It's one thing to be part of a fandom, to be vocal about your passion for a part of pop culture, and another thing entirely to channel that passion into your life's work, to let it define you without becoming the sum of your identity. Geetika Narang Abbasi's Urf, a documentary about the bittersweet contradictions and complexities of life as a Bollywood star lookalike, captures both degrees on the fandom dial. When the artistes featured in it watch and rewatch the movies of the stars they've modelled their public personas after, it's evident that they're not just meticulously studying the actors' voices and mannerisms, they're driven by an all-consuming love of cinema itself. Abbasi uses recurring shots of hundreds of clamouring crowds, phones raised in the air in unison outside Shah Rukh Khan's Mannat residence, packed theatres and Bandra's 25-foot-tall Madhubala mural to convey the extent of Mumbai's fixation with Bollywood culture. By the time Amitabh Bachchan lookalike Firoz Khan says he's watched 1975 hit Sholay 260 times, it seems like an inevitable consequence of his natural environment.
Across the 93-minute-long documentary, he, Shah Rukh Khan double Prashant Walde and Dev Anand doppelganger Kishore Bhanushali get to show off their impressive impersonations, detail the work that goes into their craft, and also discuss how their choice of career impacts their relationships and sense of identity. By filming them at work and at their homes, the documentary thoughtfully coaxes out the contrasting elements of their personalities — the performative nature of their public lives and the reflective aspect of their private ones.
Shot over several years, Urf (which means 'Also Known As') traces the history of the Bollywood lookalike, while also providing insightful commentary about the current state of Hindi cinema, from the people who serve as perhaps the closest observers of its ambassadors. Reflections on the evolution of acting styles and the changing nature of stardom are brief, but perceptive. And while it's clear that these lookalike artistes enjoy a level of stardom in their own right, they aren't above talking about the career choices they're embarrassed by, which for Khan includes starring in various cinematic interpretations of Sholay, with posters that prominently feature scantily-clad women. His anecdote starts out funny but soon, an air of disillusionment creeps in and his past mistakes becomes a cautionary message for anyone looking to break into Bollywood — don't sign up for a film unless you know what the full script entails.
A thread of light-heartedness and good-natured humour runs through the film, which makes these few sombre moments all the more effective. Walde, who remains cheerful despite his appearance eliciting the occasional snigger from passers-by, is grimly determined that his young son grow up to be an "original" and not a copy. Towards the end, it's clear why as the documentary gets at the paradox of life as a professional mimic — their looks help them sustain successful careers as doubles, but severely limit them from doing much else. In the sweet, wistful Urf, however, they get the space to dream. In narrowing its focus to just three men and giving them a platform to recount their personal experiences, the documentary accords them the level of individualism that has eluded them their whole careers.
Urf is playing in the Cinema Regained section of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.