The evolving nature of modern Indian cinema is no longer surprising. Films that in a not-so-distant past would never have been picked up by production houses or distributors are landing on cinema screens. What is more exciting then, is the heartening knowledge that Indian cinema audiences have also supported this evolution through their wallet. Looking at mainstream Bollywood alone, in the last year we have seen films like Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Badlapur and Talvar get wide distribution, along with critical and commercial success. In the ’90s, these kinds of films were considered box office poison. In 2016, they flourish. Supposedly “unconventional” films like Airlift and Neerja have performed exceptionally well at the box office. Furthermore, a film like Aligarh, that discusses the still taboo subject of homosexuality with depth and nuance, was picked up for distribution by one of the largest distributors of Indian films, Eros International. The lines between the indie cinema audience (a niche market) and the mainstream cinema audience (the mass market) in an Indian context are now well and truly blurred.
This evolution is important to keep in mind when watching director Maneesh Sharma’s Fan. Shah Rukh Khan is arguably the global face of not just Bollywood, but Indian cinema at large. He is perhaps the only Indian actor whose films at times perform much better in the overseas markets than at the domestic box office. He the king of endorsements, the king of the perfect tongue-in-cheek comeback, the king of a highly divisive fan base, the king of controversy, and, naturally, the ‘King of Bollywood’. However, while brand SRK has scaled new heights in a business sense, his choice of films in the recent past have been nothing but questionable. It’s sadly ironic that the young, enthusiastic new kid on the block with a bundle of energy that broke through the formulaic mainstream Bollywood mould with unconventional anti-hero roles in films like Darr and Baazigar would come to represent the face of conventionality. The last film of Shah Rukh’s that offered us something ‘different’ was Chak De India! way back in 2007. Now, after what seems like an eternity, we have Fan. The film has no songs, no conventional hero-heroine dynamic, no conventional ‘villain’ and works much better as a slow burning character study than as the ‘fast-paced psychological action-thriller’ that the marketing team would lead you to believe. In many ways, this is Shah Rukh’s official entry into the modern evolutionary phase of Indian cinema, an attempt to break away from his mainstream romantic hero image and one which succeeds to a significant extent.
As the film opens, we are introduced to Gaurav Chandna, a middle-class twenty-something from Delhi who is a huge fan of superstar Aryan Khanna and also bears a somewhat striking resemblance to him (Shah Rukh plays both characters). The first half builds the deep affection that Gaurav has for his idol, often teetering dangerously between love and obsession. When Gaurav gets a chance to see his idol on his birthday, things don’t go quite as planned, and his idol isn’t the person Gaurav had imagined him to be.
Sharma makes Fan a film divided both in narrative and stylistically. The first half almost feels like a docudrama, with raw footage and interview snippets from Shah Rukh’s real-life rise to stardom interspersed throughout. In fact, the film uses the real footage captured outside of Shah Rukh’s house of the thousands of people who come to get a glimpse of him every year on his birthday. The expanse of people who move to every hand wave and gesture of Shah Rukh when he shows up on his balcony is both awe inspiring and slightly scary to witness. In this re-purposing of the real, the first half of Fan becomes an inspired meta commentary on fandom and its relationship with celebrity culture. This is especially relevant in an Indian context, given the obsessive nature of deification of celebrities that is prevalent in different Indian cinema industries, whether it is Bollywood or down South. It also allows Shah Rukh to satirise aspects of his stardom and poke fun at some of his more micro-managed elements of his life.
It’s in the second half where things go slightly awry, as more conventional Bollywood hallmarks find their way in. It’s as if director Maneesh Sharma and screenwriter Habib Faisal were afraid to see this fascinating and darker film through to the end. Past the intermission point we have elaborate chase sequences, an unnecessarily loud background score and scenes that defy plausibility in an effort to satisfy mainstream tastes in a narrative that frankly could’ve (and should’ve) done without that.
In Gaurav, Shah Rukh gives us a character who is representative of the various faces of fandom. He is endearing in affection, childish and steadfast in defending Aryan, and even surreptitiously creepy in the way he begins to mimic every aspect of his idol’s life. Yet, every ounce of him resonates within you somewhere. We’ve all copied some mannerisms of celebrities we admire (albeit very badly) and you can’t help but smile when Gaurav does the same.
It also helps that Gaurav looks the part that he plays. It was a big risk to have Shah Rukh play a double role. However, that proves to be the film’s masterstroke. Three time Academy Award winner Greg Cannom (who has worked on age make-up for Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) was brought in to design Shah Rukh’s younger look, with VFX and 3D scanning transforming him into his twenty-something self. That noted, both characters are clearly separate identities, at times to the extent that you never feel this is Shah Rukh in a double role. He plays Gaurav with remarkable restraint and subtlety, leaving no hint of the mainstream Shah Rukh hamming it up for the galleries.
Shah Rukh’s commitment to both roles – Gaurav and Aryan, sees you through the more unconvincing moments of the film in the second half. Fan is a Shah Rukh Khan vehicle all the way. The focus is on him and he relishes the opportunity to play two very different characters on screen. Deepika Amin and Yogendra Tiku as Gaurav’s parents lend an able supporting hand. Waluscha de Sousa as superstar Aryan’s spouse does a commendable job for her debut film. Shriya Pilgaonkar as Neha in Gaurav’s life has limited scope but also plays her part well.
The only song associated with the film, “Jabra – Fan Anthem”, was released separately earlier and recorded in many different languages as a dedication to all fans in general – irrespective of their celebrity idols. The song has already struck a chord among audiences and worked well as a marketing strategy, particularly as it doesn’t feature in the actual film. The background score by Andrea Guerra was suitably nuanced in the first half to match the tone of the narrative but, again, becomes irritatingly loud and hammy in order to play-up the populist elements in the second half.
The sharp tonal divide must have made the editing a real challenge for Namrata Rao. The extended chase sequences don’t really work and the film could have easily been trimmed by at least fifteen minutes. However, this complaint about tonal inconsistency and indecision should perhaps be levelled at the directorial vision of Maneesh Sharma. At 138 minutes, the film doesn’t feel stretched apart from these issues and allows time for character development where needed. Cinematography by Manu Anand is top notch, especially in the first half where shots of Delhi are used to establish a sense of place and the middle-class environment where Gaurav has grown up.
Overall, Fan suffers slightly due to tonal inconsistencies and unnecessary inclusion of populist elements in a narrative that could have done without them. However, despite these flaws, it’s Shah Rukh’s Gaurav that actually stays with you long after the film’s end. The success of the film lies in its focus on the two sides of the same coin – a fan and his idol. It’s this part character study, part meta commentary on celebrity culture that is the heart of the film. Shah Rukh Khan fans all over the world can only hope that this film is the starting point for a wiser selection of roles from the actor in the near future, because when allowed to truly showcase his talents, he is able to mesmerise you like no other.