Before Netflix’s AK vs AK, A Brief History of Metacinema

Metacinema - cinema that blurs the line between reality and fiction - has always existed. Before the release of AK VS AK, a metafilm, on Netflix, here's a look at the history of this genre
Before Netflix’s AK vs AK, A Brief History of Metacinema

Vikramaditya Motwane (writer-director of Udaan) has got us all excited for his next film in a way we really haven't experienced before. The marketing team, or whoever came up with the idea, has managed to let the film already start bleeding into reality. Two additional versions of the trailer, each made by the characters in the film but released on the social media of their real-life counterparts, who play those characters in the film, and are now playing them part-time in real-life too, have made us all very dizzy and giddy. Watching two Bollywood biggies facing off as themselves, ripping on their own name and image, to deliver us an unparalleled film-within-a-film, black comedy thriller? Sign me the f*** up! Pardon the language, but this film does promise to feature Anurag Kashyap prominently, so you better start getting used to it. 

Our other AK is none other than Anil Kapoor, and it's no exaggeration to say he's putting a lot on the line with something like this. What makes the film stand-out is that Hindi cinema hasn't seen such "meta" narratives, the specific kind of self-referentiality which has grown popular in the 2010s. However, this doesn't mean there hasn't been metacinema – cinema that blurs the line between reality and fiction, explores its relationship with cinema, and is often intertextual – around before, and this certainly doesn't mean that metacinema has no history in Hindi cinema at all. Let's take a dip into the past, and see what we can find.

1929 – Man With A Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov 

Possibly the first piece of metacinema, which initially released to a less-than-warm reception in 1929, this experimental, silent documentary (which now has multiple scores available) announces its intentions right upfront. A title card before the film starts reads, "AN EXPERIMENTATION IN THE CINEMATIC COMMUNICATION". Vertov, after having made sure the audience knows that they are watching cinema about cinema, follows through on his thesis with a series of mostly unstaged shots and sequences of a day in the USSR. The film isn't "meta" in the way we understand the term today, but using an extraordinary range of film techniques to paint this compelling portrait, emphasising style until it becomes substance, allows for endless reflection on itself.

1963 – 8 ½ by Federico Fellini

Metacinema at its finest moment yet. The tropes of a 'film-within-a-film' and a 'film about a writer' often define metacinema. And Fellini's masterpiece proves that this is so for a good reason. The film itself came about from Fellini's inability to make the film, about which he said, "I would narrate everything that had been happening to me. I would make a film telling the story of a director who no longer knows what film he wanted to make". It is even titled 8 ½ because it is his 8 1/2th film. The film works as both a dissection of the 'creative process' but also as a deeply autobiographical trip through Fellini's memories and desires, expressed through a stand-in protagonist played by Marcello Mastroianni.

1975 – Monty Python and the Holy Grail by Terry Gilliam and Terry Jones

Considered one of the best comedies of all time, this absurd film by the legendary comedy troupe, Monty Python, broke every rule in the book. Up till this point they had mostly created sketches and skits but on their first attempt at a single-narrative feature started making fun of 'film' itself right from the subtitles during the opening credits. Somehow every madcap decision they make work. Most surprisingly, perhaps, is their implicit and proud confession that they couldn't afford horses for the film through having characters pretend that they are riding horses, and those characters' servants running alongside them, banging coconuts together to make the sound of hooves. This is a deceptively simple gag, but one that reminds the audience, at every point, that they are watching a film, and pokes fun at the way audiences watch films, at their 'suspension of disbelief' itself.

1985 – Khamosh by Vidhu Vinod Chopra

Let's pivot to Hindi cinema. This film, one of the very first by Chopra, who would go on to become a giant in the industry, shows the first glimpses of a move towards the 'meta'. A murder-mystery set on a film shoot in Pahalgam, with no real protagonist, it features well-known actors such as Amol Palekar, Soni Razdan and Shabana Azmi playing themselves. The film-within-a-film is used to present a subtle argument about the nature of thrillers in Hindi cinema. Moreover, the film, in a bold move for its time, has no song-and-dance sequences whatsoever. And it very much was a big risk to venture into such territory– Chopra couldn't find a single distributor for the film and had to end up doing the job himself. At the end of the day, it's also just a fun watch- a true hidden gem of Hindi cinema.

2009 – Luck By Chance by Zoya Akhtar

Jumping forward a couple of decades brings us to Zoya Akhtar's directorial debut, a paradoxical film which was both unlike other films in Bollywood at the time whilst also being very Bollywood itself. After all, it's about the struggle to make it big in the city of dreams. This premise becomes the perfect excuse to satirise those dreams, and the industry that manufactures them. Although the list of cameos by famous actors and filmmakers, who play themselves in the film, is endless (Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Rani Mukerji, Kareena Kapoor Khan, Rajkumar Hirani, Karan Johar…), this might be considered the least 'meta' in this list as you could argue that it's more about an industry rather than cinema itself. Regardless, it's a great watch, and an important stepping stone to get to where we are today.

2016 – Fan by Maneesh Sharma

I often wonder what would have happened if instead of 'Aryan Khanna', Shah Rukh Khan had just played someone named, "Shah Rukh Khan"– whilst keeping everything else the same. We all know that that's what this film – a twisted battle between a stan (Eminen's portmanteau of 'stalker' and 'fan' ) and his idol – was meant to be anyway. Shah Rukh's take on himself, his double role constantly reminding us of what we are watching, and the film's take on stardom, more than qualify it as a precursor to AK vs AK. In fact, maybe if Shah Rukh had played (a fictionalised version of) himself, the upcoming black comedy would've arrived even earlier. Shakespeare may ask, 'what's in a name?', but Fan answers him resoundly: 'just about everything'.

Along the way, there has been much more metacinema too, especially in the 21st century: Adaptation, Tropic Thunder, I'm Still Here, The Cabin in the Woods… the list goes on and on, especially when we also include films that adapt just some elements of this mode of filmmaking. And in India, the cinema of the south has generally been the one more comfortable with these ideas. Will AK vs AK be the film that fully opens the gates of Hindi cinema to the allure of the 'meta', considering how all the others have underperformed? I can't wait to find out.

Disclaimer: Filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra is married to Film Companion Editor and Founder, Anupama Chopra

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