There is that famous scene in Slumdog Millionaire where a very young Jamal Malik chooses to literally wade through scum and feces to get a glimpse of his hero Amitabh Bachchan. The scene marries Jamal’s never-say-die attitude with India’s obsession with part art-masquerading-as-pastime and part pastime-masquerading-as-art – cinema. There was another film last year, this time a documentary, called For the Love of A Man, based on the fans of Superstar Rajinikanth. Here is a phenomenon that is several decades old, several notches more complicated and no single documentary or film can make complete justice to. One of several fans we meet in this film is Kamal Anand, a mimicry artiste, Rajinikanth lookalike, and his livelihood is putting on shows for the public imitating his favorite star. Gaurav Chandna (Shah Rukh Khan) does in Fan what Kamal Anand does in real life. He is obsessed with Aryan Khanna (Shah Rukh Khan) to the extent that every Dussehra in the colony association functions, he puts on an Aryan Khanna show for everybody. But this year is special. His cash prize will help him reach out to his idol all the way in Mumbai.
This journey is not only long but also a big step up for him. Gaurav may be on Twitter but he still comes from a part of Delhi that needs a cyber cafe. Writer Habib Faisal and director Maneesh Sharma don’t want us to miss the mirroring of Aryan and Gaurav’s trajectories. But they go a step further and don’t let it escape Gaurav either. He insists on traveling without a ticket (just like Aryan did more than two decades ago) and like the larger than life man that Aryan Khanna is, does so in the AC compartment with the temerity to ask for a Veg thali. He even calls himself Junior Aryan Khanna. This is also the first sequence where we see Gaurav’s initial turn to violence. Till then we see Gaurav only as the adorable fanboy, quoting dialogs for real life situations, dancing and acting his way to a prize. We realize then, what Gaurav heading down the staircase of his apartment really meant. Sharma films it from outside a train in full speed and this one may be heading for a wreck.
The first half from both Faisal and Sharma is a gem. How Gaurav’s obsession is turned around on its head is a joy to behold. They eschew the rushing and chasing, confine them to the second half and go for the slow burn in the first. Sharma also does a fair bit of foreshadowing. In fact that’s a significant part of Fan. The past sets the precedent and it collides with the present to inform the future. There is the aforementioned sequence in the train. Or take the scene where Gaurav is confronted by authorities for the first time. A chase follows hanging out of windowsills and fragile walls as we hang on to our dear seats. It’s all Buster Keaton meets Jackie Chan but why should we believe that this kid from Inder Vihar is capable of all this? Mentally he is ready to do anything for Aryan but physically? Because we’ve seen him do it. Sharma showed us Gaurav doing all of Aryan’s stunts, props and all, back home. Things even Aryan Khanna would use a stuntman for. Just before intermission, Sharma goes for Kamal Haasan’s favorite device – the mirror that naturally lends itself to the subject being explored here. The laws of physics are through the window but Sharma wants us to see only one reflection at a time. It works. The hunter becomes the hunted.
The fan-idol dynamic here is explored in its most raw bovarysme ways. Gaurav has always lived as Aryan Khanna but when his love turns impure, it takes a darker turn. Gaurav puts those talents honed for years to misuse. He is multi-talented just like his favorite actor and this reflects more in the second half when the film turns into a wild goose chase (not always in a good way). Gaurav, not Aryan, is now the actor, the impostor, the dancer, the fighter. Sharma lets him go to the extent of sexual abuse and this is once again more foreshadowing on his part. Early on we see Gaurav diligent in safeguarding his friend Neha (Shriya Pilgaonkar) from a bunch of goons who enter his shop. We think back and wonder if this is the same person.
Fan wants us to take several leaps of faith in the second half. There is of course its underlying philosophy – what is fandom and worship if not blind faith! But some of it is hard to get past. We find Gaurav – who has to win a competition to get from Delhi to Mumbai – navigating across Europe but even if you put that under the ignore column, it is a wonder that the film’s first half never alludes to Gaurav’s resemblance to Aryan while the second half is all but predicated on it. In these portions, the film is firmly on Shah Rukh Khan’s shoulders. Fan is a venerable addition to Khan’s erstwhile trifecta of Kabhi Haan Kabhi Naa, Swades and Chak De India. In films delving into dichotomy of this kind, one always tends to give more weight to the role that’s out of the comfort zone. But in Fan, Shah Rukh Khan scores on both counts. The boisterous, vibrant Gaurav has some antics up his sleeve that are so relatable to every cinema mad person in this country. Even after Gaurav takes a turn for the worse, we root for him occasionally and that’s all thanks to Khan. The CGI jaws notwithstanding, Khan comes up with all kinds of contortions with his lips, eyes and dialogue delivery to somehow make Gaurav sympathetic and menacing at the same time. As Aryan Khanna, we know he is playing himself but it is a bold choice to massage all that narcissism on screen. Often we see Aryan’s ego standing on his shoulders and mouthing orders into his ear. It’s in the way he talks to the police officer in London and also in the way he refuses to listen to both his lawyer and secretary. One can say this comes “naturally” to the biggest star in Hindi cinema but to put it all out there? Applause. The only other Indian star who has done this sort of an autopsy on himself on screen is, at the risk of mentioning again, Kamal Haasan.
Fan does make you wonder how it would shape up in the culture south of Bollywood, where the obsession is greater, the madness zanier and people are known to do incredible and ill-advised acts in the name of fandom. Faisal and Sharma even show part of the process. Gaurav’s parents admonish him for his low marks and the fixation with Aryan Khanna but they are also very much the enablers. If there is ever a “last film” (I shall do some sit-ups) for Rajinikanth, Fan would be near perfect. But for now, this is a Shah Rukh Khan show. Fan even nicely circles back to that one constant in Shah Rukh Khan’s life and times – love – to resolve itself. The second half may lack in finesse but finally there is a film worthy of not only Shah Rukh Khan’s stardom but also his underused and underappreciated skills as an actor. And full marks to that mirroring of Baazigar.
(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)