Once Upon an Actor

The might of a ‘Star’ in the Indian film industry is measured by the extent he can attract the crowd to the theatres when and, as he wants. It’s his badge of honour, what he’s known for. But, if you are ready to crumble the glittering façade of any Indian superstar, you would discover something revelatory— the very reasons that make the star omnipotent also render him helpless. Because a star is empowered by others; he craves for validation, and his definition of good or bad is not personal, rather derived from his multitude of fans who know him more than he knows himself. And, at times unbeknownst to him, pleasing others can soon turn into pandering, the lines, then, quickly begin to blur and it’s a little like being lost in a maze; he can’t find his way out and also cannot pinpoint the reason he orchestrated this in the first place. What remains is the deafening applause, the soaring box-office figures, and the pretence of power. His first blockbuster hit, which made him who he is right now, also made him relinquish control.

Precisely for the same reasons the schism between a superstar and an actor (not that they are always mutually exclusive) progressively increases— the former has an identity created by others, the latter frowns on the very word. The former is a lion—king of the jungle, towering over others, dictating terms, always trying to outdo his peers; the latter is a chameleon— obsessively changing forms, shunning anything that can define him, pin him down. The former competes with others, the latter competes with himself. Both require separate skill sets, and values. But, a more important question, can the two ever substantially overlap? If there’s one actor, or more appropriately, a ‘star’, in Bollywood, whose filmography comes even close to answering that question, it is Aamir Khan’s. Moreover, because Khan’s latest film, Dhoom:3, speaks oodles about a guy who wants to have it all. He wants to be both lion and chameleon.

Aamir Khan

Khan’s filmography can be divided into two phases— Before and after Lagaan (2001). Before Lagaan, you would be hard pressed to find a narrative—for the better or worse—in Khan’s filmography. It mirrored most actor’s filmographies— highly chequered, the highs of Sarfarosh, Rangeela, Earth marred by the lows of Mela, Mann. There was no real intent, no discernible pattern. But, Lagaan not only reinforced Khan’s clout at the box-office but also gave his film the ultimate validation— an Oscar nomination. This was followed by Dil Chahta Hai, a film that flamboyantly flouted rules and redefined coolth. More importantly, Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai were released within two months of each other and Bhuvan and Akash could not have belonged to a more different universe, and Khan performed both those roles with unique aplomb, a trait that’s often not associated with a ‘star’. Right from Dev Anand to Rajesh Khanna to Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood has not demanded much from its stars; it places them on a pedestal, mostly via their most identifiable and popular roles, and squashes their space, forcing them to continually rehash the same roles. But, here, we were seeing something different— a star obsessively trying to avoid labels. To truly understand where Aamir Khan stood in 2001, one has to look at the kind of films his peers—the other two stars—were doing. In the same year, Shahrukh Khan was seen in three films— One Two Ka Four, Ashoka, Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, and  Salman Khan was seen in just one— Chori Chori Chup Ke Chup Ke. The difference is quite telling. Suddenly, Aamir Khan had it all. And, even though Dil Chahta Hai did not earn a lot of money, it established Khan as an actor for whom box-office success was secondary, his primary concern now was being versatile. And this new found fixation was seen in the kind of films he picked— each one ‘different’ from the other, appearing on screen after prolonged breaks, looking visibly different, genuinely taking risks (the most notable one being Rang De Basanti (2006)— an engaging, uneven film with populist, muddled ideology, but Khan’s choice stood out because he shared screen time with five other lesser known actors, something no other star would have).

***

The year is 2008—seven years since Lagaan releasedand Khan’s only four films have hit the screens. And, none of them could be slotted as unabashedly commercial. Khan must answer this question: should he continue doing the films that appeal to him at the risk of alienating a large chunk of the audience? Or, should he now turn his gaze outwards and understand what the audience also wants? But, by then, Khan had also successfully cultivated an alter ego— the one who was doing relatively intelligent films with accessible, easy-to-digest messages, and neat resolutions. And, although those films, such as Rang De Basanti and Taare Zameen Par, could have benefitted with some much needed nuance, but such was the standard of mainstream Bollywood, and still is, that most were genuflecting in front of Khan because even the whiff of something unconventional was more than enough, its extent irrelevant. At the end of the day, you can only be as intelligent as your audience allows you to be. But, Khan sprang into everyone’s attention because no one else—especially with someone of his stature and clout—would have touched those films with a barge pole. And, when almost everyone in mainstream was trying to outdo each other in mediocrity, Khan was the one everyone looked up to. And, then he appeared in Ghajini— a film that conveniently filched Memento‘s main plot point and infused it with theatrical action sequences, reminiscent of blockbuster south Indian films, but, as we call came to know, Ghajini was instrumental in changing the way we see and analyze the economics of Bollywood films by introducing a term that has become the yardstick for successful films: ‘The 100 crore club’. Ghajini was the first Bollywood film to net 100 crores in the domestic market. Merely a year later, Khan’s 3 Idiots became the first Bollywood film to collect 200 crores in the domestic market. The other two stars were not even in the pictureSalman Khan’s blockbuster hit Dabangg would release roughly a year later, Shahrukh Khan’s much publicised Ra.One would fail to create ruffles at the box-office, and it would take him for more than three-and-a-half years to break 3 Idiot’s box-office record (with almost triple the number of screens). Similar to 2001, but this time for a totally different reason, Aamir Khan was not only in the news; he was the news.

In fact, in the last few years, Aamir Khan’s filmography is a statistician’s delight. Before Dhoom:3, his choice of last four films shows an actor who wants to have the best of both the worlds. You can bracket his last four films in two separate categories— Dhobhi Ghat and Talaash in one, both because of their meditative, contemplative worlds and the way they employ certain cinematic aesthetics, and 3 Idiots and Ghajini in the other, easily accessible, crowd-pleasing outings. Ghajini, especially, was one of the more dumbed down Khan’s films in its execution, but, his histrionics still didn’t completely kowtow to the definition of a superstar. In both the films, his performances, no matter how preachy or vengefully heroic, were still a part of the film’s universe, whereas the true definition of a superstar, at least in Bollywood’s cinematic idiom, is that he’s the universe itself. The screen worships him, makes love to him, deifies him, and most importantly, objectifies him. And, this intent and madness is solely directed towards the audience; nothing else matters, not the film, the story, the director; what matters is just the audience and the object of its adoration. It’s surprising that what appears to be nothing but an ostentatious marketing exercise can also be something intimate.

Also, it’s surprising how frequently the phenomenon of a superstar is condescendingly dismissed and often mentioned only in tones of derision. Sure, it does not require a lot of acting, but then why should that be the only criterion to judge someone on screen? In fact, Khan’s decision to act in Dhoom:3 entailed as much risk taking as his roles in films, which required him to get into the skin of the character, solely because Dhoom:3 asked questions from him he hadn’t answered before— performing a solo, elaborately constructed dance number; stylish bike chase sequences; and sparkling on-screen beyond the confines of the story and his character. Like other iconic ‘stars’, he had to transcend the character and just be himself. And, that was the question looming on my mind before I went into the theatre and, also, how does one go about making a film that manages to please a large section of audience without being mind numbingly fluffy? A rare film that doesn’t alienate any section of the crowd, allowing the audience to see two films in its frames, a film that’s both liberated in its every strands but still stands tall when diagnosed for its sanity. For instance, consider the opening scene of Amar Akbar Anthony, where three sons—all from different religions—are donating blood to their mother. A scene that works for its sheer theatrics and the way it taps into the popular notion of the relationship between a mother and her sons, but at the same time, it’s also a scene that’s incoherent because of its gargantuan leap of logic and hence comes across as one that’s lazily written, almost pandering in its scope and intent. A scene that pleases one section of the audience—its target audience—but insults and alienates the other. And that’s where the question of a target audience comes; why should a film be constricted to have one? But, that’s how mainstream Bollywood movies are generally constructed is the usual meek defence. These films are not meant for analyzing, in fact you would be better off keeping your brains at home and then enjoy them. It’s an unwritten Bollywood rule— masala films and intelligence can never convene.

Hence, it’s surprising when the two of them actually do in the first ten minutes or so of Dhoom:3. We are quickly informed, without any superfluous exposition, about Haroon Khan’s (Jackie Shroff) quandary; that his circus would be auctioned if he and his son doesn’t manage to impress the head honcho (Anderson) of a city bank. While Haroon is getting ready for the night, he quietly slips a gun in his jacket’s pocket. A few minutes later, the show ends and the verdict is announced: their performance didn’t quite cut it; the circus is going to be auctioned. Haroon’s son, Sahir, rushes towards Anderson and, in a fashion that reminds one of the ‘70s, begins pleading in front of him, his desperation so pronounced that he soon switches to Hindi—even though well aware that Anderson cannot speak the language—and what began as a conversation turns into a monologue because Sahir’s no longer speaking to Anderson, he’s speaking for himself and his father. And, simultaneously, the tension also simmers in the scene due to a different reason, even though its initiator hasn’t begun participating, yet. But, we all know it’s only a matter of time when the ‘Chekhov’s Gun’ makes its presence felt— a few steps away from the auditorium’s entrance, where Sahir is getting helpless by the second, stands Haroon on a stage; we know he’s carrying a gun in the jacket’s pocket, the question is, when would he use it? And, the fact that he doesn’t use it straightaway only escalates the stakes. This question of when keeps teasing us by ingeniously delaying the inevitable, something you wouldn’t expect in a mainstream film like this; this rare propensity to stretch itself and add an extra element to the scene while retaining its more immediate pleasures.

However, the film soon gets drunk on its excesses of extremely long, uninteresting bike chase sequences, akin to drawn out songs where the narrative is completely detached from what’s happening on-screen. Not that everything happening on-screen at all times has to be coherently enmeshed with a narrative, but when scenes after scenes you are bombarded with stand-alone tedious action sequences, it whittles the film’s pace, a cardinal sin for a film that projects itself as an action thriller. But, what could have saved this part was Aamir Khan in a different avatar, an Aamir Khan doing something he’s not known for. But, Khan doesn’t only botch up the part; he’s so incompetent that you feel nothing but pity for him. Consider the ‘tap dance’, where his constant scowling face looks so misplaced and inappropriate that you feel guilty watching this film, of forcing Khan to do this. Forget ruling the screen or lighting up the frame he’s in, he looks painfully uncomfortable. And, this is not the case with one isolated dance number, but in almost every scene that requires him to be a ‘star’ Khan can respond with only two expressions— either a scowl accompanied with grimace (bizarrely, in scenes where he’s supposed to let go and have a lot of fun), or a quasi-condescending smirk. These two stock expressions are so constant and linear that you wonder what happened to the guy who gave us Lagaan and Dil Chahta Hai back in 2001? Why this pronounced desperation to become a box-office star now? Sure, those tendencies were well in place in the last couple of years, but it had never been heightened to such a level we see in Dhoom:3. And, here was a film that was only too happy to comply, too happy to give Khan that space, but the portions till the interval exposes Khan’s inadequacy like no film ever has. Which brings up an earlier question— then, why do a movie like this? If this is clearly something you don’t believe in, or more importantly, something you are not good at, why simply do it at all? Probably we all know the familiar, boring answer to this naive question.   

However, the film reveals itself in ways few would have expected it to a couple of minutes before the interval aided by a twist, the ‘aha’ moment that’s sometimes so pivotal to these films. We are introduced to Samar, Sahir’s twin brother, who stammers frequently, hesitates to make eye contact while conversing, but at the same time, is also brilliant in mathematics, logic, and making things work. His brother is the face of their shenanigans, Samar the brains. Yet, Samar lives in a dungeon, and when both of them are together he’s a lesser brother, a less of a man. But, is he less capable? The film suddenly begins asking you different questions: the difference between the interiority and the exteriority, and the way we perceive and accept those qualities; the conundrums of people who can’t open to you in a social gathering but their outpourings are reserved for an inaccessible diary in the middle of a night; the dominance of a flamboyant, at times even facile exterior over an insightful, but subdued interior. These are some unwritten rules everyone abides by when judging someone, our preconditioning clouding our perspicacity. Samar wants to reach out but he can’t go beyond himself. And, when he’s allowed the luxury to just be, he’s constricted by a particular day of a week and a slender time window. In those few hours, he blissfully runs on the streets all by himself, grooves to music only he can hear, and sees beauty in the world the way he wants to, not fearing the rules of propriety that’s always talking down to him. This new structural change in the film—from plot driven to character driven—still doesn’t elevate Khan’s act (although as a minor consolation, here, he’s relatively less incompetent and more comfortable). But, he still comes across as oddly uneven, not-in-sync enough with the character, purely because here, ironically, he uses Samar’s body language—his outer world—as a crutch to portray him. But, these sporadic annoyances don’t blot the sudden emergence of a new world in the film. In fact, no one went into Dhoom:3, expecting a movie like this would be embedded somewhere amidst the hoopla of a big budgeted film.

In one of the later scenes in the film, perhaps one of the few consummately well written scenes in the film, which sparkles just because of the way it’s constructed and not how it’s performed (Khan is staggeringly incompetent here, again), Samar confronts Sahir and vents out that it’s now time to end this charade, that he’s had enough of living in the shadows. In return, Sahir retorts enumerating Samar’s ‘weaknesses’, substantiating why he deserves to be hidden. Samar bursts out finally saying who he is. He cannot be defined by labels—weak, his brother’s shadow—because he’s not a pale imitation of someone else, he’s just… himself. The Uses come first, the adjectives, which either extol or castigate us, come much later. It’s a fascinating question, who are you? Are you someone who is just defined and seen by labels? And, why the definition of your self has to be shaped and coloured by things you can or cannot do? Why can’t you just be you? And, before Samar rushes out of the house to meet Alia (Katrina Kaif) he encounters a series of mirrors, he wipes off his tears, and the five mirror images stare back at him. Which one of them is the real Samar, really?

The real ‘twist’ in the film is not Samar’s inclusion but the fact that through him, albeit briefly and frustratingly, through really shoddy acting, the film at least skims the surface of some complex questions and reaches out inconspicuously. Who would have thought of all the films, a film like Dhoom:3 would give one something to chew on? And, is that rare film possible in Bollywood— one which is both intelligent and crowd-pleasing? A film that makes the least creative compromises but also registers its prominence at the box-office?

There was also one more interesting aside in the film, but again almost rendered invisible by obtrusively mediocre acting and half-baked writing. It can be summed up in a line often said by the cop, Jai Dixit, to the villains in the movie’s first two instalments: “Had you not been a thief we would have been really good friends.” This line didn’t work in the movie’s first and second parts less because it’s over the top and more because it’s just lazy writing— a classic example of ‘Show don’t tell’. We are not really shown why should a cop and goon be friends in these films. On the contrary, consider The Dark Knight, where Joker tells the Batman: “I don’t, I don’t want to kill you! What would I do without you? Go back to ripping off mob dealers? No, no, NO! No. You… you… complete me.” Right there, and also through out the film just by seeing what they stand for, you can sense Batman and Joker can be friends. Both of them can go to any lengths to preserve their idea of the world. And, both of them are ready to risk it all, destroy and be destroyed in the process. They share something between them, which most don’t even posses; their unchecked madness itself could make them friends, although not in the conventional way we know and recognize the word. Interestingly, in Dhoom:3, Acharya plays with this idea a little because here he ‘Shows’ the friendship between Samar (not as evil as his twin brother, of course, but substantially evil nevertheless) and Jai, the cop. For a few scenes in the film, both of them exist beyond the labels conferred on them; they are just two people who, due to different reasons, have been in their own bubble. But, once they step outside they do connect. Again, much like other asides in the film, it’s a separate, sagacious concept in itself— we have been conditioned so much to judge people by what they are and how they appear that we seldom judge them by who they are. Their camaraderie, however, is soon engulfed by the other concerns of the film, but it’s intriguing for a brief while it lasts because during those scenes the characters don’t exist just to take the story forward, they allow you the luxury to question, and you wonder what could have Acharya achieved had he explored this subplot with a little more finesse and seriousness?

Can a film, which is consistently blotted by bad acting, and superficial writing—largely unmindful of the nuggets it hides and hence only scratches the surface instead of probing—be also interesting, even intimate? Conventionally, the answer to that question is an unequivocal ‘No’, but, despite the inconsistencies and mediocrity at display in Dhoom:3’s second half, I was hooked. It kept on speaking to me on a different level even though it was too obvious that the place where it came from was at best sloppily constructed and a hodge-podge. I never thought a film, or a substantial part of it, could speak to me beyond the confines of being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And, why should a film really have to be one or the other for it to initiate a conversation?

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