Vah, vah, vah! Kya film thi!
Our money's on Luck by Chance - best film of 2009? Maybe. It's a bit early to call, being just February, and we're optimistic this year has even more in store. So while we don't have the courage to already dub it the year's best, we can say that it's a wonderful inauguration to what promises to be a year full of Hindi cinema potential. And what better way to kick out the jams of 2009 than a film about... making films!
Luck by Chance basically covers every single thing you need to know about the Hindi film industry. Sure, it's full of clichés - the desperately ambitious struggling actor, the sleazy producer, the idiotic princess - but it's such well-done cliché that we really have no complaints. This film manages to tackle every industry myth and real-life cliché with a smart cynicism: the filmi families, the superstitions, the light-dark skin tone racism, the Hindi-English dichotomy, the death of theater, the parallel cinema versus masala divide, even the "Bollywood" semantics issue... Not only that, rather than the glittering star parade of 2007's Om Shanti Om - another film about films - Luck by Chance's cameos are intelligent, wry and add depth. That is, the stars don't just walk on to pump up the film's appeal, but rather they serve key purposes: Karan Johar's explanation of the legendary "outsider" success stories at the party, for example. Furthermore, the entire cast is top-notch and there are some surreal, meta performances too (for example, Sanjay Kapoor as a failed hero and youngest brother of the big-shot producer).
The film follows a young struggling actor, Vikram (Farhan Akhtar), as he navigates the heady, two-faced world of behind-the-scenes Bollywood. He strikes up a romance with a B-movie actress, Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma), who has been waiting three years for a promised big break. Meanwhile, further up on the ladder is producer Romy Rolly (Rishi Kapoor) and his airhead trophy wife, Minty (Juhi Chawla). Romy's new film, Dil ki Aag (Flames of the Heart) is currently filming with his favored hero, the superstar Zaffar Khan (Hrithik Roshan, in a wonderfully ironic performance) and the debuting star child, Nikki (Isha Sharvani). Nikki's severe stage mom is the aging 70s superstar, Neena (Dimple Kapadia). When Zaffar lands a part in the upcoming Karan Johar film with Shah Rukh Khan - who, the film implies again and again, is at the top of the Bollywood pecking order - he dumps Romy's film. It's then up to destiny, hustling and sweat to get Vikram into the film's coveted lead role instead.
Ultrabrown's review makes a very good point that this film, which is ostensibly about the underdog outsider making it big in Bollywood, is made, instead, by the most gilded of star families: almost everyone in this film comes from a privileged filmi family. But we think this lends the film a knowing, self-consciously ironic air: as we mentioned, many stars have significant, smart cameos and the few actors in this film who are not playing themselves are generally playing parodies of themselves. Take Hrithik Roshan, for example: he has some wonderful moments such as when he laments that he's becoming "mechanical", that he is not Zaffar Khan but rather is the "employee" of the image of Zaffar Khan (something Shah Rukh Khan has said of himself) and when he eyes the rising star Vikram at the glitterati party with a half-predatory, half-insecure glare. And that's just one slice! Speaking of Shah Rukh Khan, his cameo, which is the culmination of the star parade, is the classiest of the lot: it's a real "we've finally reached the wizard of Oz!" moment.
Ultrabrown and Filmi Girl also noted that the film is difficult to connect with on an emotional level. And it's true: this film is primarily intellectual, it's a trendy arthouse movie wrapped in a commercial package, and so its tone is likewise snarky, cynical and ironic. In particular, the romance doesn't really work. And almost everyone in the film is an unlikably two-faced, overly ambitious and selfish social climber - at least most of the time. There is also a lot of gray, and a certain tragic air to the pervasive insecurity everyone seems to suffer from. It's indeed disheartening to see that the rat race never ends, that the top of the heap is a lonely and unhappy existence. The film's sense of humor is also the snort-and-snicker variety, with a lot of sarcasm and ridicule. All this makes it hard to like on a more straightforward, sentimentalist level. Yet there is some poignancy, such as when the aging Romy Rolly/Rishi bemoans the lost dignity of the current generation, and when Neena/Dimple instead reveals the harshness of her early life as a star (and this is interesting in itself; a commentary on the double standards for men and women in the industry, perhaps?). And just as a documentation of a fascinating industry, this film is great. We liked it and we highly recommend it - especially for those just getting into Hindi cinema. It's a crash course in all you need to know to be conversant with the lingo and mythos of Hindi films. Now we can only hope that the Raj Kapoor biopic starring Anil Kapoor (AHEM AHEM PLZ MAKE THIS FILM UNIVERSE) will have that same knowing, harshly cynical, exposé vibe about that era.