Yet another movie from back before I had figured out how to review movies! So I’m starting from scratch.
The objectively incontrovertible fact of this film is that it is a jawdropping technical achievement. The central performance, the special affects, the stunts, even the set design is just stunning. And subjectively, I think the narrative is original and intelligent. The problem with the film is, it’s just unpleasant to watch! This is not escapism, this is the opposite of escapism, dig-down-deep-inside-ism. It makes you question humanity, society, family, gender roles, everything. And it doesn’t give you a nice answer at the end, it just leaves all those questions hanging.
This is the kind of film that hits it big at film festivals all the time. Usually when I say “a festival kind of film”, I am being dismissive, I mean the kinds of films designed to appeal to a festival audience (navel gazing movies about upper middle class white people problems, or poverty porn for rich people). But in this case, I mean the kind of films that do well at festivals among the reviewers I actually respect. If you watch enough movies, if watching movies is your job, you watch them differently. The same things everyone is doing, the easy surface thrills, you get tired of those. You don’t go to films to feel “happy” any more, you go to them because you have to and sometimes you just get so so bored. When a film like this comes along, something so different technically and in topic, it’s exciting. And you can appreciate the challenge it was, the filmmakers have seen all those same things you have, and they chose to work very hard not to repeat any of them.
My problem is, I’m not a “real” movie reviewer. I don’t get paid to do this, and in fact I don’t want to get paid to do this. When it starts to feel like a job, then I stop doing it (thus the up and down posting schedule on this blog). So I want to see a movie to escape regular life, to feel good stuff, not just to intellectually admire. And this particular film takes you to a dark dark place if you just let go and escape into it.
I really wonder how Shahrukh was able to perform in this film. There are so many stories of actors losing themselves in dark roles, and in this movie Shahrukh was playing a darker version of his own self. Actually, a darker version of TWO selves! How could he do that and stay sane? Maybe because, like a “real” movie reviewer, he was able to treat it as an intellectual exercise? To remove the emotion from it and consider how to alter his performance for one role versus the other, and still be distinctive from his own real self?
I know how the director/writer was able to craft the film, he did it with great ambition, precision, and patience. He came up with the idea years earlier and brought it to his mentor Aditya Chopra who told him it wasn’t ready, he had to refine it. And then again and again and again. Until after years of writing and rewriting and considering and reconsidering he had a script and a film plan that was up to the standards of his editor. I think it made him work a lot harder, that he had to please Aditya before something so ambitious could even be presented to Shahrukh. And I also think it helped him stay sane, to have an outside voice guiding him and giving him objectivity when he got too lost in the work.
So I guess this review comes with a warning. If you are ready for a purely intellectual film experience, watch this film. If you need escapism, happiness, lightness, then don’t.
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Shahrukh 1 is a young man in Delhi who is a big fan of Shahrukh 2, a middle-aged married extremely powerful and popular movie star. Shahrukh 1 travels to Bombay with dreams of meeting Shahrukh 2 and, in an attempt to prove his devotion, kidnaps and threatens Shahrukh 2’s acting rival. Shahrukh 2 is shocked and calls the police and has Shahrukh 1 arrested, then goes to jail to meet with him and try to scare him into better behavior. Shahrukh 1 is released, now hating Shahrukh 2 as much as he used to love him. A year later in London, Shahrukh 2 is arrested for making a disturbance at Madame Tussauds. He proves he was elsewhere and begins to suspect he has a double trying to ruin his life. It happens again at a wedding he was scheduled to perform at in Prague, this time he chases across the rooftops and almost catches his double. He gives a press conference explaining the situation, which infuriates Shahrukh 1, so he returns to Bombay and fakes his way through the gate into Shahrukh 2’s house and threatens his wife and children and destroys his study. Shahrukh 2 is now furious and declares he will take care of him himself. He tracks down Shahrukh 1’s parents and then his girlfriend and turn them all against him. Shahrukh 1 is furious and he and Shahrukh 2 meet again at the local fair in his neighborhood. They chase again, Shahrukh 2 catches him and begs him to just let this all go, forget his heartbreak, be happy with his parents and everything he has in life and stop being a “fan”. Shahrukh 1 declares “you will never understand” and falls from the roof, killing himself. A year later, Shahrukh 2 goes out to wave to the crowd outside his house and hallucinates Shahrukh 1 in the crowd.
I want to start at the end. Why does Shahrukh 2 see Shahrukh 1 in the crowd? I think it goes back to why Shahrukh is playing the double role at all. This crowd of fans is like looking in a mirror, their adoration is a reflection of Shahrukh 2’s power and personality and everything else. Before, he saw them as neutral, safe, happy. Shahrukh 1 burst that bubble, revealed that hiding within that crowd is ugliness and hate and violence. Which also revealed to Shahrukh 2 that he had ugliness and hate and violence and powerlessness hidden within himself.
Shahrukh 1 is a good character, a naïve sweet boy whose heart is broken and all his obsession turned to hate. But Shahrukh 2 is an original character, the movie star who sees himself as controlled, kind, loving easy. When first introduced, he solves a minor fight between his children, then casually explains to his loving wife why he had to hit a man at a party, and why he doesn’t care what the media says about it. He isn’t a paragon of virtue, but he is very very sure of himself. His sins are measured and careful, he knows the price he will pay for them, and he sees the whole world as under his hand. He can control the media, the other actors, his fans, just as easily (and as lovingly and calmly) as he does his children. This is not a prideful out of control movie star, this is the opposite, a fully in control movie star with a carefully collaborated sense of himself and the respect due to his position.
His fatal flaw, his sin, is believing himself to be sinless. He doesn’t think he can feel real anger any more, or sorrow, or anything. He thinks he is at peace, has achieved balance. But Shahrukh 1 is everything he has forgotten, his small flawed humanity, and it draws that out in him. His anger, his hatred, and finally his sorrow as he mourns him.
It’s an amazing double role, if it had been played with a different structure, for instance a respected doctor and a young man whose life he saved, it would have had the same impact. A noble older powerful “perfect” person, and his dark shadow following behind him. The movie star setting in a vacuum was a brilliant choice, allowing the film to draw on Shahrukh’s own story and make fact into fiction. But it ended up making the film appear to be a vanity project, which it was not, and merely about stardom, which it was not.
I think this is a film about humanity. About trying to be the best version of ourselves and thinking that means we can forget the worst version of ourselves.