Shah Rukh Khan’s darker turn in Fan shows us how the ‘double role’ film can be more than it has been
A consensus has been arrived at. Shah Rukh Khan’s Fan is a must watch. In his portrayal of Aryan Khanna, Bollywood’s towering superstar, and also that of Gaurav Chandna, Khanna’s crazed 25-year-old devotee, SRK shows how an actor can be this, that and more. Making a double role convincing, though, is in no way the limit of Fan’s achievement. The implications of its triumph reach farther.
The film’s trailer had forewarned us that Chandna’s love for Aryan Khanna will quickly metamorphose to unbridled hate. Fan delivers these edge-of-the-seat thrills, but it also layers them. As is typical of spurned psychotic lovers, a young Chandna wants to exact revenge, and so he wears a hooded jacket and jogs his way to Madame Tussauds. He might not have Khanna’s deep dimples or his symmetrical teeth, but for a crowd already taken in by the imprecision of a wax statue, passing similarities are resemblance enough. Chandna exploits his discovery by fans with a malevolent cleverness. Feigning a meltdown, he attacks Khanna’s wax figure and derogates it as fake. One can only tip one’s hat to Fan’s makers. Bollywood has seldom gotten irony down so pat.
There is an obvious case of the pot calling the kettle black here. An impostor, a veritable phony, is declaring another replica fake, thereby jeopardising our hunt for any true or real identity. Also, Chandna and the ageless wax statue are both standing in for Aryan Khanna, who the film makes obvious, is a stand-in for Shah Rukh Khan. The game here is one of Russian or Matryoshka dolls. Every unravelling helps show up a clone that is similar but never the same. In moments like these, Fan seems almost novelistic. As it makes chilling the dangers of obsessive emulation and identity theft, the genre of ‘double role’ films is given a thorough, contemporary and much-needed update.
Hindi cinema’s fascination with doubles merits a brief mention here. Watching Dev Anand in Hum Dono, Hema Malini in Seeta Aur Geeta, Anil Kapoor in Kishen Kanhaiya and Sridevi in Chaalbaaz, audiences have all gasped and whistled over the years. Everyone loves that tale of mistaken identity. Better still is the reunion of twins who were cruelly separated at birth. Quotients of drama notwithstanding, there’s one thing that a Judwaa and a Ram Aur Shyam both promise – an incontestably neat happy ending. And as Prem Ratan Dhan Payo recently proved, you can’t go wrong with that formula, not when you are serving two Salman Khans for the price of one ticket.
It must be noted, however, that customs of this otherwise predictable genre have periodically been reinvented. Just last year, Kangana Ranaut had surprised almost her all audiences in Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Her portrayal of Tanu, an entitled wife, and Kusum, a Haryanvi athlete, were so dissimilar that they together felt effortlessly authentic. Like many more of its counterparts, the film’s trope of lookalikes crossing paths made for several laughs, but in the end, their meeting came laced with some tragedy too. Tanu and Kusum loved the same man. Somebody, it seemed, had to get hurt.
If Kusum were more into books and Hollywood cinema than hockey, she would have perhaps come to look at her fate as ordained. For centuries now, storytellers and filmmakers the world over have added a warning to their stories of doubles and doppelgangers – ‘The world is never enough for two of the same.’ Alfred Hitchcock prescribed caution, as did David Cronenberg, but it was in 2013 that two films again rendered the impossible trope of identical others all the more eerie. Based on Dostoevsky’s novella The Double, director Richard Ayoade’s film of the same name saw Jesse Eisenberg play the roles of Simon James and James Simon. James is all that Simon wants to be and as Simon tries to be someone he is not, the plot twists its ways into nightmarish corners of our minds.
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, the 2013 film Enemy was also based on a book called The Double, this one by Nobel laureate Jose Saramago. History professor Adam Bell discovers that he and B-grade actor Anthony Claire are dead ringers. They decide to meet and very soon it becomes clear that at the end of their crazed rivalry, either one or none will survive. As Anthony seduces Adam’s girlfriend and Adam tries to double in for Anthony, it’s hard not to think of more real world threats like identity theft. It is here that this very sinister film also starts to resemble Fan and hits closer home.
Hardly a stranger to doppelgangers, Shah Rukh Khan has bumped into his evil twin before. Duplicate and Don both played on the theme of the doppelganger as nemesis, but it seems to be the first time – for him and Bollywood – that the double role film has become one that’s primarily psychological. Like in similar thrillers such as The Double and Enemy, the questions Fan poses are sometimes deliciously existential – How difficult is it to entirely be one self? How seriously should we take that oft-repeated assertion that we can be whoever we want to be? Social media has exacerbated fears that the identities which we so carefully craft can now be stolen, and Fan only plays on these worries. Gaurav Chandna, for instance, owns a cyber cafe. The song Jabra starts with him singing about how he follows Aryan Khanna on Twitter and tags him on Facebook. When you don’t have a self of your own, online avatars of your beloved stars just help make emulation simpler.
But for all its modern preoccupations, there is much about Fan that’s nostalgic. It uses footage from interviews SRK had given decades ago. The posters that deck Chandna’s room were once found on the walls of adoring millennials. Even the DDLJ mandolin makes an appearance. These exaggerated real world references help give the film with a stratified subtext, but they also clarify its prescription – ‘If you want self-discovery, go to the movies. Doubling up as their stars can be lethal.’