'cause I can play the part so well: Fan

[A vague, two-sentence spoiler is marked in situ.]

In Fan, Shahrukh Khan and Hindi cinema make an unsettling modern complement to Satyajit Ray's Nayak, that great investigation of stardom and the self in a more restrained age. Fan is very much today's dystopian world of celebrity, the ubiquitous, instant media never singled out but constantly, even sinisterly, complicit in every frame and deed. Capture an image, then replicate it, manifest it, make it accessible, promote, distort, and destroy it, only for another to come up in its place before its death throes are finished. It's the information age gone horribly wrong. Over and over, the two lead characters—the star Aryan Khanna and his junior Gaurav Chandna, or the fan and his senior, depending on how the power in their relationship shifts—hiss that they know things about the other, and it's no coincidence that Gaurav runs a cyber caf√©, speaks better English than people expect him to, and never shows a flicker of confusion when navigating Mumbai, London, or Dubrovnik. Accessing information and controlling its flow are as important in Fan as they would be in any heist or espionage film. 

Fan is Nayak exploded. It's less contained, more international in both subject and scope, more hysterical, weary, and jaded. The titular hero of Nayak, Arindam Mukherjee, is still able to have normal-ish conversation with everyday people he encounters on his train ride from Calcutta to Delhi. Aryan of Fan cannot—he doesn't even take the train as Arindam did. Unless a person works for him or flat-out doesn't know who he is, they scream in his face. I think it's correct to say that the real-life mahanayak Uttam Kumar was never a global phenomenon, but of course Shahrukh is and has been for at least half of his career, certainly due in part to the film culture in which each arose and the consumers of it but also significantly to the available media (there they are again). I love the moment when Gaurav peaks out from the loo door marked "western style" on the train from Delhi to Mumbai, surely a nod to the importance of the European and North American audiences (both Indian and not) to Shahrukh's career—Aryan would not still be where he is without the ticket sales and income from the other parts of the world. In the film, Aryan both is supported and penalized by foreign systems and structures, but he is far more in control in India (and most of all in his hometown).*

It's important that neither Fan nor Nayak is much interested in showing the hero as an actor; the film from half a century ago is concerned with Arindam's internal psychological and emotional struggles, and Fan is about how the star is created and maintained. Nayak has a few flashbacks to Arindam in his early career, talking to his theatrical mentor and working as a small player in a film, whereas Fan never shows Aryan shooting a film (he tries to read a script but falls asleep). Aryan does practice dance moves, greet the public on his birthday, and dance for hire at an obscenely opulent wedding—the price of the life of a modern Hindi-film star—but Gaurav's process and performances fuel this story. Gaurav's (anti-) heroics are more impressive and interesting than Aryan's. We know that Aryan would be able to scale rickety scaffolding and leap over rooftops because we've seen him do these moves before in his films, consumed his muscles and prowess, fed to us by his own publicity machine (among others). But how does Gaurav have the ability to hang from balconies and make fake documents that fool security staff? Did he just absorb those skills from observing Aryan for 25 years, as he has the heroic arm-fling and line delivery? We don't know, and that sort of surprise is terrifying when you think about it.

One of the greatest sequences in Nayak is the nightmare in which Arindam's life spirals out of control in twisted versions of his actual experiences. Fan doesn't bother with the mediator of sleep: Gaurav shoves his dreams, mangled, into his reality, and Aryan lives in a world so hyperbolic that dreams don't even hold a place. In many ways, Gaurav is the nightmare version of the superstar, and because of modern media, mobility, and maybe even manners, the nightmare has split off from the dreamer and has fully incarnated in another physical body. Both Arindam and Aryan physically lash out; I assume that would have been more shocking behavior in fictionalized 60s Calcutta/newspapers than it is in 2010s Mumbai/internet, but Fan takes Shahrukh's real-life infamous slap and deals it back to him. If Aryan loses sleep over how he treats other people, we hardly see it. Dealing with insanity and extremity, including his own, is just part of his daily life. It's not that Aryan is thoughtless—particularly early in the film, it's a joy to watch Shahrukh's face crinkle as he moves from playing with his kids to trying to figure out what the mega-fan of the week has gotten up to this time to realizing that it's worse than usual. If Nayak is a journey, Fan is, as Aryan states, a game, ending almost exactly in the pilgrimage site where its dominant arc began, with ritualized actions, confusion, menace, and blathering media. The film is deliciously unsettling about what victory in the game may mean.

[SPOILER—skip to the next paragraph to avoid it]
Think about it: this is a film where the moralizing speech by the hero has no impact whatsoever on what happens. It's a new world, na?

Just as Nayak could only have been made with and about Uttam Kumar, Fan could only work with Shahrukh, his career of smart(-ass) interviews, self-aware persona, and massy films that experiment with assumed character types. He is a virtuoso in the film, essentially a two-hour schizophrenic monologue. While some of the investigation into the relationship between fan and star feels unfinished or superficial, watching him sustain and aggravate the differences in two contrasting characters is a joy. I can't think of a more complicated or interesting double role anywhere in Hindi cinema, let alone one linked so thoughtfully with exploration of identity, facades, access, and self-knowledge (with which I think the film is more concerned than the relationship and debt between fan and star). Obviously the film has commentary on Shahrukh's own life, but it has some on the industry as well. Gone are the worries of separated brothers: two disparate people who have an inarguable reason to be alike feels like such a simplistic problem now. Families and homelands are now replaced by the panic of deliberate duplication and infinite replaceability. For an actor who has played with lookalikes so much and so significantly in his career, this must have been such a treat to do.

Shahrukh is never better than in characters who are gray or even fully dark, and some of the best of those performances are with Yash Raj Films (Chak De India, Darr). Fan builds beautifully on those traditions. Shady Shahrukh is my favorite Shahrukh, and this film gives us two (or maybe even three, depending on how one reads the final scene outside Mannat)? Thrillingly, the only romances in Fan are with personas—isn't it so harrowingly now, moving on from man vs man to man vs self to man vs image? As much as I appreciate a good romance, this is so much more interesting and also a nice change from his recent overall blahness and missteps in that category (plus avoids creepy uncle territory, since everything here is just plain creepy). Fan is also an important experiment for an aging star and for his aging public: what do we do with these monsters we've created? Will we suffocate them—or they us?

* Gaurav makes a wonderful cutting remark in Madame Tussaud's about white people trying to control brown people's images. (Thank you Anarchivist for reminding me of the speaker and setting of this comment, which makes it even more biting!)


Riz said…
Nice, in depth review. Agree about SRK excelling in grey/dark roles. His next Raees is also a dark role. There were also flashes off Sunil from kabhi haan kabhi naa in gaurav - the innocence & uninhibitedness.
Anarchivist said…
Loved this movie! Will have more thoughts to share. You probably already know: that last comment is at Madame Tussaud's -- they tell him he can't mess with their property, and he says something about the white man thinking they own the brown man's face. Awesome.
AHA! No, I had still not remembered that, but it makes perfect sense. Little things like that are one reason this movie is so great.
Soumya said…
The dream sequence in Nayak was one of the most criticized bits, especially by foreign critics. The criticism was that dreams are never that explicit. Actual dreams are quite random, seemingly unrelated, sequences of images. No wonder a psychiatrist is required to unravel the mystery of a dream. The sequence in Nayak seemed too logical, too pat.
CanadianKen said…
Beautifully articulated assessment of the film. So glad to see you liked it so much. I did too. I don't think Shah Rukh's ever been better. The combination of make-up and CGI for the Gaurav character is, of course, astonishing, but it's what Shah Rukh does in conjunction with them that touches greatness. His beautifully shaded Aryan is a pretty fascinating creation as well. And the whole thing plays out to an impressively realized ending; I was moved. This is maybe the best example in years of how unfortunate it is that Hindi films hardly ever wind up within a mile of Oscar consideration. I realize that some of the power in Shah Rukh's performance comes from the accumulated effect his career has had on Bollywood audiences over the last couple of decades. But I still think if a wider western audience saw "Fan" (including Oscar voters) they'd be hard pressed to deny him an acting nomination. I know I don't expect any other actor to top it this year.
Thanks Ken! I love talking about this film and know I'll be rewatching it before the end of the year to see if its impact lasts for me. I don't think Fan can be separated from the Hindi cinema watcher experience or wider culture. At all. The "why" of this film even existing would have to be translated - that is, I'm not sure the script even makes sense if you don't have some kind of experienced familiarity with the last 20ish years of SRK (not just "I've read some articles" but also seen enough films and observed or participated in enough conversations around him), and an entire jury outside of India is very, very unlikely to have that.
Broski said…
"I love the moment when Gaurav peaks out from the loo door marked "western style" on the train from Delhi to Mumbai, surely a nod to the importance of the European and North American audiences (both Indian and not) to Shahrukh's career—Aryan would not still be where he is without the ticket sales and income from the other parts of the world."

meh you are over analyzing this quite a lot, western markets still aren't as big a source of revenue for the Hindi movie industry as India itself. It just sounds narcissistic and strange to assume so lol
I didn't say that the western markets were as big a source of revenue for Hindi films. I said they were important to the career, and "career" means more than "revenue." I'm talking about the positioning of the character AND of SRK as a global star, which the film itself does by using various locations and putting his statue in Madame Tussaud's etc.

Thanks for calling my point narcissistic, though - that's a new one lol.

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