Every story has a backstory. In moviemaking parlance, backstories are also called behind the scenes, or outtakes — vignettes that remain hidden from public view. Backstories are raw; they’re imperfect, but at times to due to their very nature, they can come across as complete and compelling, even fulfilling.
Similarly, every superstar lives with two different narratives, lives two different lives — one where he sells lies to millions, and the other where he tells lies to himself. The story of Shahrukh Khan – the star — is familiar and, quite frankly, boring: An actor who made a career out of selling what people wanted to buy; a choice that gave him fame, money, adulation but not much artistic credibility. Khan — less of an actor, more of a salesman — is not the first man to do that, and he will definitely not be the last. He’s also worsened over the last few years. In fact, in the last five years, he’s acted in movies such as Dilwale, Happy New Year, Chennai Express, Jab Tak Hai Jaan and Don 2, ones that aren’t even middling, that have nothing redeemable about them, that are defined by just one trait: the rotten smell of money.
But what sets Khan apart from his peers are his self-awareness, his sense of humour, and a unique perceptiveness, where he can see himself as a character in his own story, qualities that are evident in his interviews. So we definitely want to know about Shahrukh Khan-the man. When thousands squeal his name whenever he stretches his arms, does that madness quell some of his own insecurity? Or does that heighten it?
Khan’s latest release, Fan, at least at the outset, does seem interested in that question. However, the film, quite ingeniously, doesn’t directly reach the star, but does so through his fan–someone who is so enamoured with the actor that he not only talks, walks, dances and looks like him, but even tries to live like him. That fan is Gaurav Chandana, a 25-year-old man who runs a cyber café in Delhi, and his object of adoration is star Aryan Khanna (clearly modeled on real-life Khan).
A kind of love story
Fan opens like a certain kind of love story: first there’s attraction, then idealisation, followed by yearning and, sadly for Gaurav, that’s it. It is, at some level, not even a real relationship, because a bond is forged by two people; here, there’s just one, a fan and his interpretation of a star, both played by Shahrukh Khan. It’s a fascinating conceit because cinema does something inexplicable to ordinary people living ordinary lives. Cinema is the drug of people craving an alternate reality. And Gaurav is a textbook addict.
When Gaurav wins a local competition for impersonating Aryan, he heads to Mumbai, to meet his idol, to meld his two separate worlds into one. Simultaneously, with Gaurav’s journey, Fan also heads somewhere else: into the morass of mediocrity. The main problem with Fan, quite evident from its first trailer (which, somewhat bizarrely, explained the entire movie in less than three minutes), is that it both wants the film and its central character to be, well, something, to resemble a type we’re already familiar with.
What begins as an understated, nuanced exploration of a different worldview soon devolves into a simplistic plot, where the makers are eager to take sides and bracket its characters. There’s absolutely no attempt to understand the roots of Gaurav’s obsession. There’s nothing in the film that tells us that it wants to place Gaurav — and his merits and flaws — in context. Obviously, not every protagonist in a film needs to have a clearly defined backstory, or overt motivations for their actions, but we do need to engage with the character to understand what prompts their sudden and drastic change of behaviour.
Maneesh Sharma, Fan’s director, is not interested in any of that. If the film’s initial portion hints about a certain kind of obsessiveness — ‘madness’ — then shortly, Sharma tells us the reason for that: Because Gaurav is mad, a stalker, someone whose brain is not wired the correct way. Simple as that. You’ve the entire film in front of you: Gaurav is a villain. Sharma is, of course, not very explicit about those connotations (although Gaurav is called ‘sanki’ (psycho) at one point in the movie), but a bunch of scenes, coming one after the other, keeps pointing towards the fact that Gaurav is at fault, keeps removing any shred of ambiguity from this film, keeps pushing us away from giving our own meanings to this film. This is not just lazy but also disingenuous filmmaking, for Sharma dumbs down a complex idea into making a film that released in Indian theatres more than 22 years ago: That movie was Darr, starring Khan, produced by the same studio that’s backed Fan, Yash Raj Films. After a point, Fan stops being about Gaurav, stops being about a fan, instead becomes a monotonous thriller revolving around a stalker. In fact, had Madhur Bhandarkar made this movie, he’d have simply called it Stalker. And it’s a pity because Fan showcases death of a wonderful idea.
The bits where Khan is playing himself are especially poignant and honest. At one point in the film, Khan is in London to perform at a wedding. During the course of the day, he is, for the most part, treated as a regular performer; people keep entering his room to remind him that he has to turn up on time, the implication being that he may be a star, but right now he’s owned by a large sum of money. At the end of one such scene, we see a trace of humiliation and regret on Khan’s face, and for a brief while, we understand what it possibly means to live a life where one’s so dependent on others, so devoid of control, and yet the appearance for public consumption has to contradict precisely that.
Then there’s a scene where Khan walks on stage and sees that no one’s turned up for his show; the look on Khan’s face — of a nightmare (which probably hounds every star, something that Khan, in real life, must have also thought about) having come to life — is extremely disquieting.
But the most unfortunate bit about Fan is that the few heartfelt, genuine moments in the movie, which ring true in real life (both for the actor and his hardcore admirers), are encroached upon by Sharma trying to fit his movie into a mould, killing those moments with plot points, de-humanising his protagonist who deserved respect and kindness.
Another Friday, another Shahrukh Khan failure. Maybe we will soon stop being surprised.