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Most writing – whether novels, essays, or reportage (even reviews), despite the surface-level chasm between the author and the subject – is an excuse to write about oneself.
Filmmaking is not too different, so much so that meta-cinema is a legit sub-genre, once even becoming a fad. It was the ultimate postmodern trick – hyper self-awareness, tireless cross-references, panoramic nudge-wink commentary (on the self, industry, and the audiences) – that, like most kooky things, eventually became a shtick. Because it also became a cover for suffocating self-absorption and artistic bankruptcy. So from afar, Rajat Kapoor’s new movie, RK/RKay, its meta-ness dripping from the title, elicited vague indifference and fatigue.
The problem isn’t Kapoor as much as Hindi cinema, whose long history of self-love – manifesting in both high- and low-budget films – seems like desperate reassertions of identity, swinging from needless to needy. Kapoor’s latest opens to a filmmaker, RK (Kapoor), finishing his movie. A romantic melodrama featuring Urdu dialogues segueing into a tacky actioner, the anachronistic piece is nothing like the man himself, a Bandra-Juhu type whose office hangs framed posters of La Dolce Vita, The Invisible Man, and Orson Welles.
RK/RKay begins well: predictable yet enjoyable. The opening credits play alongside mediocre actors auditioning for the role, botching loaded dialogues. The chosen actress Neha (Mallika Sherawat), playing a character named Gulabo, throws tantrums on set. Producer Goel (Manu Rishi Chadha), originally in the construction business, prods RK to make the film more ‘mass-ey’. There’s even a great dig at the Hindi indies (“people watch so much shit these days in the name of ‘independent cinema’”). But the movie is meta at a broader level, concentrating more on the filmmaking business than the director himself (not going much beyond the obvious “RK” wink).
It takes a sharp detour, however, with its first plot twist, when the lead actor in RK’s film – a character named Mahboob Alam (Kapoor) – goes missing.
He’s neither present in the rushes nor in the negative. It’s a nutty premise, and Kapoor runs with it. Goel insists on checking the CCTV footage to find Mahboob, even taking RK to a local police station to file a missing person’s complaint. It’s such a novel idea that RK/RKay could have lived in it, becoming a funny absurdist piece. The possibilities are endless – one among them disconcertingly political – that a Muslim man cannot even exist in fiction.
But there’s a twist within the twist. Because one evening, just like that, Mahboob reappears…in real life. He’s the same Mahboob RK has written, but unlike the character, he doesn’t want to die in the climax – or die at all. Living in the same house as RK, Mahboob is nothing like his creator. He’s a sincere man – untainted by cynicism and resentment, a premodern character in a postmodern world – who cooks breakfast for RK’s children, regales his guests with his gentle sense of humour, listens to his wife (Kubbra Sait), talks about love with such simple lyricism that it hurts. For many lovers of Hindi cinema, especially men, Mahboob is not just a character, he’s a promise they once made to themselves before life got to them – and life got to them so hard that they were only left with fragments of their narcissistic selves, incapable of self-love even.
Mahboob is the man RK had lost. Just take a step back and realise what has happened in the last 20 minutes: the movie has surprised us three times over, juggled tonal variations like balls in a circus, toyed with our perceptions – building a heap of themes that hit us like afterthoughts – while maintaining such a consistent light touch, as if nothing happened. This is, quite simply, genius filmmaking.
And its ingenuity has just begun.
Some movies are so assured – at the level of thought, writing, performance, and execution – that their storytelling and themes are in exceptional unison, where a scene is a theme. It’s the kind of filmmaking magic that evades even the best of minds. The first half of RK/RKay is, in essence, just a set-up for the ‘real’ film to follow: a tussle between an author and his character – a fight that raises several fundamental questions about not just the nature of cinema but life itself.
Consider the scene where an annoyed RK is trying to tell Mahboob that he’s not real – that he’s just a character. On the surface, it’s an unconventional face-off between two people, but the writing is so considered that it produces a universally haunting existential effect: “You are exactly how you were created”, “we can’t run away from who we are”. But it’s of course not as simple, because if Mahboob isn’t ‘real’, then what does that say about the character or the man who wrote him? Around 25 minutes later, we get a mirror image of the same scene where, RK screaming “you’re not real”, results in this response from an icy-cool Mahboob: “That’s where you’re wrong, RK sahib. Because you don’t have faith in your own writing; you don’t let your characters live.” He then twists the dagger: “Why do you keep demeaning me by saying I’m fictitious? How do you know for sure that you exist?”
Like one of its many themes, the multiplicity of identity, RK/RKay can’t be bottled.
For a brief stretch, it becomes a portrait of a “loser”, a man so ineffectual that even his characters don’t listen to him. As the stakes escalate, it’s not tough to side with Mahboob and see RK as a stereotypical vain filmmaker who only cares for his “artistic integrity”. But scratch the surface, and you’ll notice the difference: Mahboob is likeable; RK is real. Mahboob then is less of a character and more of a compensation, and now that compensation has returned to ask for a reward: Fiction has woken up to call life synthetic.
It’s also a film about the oxymoronic free will, about control, about the tyranny of creating something: Who, after all, drives the film – who owns the film? Sure, a writer creates a character, but anybody who’s sincerely attempted fiction will tell you that a character can surprise the author – a scene originally intended to go A, ends up in B, and it all makes sense.
But again, just when you think that you’ve got the film down, it escapes once more, like a genie in a bottle: this time through a romantic scene, between RK and Gulabo. Running for just three minutes, it’s a remarkable piece at various levels.
First, the timing: Mahboob has ravaged all plans of RK, and he’s sitting alone watching his film’s footage – perhaps the only thing he’s ever loved; the scene on screen is Gulabo combing her hair, saying, “Mahboob, where are you?” The man who’s both RK and Mahboob replies, “I’m here, Gulabo”, and she looks at him, and they start to grease their grievance.
Second, the tone: Gulabo is literally in a different film – more dramatic and more desperate – than RK, where a mellifluous song plays in the background, yet the exchange doesn’t feel like an intersection but a confluence. The scene is all RK to begin with, it’s all Gulabo when it ends.
Third, cheeky self-awareness doubling up as vanity: RK is, after all, a writer, saying his own lines from the script, one of which goes, “You don’t have one false bone in you. You are simply you. Whoever made you is a genius.”
Fourth, the intersection of cinema and life: The scene ends with RK getting a call from his wife. The whole thing is so dramatic and delicate, yet appropriately ‘real’ and melancholic, as if fiction made life bearable once more.
Watching and reviewing mediocre films for quite some time I didn’t even know what I was missing. It was this: a sense of wonder, curiosity, and risk – of care, conviction, and vulnerability. Mediocre films speak; good films talk. RK/RKay, primarily engaged in a quiet conversation with itself, asks you to listen.