought-ridden regions, coming to rest on the rough stone walls, the drab khaki uniforms, crusty ground and dry bhakri. A change is his characters' fortunes is visually marked by colour - literally heaps of gulaal: scarlet, pink, vermilion - and by the soothing, quenching sight of water. 

Ringan's silent moments are affecting, but its overarching message is cloying. Bicycle Thieves inspires the climax, too — the poor man pushed to the brink of disaster being tempted into abandoning his honesty, and his tragic fall from good faith being witnessed by his little son. There is little newness here, but Mane achieves something special with his actors — the lined face of Shashank Shende, which relaxes into a grin only when he sees one on the face of the adorable curly-haired Abdu (Sahil Joshi). 

There is a bicycle in Ringan, too — a gift to little Abdu from his father. As in Elizabeth Ekadashi, the bicycle allows the child to explore the town, and us to see it through his bewildered eyes. 

Children and bicycles, an adult with an unpaid debt, a posse of pilgrims and the temptation of easy money — the building blocks of Mokashi and Mane's films are strikingly similar. Even the sex workers of Pandharpur appear in both, seen through the eyes of children. If Mokashi makes a gently subversive joke about the way they're usually treated, Mane creates a more convoluted plot-line that involves Abdu's uncomprehending quest for his dead mother. That, too, is the quest of the film's title. I only wish its resolution had been less mawkish.

Published in Mumbai Mirror, 8 May 2016.

8 May 2016

The hero and the human

My BL Ink column on 7 May, 2016:
A Satyajit Ray classic that turned 50 this week, Nayak seems to come from a universe that is unrecognisably distant from the one which creates films like Fan

Satyajit Ray’s film Nayak (The Hero) turned 50 yesterday. Released on May 6, 1966, it was an unusual one for Ray in several respects. For one thing, it was only his second original film script (although he had been directing for over a decade by then). For another, it featured the contemporary Bengali matinee idol Uttam Kumar, whom Ray had never worked with before, and who represented the sort of cinema of which Ray quite clearly saw himself as the antithesis.
But of course it made perfect sense — pragmatic as well as cinematic — to cast a superstar in the role of a superstar. Nayak centres on 24 hours in the life of Arindam Mukherjee, a hugely popular film star who is — somewhat grudgingly — on his way from Calcutta to Delhi to collect a National Award. What is remarkable — and risks making the film unbelievable today — is that Arindam makes this journey by train, and entirely without an entourage.
That this premise was a trifle contrived even in 1966 is made clear by the film’s initial scenes, when the star’s agent-cum-secretary points out that he’s left it too late to get a seat on the plane, or a reserved private coupĂ© on the train. But putting the dapper, jaded Arindam on a long train ride allows Ray the perfect situation in which to combine his three stated objectives: scrutinising the life of a film star, looking into the behaviour of fans, and making a film about a train journey.
Right from the start though, it is clear that we are in a universe almost unrecognisably distant from the one which creates a film like Fan. Arindam’s arrival on the train causes a flutter of excitement, but he is not mobbed. He shares a compartment with a family, sits in the dining car by himself, ruffles a little girl’s hair. The India of 1966 contains neither swarming paparazzi nor phone-flourishing selfie-seekers. The train’s upper-middle-class clientele does contain some Arindam fans — though Ray, with seemingly irrepressible snideness, makes clear that this is a part that can only be played by children or somewhat foolish women. These may make the occasional autograph request, but on the whole the star is left to conduct his business — under their curious gazes.
The thing about Nayak that appears truly unimaginable in 2016, however, is the number of passengers who treat Arindam and his world with disdain. Their reasons for abjuring cinema combine the moral with the aesthetic. One doddering old gent, whom even the film star recognises from his name as “the one who writes letters to The Statesman”, loses no opportunity to lecture him on the immorality of actors and alcohol (especially since they go together). Another successful boxwallah type turns up his nose at the sort of person he must share space with — admittedly, upon having read the news of Arindam getting into a brawl at a party. (These old men reminded me of a story about my Nana, who spent a whole plane ride in the ’60s wondering why the gentleman next to him seemed miffed when he cordially asked him what he did. It was Rajendra Kumar.)
Even without the moral censure, there is a pervasive sense in Nayak that films — at least popular Indian films — are not art, not serious or, at any rate, not worthy pursuits for the intelligent person. And the film star, despite his fame and riches, recognises his suspect status when asked for an interview by the non-gushing Miss Sengupta (Sharmila Tagore, her seriousness signalled by her spectacles), he is quick to assume that she doesn’t enjoy Bengali films. And she is quick to retort: “Bastabikatar ektu abhaab (A slight lack of reality).”
It isn’t just realism, however, that can cure film actors of what ails them. In one of Nayak’s rather heavy-handed flashbacks, a youthful Arindam grapples with his mentor Shankar da’s resistance to the very idea of film acting. The theatre, says Shankar da, is where an actor has a real audience; in a film, he is but a puppet in the hands of the director. This notion of the film star as a puppet appeared just a few years later in another film made by a Bengali — Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi (1970). There, it was Dharmendra who played himself, and Utpal Dutt (as the film-struck Jaya Bhaduri’s psychologist uncle) who offered a long exposition of how little the ‘hero’ actually participated in the heroics on screen.
The humanising of the hero — which is also part of the point of Guddi — is, in Nayak, both more intimate and more brutal. It plays out, at one level, as the classic romance narrative: the emotionally repressed hero suddenly finding a girl he can speak to freely. And superimposing that narrative onto a star-journalist interaction is an astute form of cinematic wish-fulfilment. Tagore’s character first buttonholes Arindam both out of curiosity and for professional gain. She runs a women’s magazine called Adhunika, which ordinarily doesn’t feature cinema, but an interview with Arindam, she knows, would be a big hit. But the more clearly she sees Arindam’s feet of clay, the less she is inclined to expose him.
Watching Nayak today, the film seems a little let down by its most dramatic bits — Arindam’s dreams (or rather nightmares) are too literal and too stagey at the same time, and his recounting of errors seems harsher than necessary. But it remains a striking portrait. Not so much of the star or the fan, but of that hazy figure we may have lost to history: the Non-Fan.
Published in the Hindu Business Line, 7 May 2016.

1 May 2016

Back to the Jungle

Today's column:

Watching the new Jungle Book movie in Hindi made me think again about its Indianness.


Last week I did something I have never done before (or at least not voluntarily): I watched a Hollywood film dubbed in Hindi. I'd already seen Jon Favreau's new Jungle Book (and written about it in this column). But the Hindi version had a special tug. There seemed a homecoming double bill experience to be had, what with the refurbishing of Gulzar and Vishal Bhardwaj's 'Jangal jangal baat chali hai' song, and the added miracle of Bagheera and Baloo becoming conjoined with Om Puri and Irffan Khan. 

And despite everything I knew about the Hollywood production, my subconscious mind clung to a notion that a Hindi-speaking Mowgli would be coming home - to the Seeonee (Seoni) hills, where the wolves and the tigers still roam the banks of the river Waingunga (Wainganga), in what is now Madhya Pradesh. Because Kipling's original Jungle Books were set in the grand old central Indian forests of Satpura, later immortalised by the Hindi poet Bhavani Prasad Mishra as "Satpuda ke ghaney jangal. Neend mein doobey huye se, Oonghte anmaney jangal". 

Although of course Mowgli would be 'returning' to a language he never spoke. Kipling's dialogue did not lack for dramatic resonance, but it was the full-bellied English of its time. Here is Mowgli, speaking to his wolf-sibling to plan his revenge against the absent Shere Khan: "So long as he is away do thou or one of the four brothers sit on that rock, so that I can see thee as I come out of the village." 

Yet this was most definitely a text located in an Indian world - Kipling may or may not have acquired it from life, but he conveys a sharp sense of the terrain and the vegetation. The flaming dhak tree, the lush creepers and the steep ravines animate a very particular kind of jungle -- that very word, of course, was acquired by English from the Sanskrit/Hindi word for wilderness. When Kipling describes the Cold Lairs, the lost city where the Monkey-People take Mowgli prisoner, you can practically see the ruins of a Mughal-Rajput palace: all red sandstone reservoirs and milky-white fretwork. Calling the king of the jungle Shere Khan is a stroke of genius, as is having the wolves mock him as Lungri, the lame. 

Jon Favreau's English dialogue, of course, is nothing like Kipling's. And as it turns out, the Hindi version follows closely on the chatty contemporaneity favoured by Favreau. There are a few instances when the ease of the English is belied by a Hindi term that has too much grandeur about it - the Water Truce becomes Sandhi Kaal, the Peace Rock becomes Shanti Shila. The Sanskrit-heavy words achieve heft effortlessly, but they're also slightly impenetrable, I imagine, to many thousands of the Indian children who watched the film this month. Sometimes a translated term is weighed down by clunkiness and connotations the original didn't have - "insani pilla" entirely strips away the clean, unforgettable beauty of "man-cub". 

But on the whole, screenwriter Mayur Puri has done an admirable job, creating not just appropriately translated dialogue, but sometimes whole new characters on the strength of accent and vocabulary. Many of the ordinary jungle folk speak in Bambaiya street-lingo: the rhinos, the comically big-eared rodents, the porcupine. The porcupine is scurrying through the dry forest ticking off stone after stone as "apun ka patthar" when he realizes that the water level in the river has dipped enough that "Shanti Shila dikh rehli hai". 

Bagheera speaks a more proper Khadi Boli, allowing for an occasional thaw into the familial: "Main kanoon jaanta hoon, chhote," he deadpans to the deer at the water's edge, who seem skittish and ready to scatter as the panther comes to drink. There is a slight metallic tang to Om Puri's voice, which I thought worked very well for Bagheera's snappish, no-nonsense air. And he pulls off some most ambitious Hindi wordplay: "Shere Khan ki dhamki koi geedad-bhabhki nahi thhi (Shere Khan's threat was no jackal's bluster)". 

The hypnotic rock snake Kaa has Priyanka Chopra at her sultriest, but the dialogue doesn't give her enough of a persona. "Vishwas karo mera" can't match Disney's "Trusssst in me". The one sentence of Chopra's dialogue that worked for me is "Mehfooz rakhoongi tumhe", with the "mehfooz" emerging as a slow hiss. Perhaps if Kaa kept to this Lucknawi nazaakat register, we might have had a real character. 

Which Baloo gets. Mayur Puri's dialogue turns the happy-go-lucky bear into an amicable, lazy-ass Punjabi, who calls Mowgli "puttar" and "yaara" and is only too happy to let the man-cub lagaao his "jugaad" (one instance where the Hindi is much meaningful than the English "tricks") while he ambles alongside. 

The only thing about Baloo that moves quickly is his tongue, and the Hindi version does wonderfully well with his crackerjack conversational style, such as when Baloo adapts a 1963 melancholy classic song to inform Mowgli that he owes him a favour - "Jo waada nahi kiya woh nibhaana padega..." - or explains the stinging bees with innuendo-laden ease as "Kudiyan dank maarti hain". 

Perhaps the most significant Hindi rewording is that of Kipling's "Red Flower" ["...Bagheera meant fire, only no creature in the jungle will call fire by its proper name."] into the rather more dramatic "Rakt Phool", literally 'blood flower'. And unlike in the original Kipling tale, where he is trampled by a herd of buffaloes, in Favreau's film it is the Rakt Phool by which Shere Khan meets his death: burnt to a cinder, bhasm, like some evil Hindu demon.


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 1st May 2016.

25 April 2016

Good Fans and Bad Fans

My Mirror column yesterday:

Watching Fan made me think about the lives of Indian film fans, both on and off the silver screen.



Narcissism is integral to stardom. But in Fan, Shah Rukh Khan has gone where no superstar has gone before: he has played, in the same film, two versions of himself. As Aryan Khanna, the superstar, he looks like his contemporary self (and the footage supposedly from Aryan's early years in the industry is Khan's own). As Gaurav Chandna, the fan, Khan presents a persona that echoes his own screen self from an earlier era, the crazed young stalker of Darr and Baazigar.


The figure of the film fan has appeared in Hindi cinema before, but in every previous instance I can think of, fandom has been a route to romantic fantasy. Hrishikesh Mukherjee's Guddi (1971) cast debutant actress Jaya Bhaduri (who had just graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India) as a schoolgirl besotted with Dharmendra. Bhaduri's Guddi is a charming mix of precocious and innocent - confident enough to use filmi acting as a way of tricking the adults around her, and yet so dumbstruck by Dharmendra's screen image as to decide that she will be a lifelong adoring Meera to his unseeing Krishna.



Mukherjee's tone is gently pedagogic about the psychological impact of films on society - there's the sly scene in the beginning where the teacher tells Guddi's class to produce a "paanch pannon ka lekh" on 'Janta ka swabhaav, us par cinema ka prabhaav' and then promptly opens her copy of a Hindi film magazine to read while they write it. Dharmendra plays himself, with his friend Gulzar's script enabling him to add to his public persona this additional layer of the socially concerned film star who goes out of his way to undo the impact of his reel life on his fans' real lives. Gulzar and Mukherjee want us to see Guddi's emergence from fandom as a painful but necessary coming of age.

Fandom is an infantile state of being in the 1999 release Mast, too - just not one from which escape is encouraged. Instead director Ram Gopal Varma creates an infantile star to match the infantile fan. The schoolboyish Kittu (Aftab Shivdasani) runs away to Bombay to meet his idol Mallika (Urmila Matondkar). When he discovers that the superstar is actually a sweet, sad orphan kept under lock and key by her evil mamaji, the scene is set for the ultimate fan fantasy - the fan rescues the star, and she recognises him for the wonderful creature he is, and they live happily ever after.



Rajat Kapur's 2003 Raghu Romeo also features a crazed fan 'rescuing' his heroine. But if Mast entered entirely into the fan's imagination, Kapur's film is a sharp and often hysterically funny takedown, presenting the fan as someone unable to differentiate image from reality. Vijay Raaz, playing the eponymous Raghu with a perfect hangdog expression, kidnaps an uppity television star (Maria Goretti) ostensibly to save her from a hitman. He keeps the actress in captivity for days, driving her up the wall by insisting on treating her as the pious housewife she plays in the daily soap he watches obsessively. Many things happen, but Kapur's resolution to Raghu's fixation with 'Neetaji' involves not just her clear romantic rejection of him, but also her screen death.


Fan
is different from these, because Gaurav's relationship with Aryan cannot be subsumed easily under the category of romantic love. He does not only love Aryan - he wants to be him. Fan's premise is much closer to the real-life phenomenon of organised fandom in India, which is overwhelmingly made up of all-male fan associations focused on male stars. Many such fans model themselves on their heroes; those who manage 'duplicate' status can sometimes build a career out of performing the star's hit dances, just as Gaurav does in the film. It is astrange combination - a mode of self-promotion that the fan presents as altruistic support of the star. (One such group of Salman Khan lookalikes in Nagpur featured in the insightful 2014 documentary Being Bhaijaan.)


Narcissism apart, Fan plays too much to its imagined audience of fans, with unending chases and fisticuffs between the two SRKs making the film drag. But its plot taps astutely into what the film scholar SV Srinivas, in his superb book about the Chiranjeevi phenomenon, has described as "conditional loyalty". "The fan is a loyal follower and devotee only if the star lives up to the expectations the fan has of him..." writes Srinivas. "This [sense of entitlement] results in a situation in which fans become the guardians of the star's image and resort to drastic actions in his name."


The irrationality of fans - usually jobless young men - is linked to potential criminality: black-marketing tickets, rioting or 'rowdyism'. Srinivas documents attempts by Telugu stars to school the fan into becoming "a responsible admirer committed to socially purposeful activities". It is this spectre of the criminalised fan that Fan summons up. It makes some token gestures towards suggesting the star's fallibility as a human being. But by presenting Gaurav as an infantile fan gone rogue, the film becomes another part of the pedagogic machinery by which SRK the star wants to 'reform' his fans.


Gaurav spends his whole life duplicating his hero, and when his hero finally talks to him at length, it is only to lecture him about living his own life. But Gaurav, it seems, can only step away from Aryan by dying. Is death the fan's one original act?


Published in Mumbai Mirror, 24 April 2016.