One of the interesting things about actors who have worked for a long time (and have a recognizable on-screen persona) is that when they get older, they begin to interrogate those personae, and what they mean. Clint Eastwood has been doing this since the 70s. In Fan, the latest film by director Maneesh Sharma, the subject is Shah Rukh Khan, arguably the most famous Indian actor of the last 25 years.
Shah Rukh Khan is a great ham. He’s a shameless entertainer, doing anything to ensure that the films he’s in work. SRK is great because you can see the effort behind his work, the flop sweat. It’s been that way since the beginning. SRK began acting in films in the early 90s in a series of villainous roles (Baazigar, Aanjam) before becoming more of a romantic hero. His iconic role in Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge paved the way for a new type of hero (and film) that directly addressed the Indian diaspora. The films in this period with SRK in the Swiss alps, his arms outstretched waiting for his love, often fell into cliched territory, but SRK always gave everything to the role. He’s branched out from these roles to become an action hero, a comedian, all while finding time to work with prestigious directors (Mani Ratnam, Kamal Hasaan). While the last few films have seen him make a few lazy choices (his work with Rohit Shetty is pretty uninspired), Fan acts as something of a rejuvenation for him. He hasn’t been this engaged in quite a while.
Fan stars Shah Rukh Khan in a dual role. He plays Aryan Khanna, the biggest Bollywood star in the world, as essentially himself. He also plays Gaurav Chandna, Aryan’s biggest fan, in a performance aided by visual effects that transforms him into a slightly askew version of his younger self. Gaurav moonlights as an Aryan impersonator, and it’s his dream to one day meet him. So, one day he sets out to the big city in order to accomplish this. Things get complicated from there.
SRK’s film persona is center stage here, and Maneesh Sharma finds different ways to attack it. There’s the dual roles: there are two SRKs here, the young anti-hero of the early 90s films (as in Yash Chopra’s Darr), and the globe-trotting messiah of the diaspora of the late 90s and beyond of Don and Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Sharma begins by outlining all the differences between these roles, then sets them up as opposing forces, and finally brings them together at film’s conclusion, if ambiguously.
SRK’s Gaurav is all nervous energy, bubbly, unsettling; a series of 90s SRK tics pop up in the early stages of the film as it denotes a film personality in the making, still unfinished. Aryan, on the other hand, is an entity, a brand. He arranges product endorsements, events, and he’ll even dance at the weddings of rich people (this is basically biography). The Gaurav role could’ve probably been filled by an actual SRK lookalike (or a younger actor), but this would’ve been far too pedestrian. What makes the film of interest is the tension, the clash between these personas, the way they interact and the sorts of meanings and associations that pop up by letting them exist together (and react to each other) on the screen – Sharma is basically practicing film criticism here.
Although the film is obviously about his star, Sharma finds ways to make it his own. Fan begins in a setting not unlike that of his previous films, Band Baaja Baaraat and Shuddh Desi Romance, a world of cramped Delhi apartments, small businesses (Gaurav runs a cyber café), and small ambitions. These scenes are quiet, empathetic, full of little details that run throughout Sharma’s films. He even deflates any source of conflict that could’ve come from Gaurav’s parents – they help him with his Aryan impersonation routines. Even Aryan, a Delhi boy too, has shades of the main character in Sharma’s Ladies vs. Ricky Bahl, all success and loneliness. The film’s most compelling sequence finds Gaurav locked away in a Mumbai jail on Aryan’s orders. The confrontation between Gaurav and Aryan would be unthinkable without Sharma’s touch – the emphasis he gives to certain details, and how he sees both characters fairly.
That the film leaves this milieu is inevitable, as part of the film’s meta-narrative is of Sharma juggling the requirements of the Yash Raj Films thriller, and of Gaurav inserting himself into the filmic world of Aryan/SRK and acting out its codes. Once the film ends up in London and Dubrovnik, and Gaurav has plotted out an elaborate revenge plan that sees him forging documents, impersonating Aryan and more (while Maneesh Sharma dutifully films ludicrous chase sequences), it becomes undeniable that the friction between the modes of address that the film employs is part of the point.
The film’s denouement is honestly dazzling – its implications regarding the fan/star relationship (Gaurav pretended to be Aryan, and now Aryan returns the favor), the drama appearing to be resolved in the two-shot with Aryan imploring Gaurav to live his own life but failing, and the final images of each protagonist alone in the frame, their lives forever linked.
This is a strange and difficult work. What you get out of the film might depend on your familiarity with SRK – the actor, his film presence, and status as symbol in Indian cinema – although the film also works as a thriller. Shah Rukh Khan’s work here is self-critical, reflective and kind of daring, and Sharma’s conception of the film, and the execution of its meta elements makes it an often exhilarating work.