Friday, April 22, 2016

Fandom Menacing

"You wouldn't understand."

Fan (2016) is a dark psychological thriller, a visceral action picture, and a thoughtful meditation on the way modern celebrity culture messes people up. But most importantly, it gives us a throwback to Shah Rukh Khan in his glory days as the crying, giggling psychopaths of yore. In movies like Darr, Baazigar, and Ram Jaane – ahh, the pleasures of Ram Jaane, which I can’t begin to justify, so thank heavens I don’t have to – he was surprisingly sympathetic as creeps and stalkers, sometimes going so far as murder, while remaining recognizably human.

(Spoilers to come, yaar).
It deals with some of the same themes SRK has been interested in films like the underrated Billu, which similarly used existing promotional material for his real-life blockbusters, but wrapping them up in genre conventions probably makes them feel less heavy-handed than they can seem in a slice-of-life. 

For the majority of Fan, he plays Gaurav, a Delhi underdog whose devotion to superstar Aryan Khanna is at first understandable, given the physical resemblance that Gaurav has used to create his own mini-stardom mimicking the actor at a local annual talent competition, until his attempt to make dreams reality by meeting his hero go awry. He also plays Aryan, who becomes more prominent as a character as the story develops. The effects used to make the two look different enough, and also to make Gaurav much younger than the actor is, were sometimes distracting, since I'd find myself wondering "How did they do that? Is that motion capture?" But the familiar SRK voice and mannerisms, as well as the film's echoes with his actual biography, add to the uncanniness.

Since I could be accused of sometimes reading too much into Khan and his films -- for example, all the words I've poured onto Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (which also dealt with identity and doubling!) here and here --  I will continue on in the same vein. In addition to exploring the fraught, mutually dependent but utterly dysfunctional relationship between stars and their publics, Fan also works as a subtle critique of religious fanaticism. The nobody openly talks about the movie star being a god to him, almost literally an idol. This focus has given his life meaning and purpose, and even though it’s pointed out to him that it’s a trivial purpose, he doesn’t care. His devotion is such that his first real steps into mental instability and violence come when this idol is insulted, and the reason is because he over-identifies with the object of his worship.

In turn, Gaurav is explicitly described as a monster, which in Hindi is some version of the word Rakshasha. Sorry, I couldn't take notes in the theater. But it's not that he’s either a monster, a hurt human being, or a good guy gone astray (as his parents and pretty neighbor Neha realistically insist). He can be all those things. As can Aryan: when told that his fan is mad, he muses, “What am I?” The film starts from Gaurav’s point of view, and we can empathize with his need for connection, for something to believe in, and for a time, it seems harmless and even touching. But the two men can't understand each other. The star wants to be reminded of the connection he has to normal people, and keeps trying to reach Gaurav on that basis. But the normal people reject that connection: they want all the things they DON'T have in common with their heroes.

But enough theme and meaning -- let's get to the important stuff. The action sequences were fantastic – I was literally flinching – and perhaps most thrilling: once the early establishing part of the movie were done, and Gaurav was en route to Mumbai to track down his idol, I literally had no idea, from moment to moment and scene to scene, what was going to happen next. That sense that anything was possible carried all the way to the very end, which could have gone in any direction whatsoever.

A few implausibilities are introduced for the sake of drama. Like seriously, at that wedding, this mega-star wouldn’t have a bigger security retinue, and would have to run himself from one end of the mansion to apprehend the bad guy? Or at his house? 

But that's forgivable. The only downside to Fan is something that might be an upside for some people, especially in American audiences: there are no musical numbers! Just incidental music, as we see snippets of performance, and a dance rehearsal. It did get me home from an evening movie by my bedtime, which wouldn’t have happened with a normal-length Hindi film, but still, that was a disappointment. 
The trailer attached at our local theater was for an upcoming movie called Sultan. Finally, what you’ve all been waiting for: Salman Khan, as Naked as He Can Get!