Saturday, August 27, 2016

Review of the Film FAN

Once a year on his birthday, thousands of fans of the Indian actor Shah Rukh Khan converge outside his mansion in Mumbai to wish him happy birthday. And every year he stands out on his roof top to greet them and thank them for their wishes. His appearance brings about an eruption of screams as the crowd rushes closer to get a better look at him (and in a way, possibly hoping to be seen themselves). 

To each person in the crowd, their view is that of one man. To the man on the roof, his is a sea of people, almost an entity unto itself. One can’t help but wonder if perhaps Shah Rukh Khan is overwhelmed not only by joy that his efforts have touched so many people, but also a bit of trepidation when that entity comes rushing forward.

It’s what makes his performance “in and as” “FAN” that much more interesting. I had hoped to do a review of this movie when it came out in April, but while I saw “FAN” the day it opened, I didn’t get the chance to do the review. Having recently watched the movie again on blu-ray, I feel the need to post my thoughts on it because it’s one of my favorite movies. Though there are cheerful moments, it isn’t a cheerful movie. There’s a lot going on psychologically. It’s possible that’s why it didn’t do as well as Shah Rukh Khan’s films normally do in India.

Bollywood is a very specific style. You can have drama, pathos, violence, but you must balance it with feel-goods like romance or friendship. And of course dance numbers. The audience likes to leave the cinema humming the songs from the four or five dance numbers. You can have dark themes, but the audience wants redemption or reconciliation at the end. They want to feel good and the fact is that “FAN” is not a feel good movie. Nor did it have any dance numbers despite a dance number being released prior to the movie’s release (which I think might have thrown off people’s perceptions of what to expect from the film).

It is, none the less, a great film that asks a number of questions, some by virtue of the star’s real life. The film starts with the voice over recollections of twenty-five year old Guarav Chandna (played by Shah Rukh Khan), who proudly admits that for the majority of his life he has worshipped the Bollywood star Arayan Khanna (also played by Shah Rukh Khan). We’re treated to the joy of a young Guarav watching his idol Arayan on the big screen. And he calls himself “Aryan Junior” (he calls the star “Senior”) because he bears a resemblance to the star, fueling the fan’s fantasy further that they are somehow connected.

And from a technical standpoint, it is amazing when we first see the grown up Guarav. VFX and practical make up come into play here to transform the 51 year old, muscularly toned Khan into the 25 year old, slighter Guarav. Even Khan’s substantial nose had to be shaved a bit to make Guarav’s a little sleeker. A great deal of thought went into how to pull this off. But none of it would have worked without an incredible performance by Khan himself. 

Khan is portraying a young fan, slightly over-indulged by his parents, who is obsessed by an older celebrity whose rise to fame was not an easy one (and who is finding retaining that fame to be proving difficult as well). And his performance is so good that you forget you’re watching Khan and not another actor. This will come into play later too when the two main characters come face to face and seem like two different actors.

The writer, director and Khan did something very smart. Guarav is portrayed as a likable character. He is not a loser. He runs his own internet café and can be incredibly sociable. He has a slightly flirtatious relationship with a woman who could be his girlfriend. He is spoiled by his parents, but he none the less has a close relationship with them. He could be successful in his own right. Except that his obsession for Khanna has gone just a bit over the range of healthy and that keeps him from full involvement in his own life. He wins money at a talent contest in which he impersonates Aryan Khanna, doing scenes from the star’s movies. Having won a number of times in the past, he’s gained a certain amount of celebrity himself. But it’s a borrowed celebrity using recycled material that brought his idol Aryan Khanna full blown celebrity. Guarav is creative, but his creativity is used only in the service of his obsession. 

And he has decided that this year, he will use his money to travel from Delhi to Mumbai to wish his idol happy birthday and to show him the trophy he won. He truly believes he will be able to gain an audience with the star. He travels “WT—Without Ticket” (essentially a stow away) even though he has plenty of money for a ticket because that’s how his idol traveled to Mumbai from Delhi before he made it big. It’s here that we get a glimpse at just how deeply Gaurav’s obsession runs when the conductors of the train he’s on try to corral him to make him get off at the next stop and he threatens to jump from the train if they don’t promise to allow him to travel the way his idol traveled. We’ve already seen how willing he is to fight for his objective. Hours before the talent contest that won him the money for the trip, when bullies tried to force him to keep the internet café open (and risk him being late for his performance) Gaurav was willing to fight them (and be beaten to a pulp) rather than acquiesce or call for help. These incidents set up clearly how far he’s willing to take something to obtain his objective. 

Clearly he is troubled, but if he could dial it down just a notch, he would have a good life of his own. Unfortunately the actions taken in his life are ruled by the fantasy that one day he will meet Senior who will smile down and validate him as a human being. 

This urge, this need is felt by people all around the globe, directed not only at celebrities, but at teachers, love-interests, spouses, parents, children. We all want the pat on the back from those we love or admire. Some just need it more desperately than others. 

Unable to get the attention he seeks, Guarav takes it a step further by threatening a rival actor of Aryan’s whose involved in a lawsuit with Khanna. He no doubt tells himself that he’s doing it purely for Aryan, but the fact is that he’s doing it to seek attention from Aryan. When he at last gets the attention he seeks, it’s not what he bargained for. 

Their meeting in the jail to which Aryan had Guarav sent after discovering the fan’s attack attack on the rival is an example of the many facets to this movie. There are those who feel bad for Guarav during this scene (the notion that our idols somehow always manage to let us down when we meet them coms into play). Aryan has come to try to help him understand how wrong his actions were, but Guarav fails to see that. Instead he insists that it was done all for Aryan and Aryan should somehow be grateful. Aryan’s curt response to what is a disturbing attitude is to question who Guarav is to feel the right to do anything like that for him. Then he tells the young man that he was the one behind his arrest. Aryan’s response wounds Guarav deeply and it shows plainly on his face. 

That’s why people feel sorry for Guarav, perhaps sympathizing with him as fans themselves. And indeed, there is some truth to Guarav’s response, “Without Guarav, there is no Aryan.” Yet, I can’t help but think that Aryan’s response is anything but cruel. 

He’s been placed into a difficult situation by this fan. The disturbing act was posted by Guarav to the internet all for the sake of Aryan, but it’s an act that threatens Aryan’s reputation. Aryan comes to the jail in an obvious attempt to help the young man see some sense, but what he’s faced with is just one person of the millions making up the crowds that follow him. These people are capable of great love and apparently many are capable of great violence. How many are? All in the name of Aryan Khanna. What must that be like to know that you can instill those sorts of emotions in people simply by performing a job you like? And for that matter, how much does a star owe his fans?

Success is a double edged sword and no one knows that better than Shah Rukh Khan whose fame has been stratospheric. As strong as his adulation has been equally so are those who criticize him. And in many respects this is where the movie gets really interesting when we consider how closely Aryan Khanna’s life resembles that of the star playing him. Even down to the talk about his reign as the King of Bollywood coming to an end as younger actors vie for the title. Now of course this talk has gone on for decades and Khan’s reign has yet to be toppled, but both Khan and Khanna know it is a reality that might one day have to be faced (and in the film, Aryan seems to be carrying that burden). 

Beyond that the movie addresses the fickleness of celebrity worship and the dancing that a celebrity often has to do to stay in the limelight. The need to please everyone when there’s no possible way everyone can be pleased. Khan’s most recent movies have been criticized for lack luster performances at the box office and yet the past several years have seen him making some fascinating choices in roles and doing some of his best work. Sometimes the roles play with the image he’s built as a Lothario. Sometimes they break it all together while incorporating new ideas for acting and film making into the typical Bollywood film (this movie is a prime example of Khan’s willingness to experiment not only with VFX but with his own performance). They’re good movies and his performances are great…but they’re not the right kind of movies to please those fans unwilling to look beyond the image they built around him for decades. They are his fans. Should he not continue to make the kind of movies they want? Should he not try to stretch as an actor? 
And yet these are his fans as well. They helped him achieve his success. 

In some respects a celebrity is treated as a thing to be idolized, adored, respected as well as hated, insulted and scorned. There’s a scene in the film in which Khanna is hired to perform at the wedding of a rich Indian living in Dubrovnik, Croatia. Khan is well known for performing at people’s weddings early in his career and he may still do it. (Raised in poverty, he has spent his career perfectly willing to do whatever it takes in the mercurial industry to secure the financial futures of him and his family). When the issue of Guarav has caused distress in Khanna’s life in England, he arrives in Croatia almost for the performance and the man who hired him does not mince words about how irresponsible he is. Khanna has known this family for years. He has performed at other functions for them. At the moment he is going through a trauma few can imagine and yet the man addresses that trauma only in as far as the inconvenience it has caused him. Khanna is little more than a show dog in the eyes of this man who is unconcerned with any dilemma the star is currently embroiled in. After all, Khanna probably brought it on himself and besides, he’s paying him well isn’t he?

In the course of the exchange, you can see Khanna, stressed to the breaking point by the events of the past few days, wanting to snap back. In some respects his ego is as tender as the ego of Guarav and in a different situation perhaps Khanna would go after a bully. But instead he bites back the response knowing any negativity on his end will only make matters worse. Instead he swallows his pride and assures the man that he will deliver a great show. 

There is little doubt that this is an interaction Khan himself must have had in his life from time to time, his own distress or upset viewed as unimportant because he is, after all, merely a celebrity. And of course nothing he has to say can be worth much either. It’s said that the box office numbers for his 2015 film “Dilwale” were affected by a boycott of it because he spoke about intolerance in India. 

And in 1966 John Lennon claimed that the Beatles were better than Jesus only he didn’t really say that. He said they were bigger than Jesus at the moment, and he was commenting on the relevance of Christianity as an institution, not on Jesus or his particular teachings. But that’s how it translated in the heads of the many small-minded who were too busy being affronted to consider and comprehend what the show monkey was actually saying. 
That’s how fame works. Anything the show monkey says can be misconstrued and if people put more effort into believing what they think he meant, as opposed to finding out what he actually meant, it can be tough on a person’s career.

So essentially what we have in these two characters is a fan angered over the rebuke by an idol and a star horrified at what his stardom has inspired a fan to do.

After their talk in the jail, heartbroken by his experience, Guarav returns home to recoup. He takes down the photos and posters of Aryan which cover the walls and ceiling of his room. All the mementos he’s collected over the years are taken up to the roof and burned. His obsession, still burns just as brightly only now, it’s become an obsession for recognition (which, perhaps there has been a little of that need all along). His obsession now is to get the star to acknowledge the betrayal and apologize. And here again is addressed the dichotomy that is Guarav as his energy which could be so productive at bringing joy to his life is instead spent on the scheme to get a star to apologize to him.

In an interview recently, Khan mentioned that perhaps they should have made Guarav’s intentions more deadly. I disagree. Guarav’s actions inevitably turn deadly but by making his mission more benign, it makes all his actions in achieving his objectives more interesting. Guarav’s illness is a lot more complex and thus that makes the movie much more complex than if they simply had an insane fan try to kill a star. The chance to pull him back from the edge remains throughout the remainder of the film and you find yourself hoping that that will be the case. You ask, “Guarav, why can’t you use that creativity to make your own life better as opposed to pull down the life of another?”

I was struck by this in a scene after Guarav has made his decision to get that apology. He sells the internet café and uses the money to travel to Croatia where Khanna will be doing that dance for an ungrateful patron. Guarav is seen walking down some steps, surrounded by history, listening to a Croation language class on his iPod. He’s smiling, enjoying the lesson, fascinated by the surroundings and the experience, but his inspiration for all this isn’t to learn a language, enjoy a vacation, or use the money from his café to see the world and figure out his place in it. Rather, it’s all part of a plan to torment Aryan Khanna and get him to apologize. Again, Guarav, a young man, intelligent, business savvy, with a level of charisma that enables him to socialize with people cannot set aside his anger or obsession to focus on using those tools to better his life. Rather, he spends his energy to upset the life of another (He’s already traveled to London and caused a stir so serious that Khanna was arrested in the belief that it was he who committed the act).

And again, Khan’s performance is so good in this that he’s able to create a character so distinct from Khanna that you forget that in real life, as the actor is walking through that Croatian town, he has prosthetic makeup and dots on his face to show the computer VFX crew where his face needs to be altered into that of Guarav’s during post production.

Equally so is his understanding of Khanna’s motivations. Getting back to Khanna suffering in silence the arrogance of the rich man; once he discovers that all this is being done for the sake of an apology, all it would take to end this is for Khanna to apologize to Guarav. He could even give a false apology and lure Guarav to the authorities. But even for that, Khanna cannot bring himself to apologize to this young man who has turned his life upside down. How much more must he give to this fan?

You have here two men standing on principles that neither can bring themselves to compromise. Both in some respect becoming their own worst enemy. And it leads them down roads that neither would have guessed they’d travel. 

It’s a fascinating study in human nature as well as in some respects Khan’s nature as he must dig deep into the psyche of the fan and the star to portray them both. The technical elements are amazing, especially when the two come into contact with each other, from the face to face in the jail, to chases on rooftops, to the end chase along the streets of Guarav’s hometown. It comes off as practically seamless. And so much thought was put into Khan’s performance of both characters that during the first scene in which you see Aryan chasing Guarav, both characters are running completely differently: Aryan’s a much more assured and athletic gait, Guarav’s a bit looser, his feet splayed out slightly. Aryan has had to train for many of the roles he’s taken on, while all Guarav has had to do was to sit and watch them. 

When I saw the trailer for the first time before its release, I was extremely excited to see the movie. I was not disappointed once I did. And I recommend it to anyone whether they’re fans of Bollywood (which I guess this movie still technically is despite some of the elements missing from it) or they’ve never seen a Bollywood movie before. It is an interesting study of both what it means to be a fan, and what it means to be a celebrity and its star, Shah Rukh Khan has experience with both.