When Bollywood Turns the Lens on Itself

From Kaagaz Ke Phool to Luck By Chance, films about making movies have offered fascinating glimpses into the industry.
When Bollywood Turns the Lens on Itself

Farah Khan’s sophomore venture Om Shanti Om (2007) was an affectionate and heartfelt ode to the world of Hindi cinema that she grew up seeing from close quarters. In what has proved to be one of the most enduringly hilarious sequences in the film, stars like Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and Abhishek Bachchan sportingly indulge in self-parody, making fun of the brands and franchises that shaped their stardom. Khan is particularly self-aware, spoofing himself as a self-obsessed star who does movies that look embarrassingly similar to each other, but still walks away with all the accolades and applause. Because that’s what happens in an industry that’s obsessed with formulae and repetition.

For decades, the Hindi film industry has been consumed with delivering escapist entertainment and this has arguably led filmmakers far away from the real world of making these movies. For all its drama and glamour, the film industry has rarely been seen as the backdrop for contemporary titles even though it’s a compelling setting for stories about a range of issues. Movies about the movie business tend to be both revealing and fascinating (when they’re made well), but we haven’t seen too many such films in Hindi cinema. Perhaps this comes from Bollywood wanting to preserve the larger-than-life image of stars as well as the illusion that their off-screen selves are as charming and heroic as their on-screen avatars.

Being a star on screen

Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Guddi (1971) explored this phenomenon. In the guise of a young girl’s coming-of-age story, Guddi effectively works like a dummy’s guide to the film industry, humanising the on-screen demi-gods who are idolised by fans. At the same time, it paints a very flattering image of the figures who occupy these altars. Dharmendra plays himself — a celebrated, macho-yet-gentle filmstar who gets emotionally invested and helps a professor who wants to deliver her niece Guddi (Jaya Bachchan) a reality check. There are also appearances by actors like Pran and Om Prakash among others, all shown as kind souls who comment about the plight of the unknown crew members, who toil much harder and yet live in hardships and anonymity. The effort here was to humanise the mythical world of films (and Mukherjee excelled at it), but despite its good intentions, Guddi feels too sanitised to be realistic and there’s no acknowledgement of the moral ambiguities and grey areas that are central to the industry.

Hindi cinema is not known for either telling or consuming complex stories. We have grown up on the construct of straightforward heroes and villains, and simple morality tales. In its early years, the film industry was a place of disrepute — which is perhaps why there’s been such a concerted effort to establish a moral goodness to the stories told in our films — as well as awe. Respectable people did not want to be associated with filmmaking and looked with disdain at those who did. Set in the Thirties and Forties, Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz ke Phool (1959) is one of those rare films that addressed this stigma. Suresh Sinha (Guru Dutt) is an uncompromising director who is fighting the world on two fronts — the Indian aristocrat with his fascination for all things British and disdain for the Indian film industry; as well as the profit-seeking film producers who are characterised by crassness. Suresh’s personal life is in shambles. His marriage has already fallen apart when we meet him at the start of the film and he’s been denied access to his daughter. Why? Because he is associated with the low lives who make cinema. The film ends on an equally tragic note, when Suresh — now an old and broken man — dies on the studio floor, but is not recognised by any of the people who work there in the present. Kaagaz Ke Phool’s commercial failure was a major setback for Dutt. Perhaps the audience wasn’t ready for such a slice of reality at the time. The film would gain a cult following in later years and has now inspired R. Balki’s Chup: Revenge of the Artist.

Outsiders on the inside

Most of the unflinching and honest portraits of the workings of Bollywood have come from angsty rebellious outsiders. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Khamosh (1986), a pulpy murder mystery, unfolds against the backdrop of a film shoot of the most stereotypical Bollywood potboiler you can imagine. Chopra captures the cynical atmosphere where predatory producers and powerful heroes call the shots; where shady deals continue to take place even at casual get-togethers while the writer frantically pens the dialogue draft for the next day’s shoot. In a scene that reeks with dread and discomfort, the director refuses to yell ‘cut’ while shooting a rape scene and the male actor forces himself upon a teenage actress. Even as she screams for help, no crew member intervenes until Shabana Azmi (playing herself) demands the shot be cut.

Ram Gopal Varma, another maverick outsider, has produced and directed several films in which the film industry provides a backdrop against which his stories unfold. Sometimes it was through a character like the tantrum-throwing heroine in Rangeela (1995), who is always accompanied by her mother. At other times, it’s using contrasts, like when Abhi (Abhishek Bachchan) shoots pedestrian song sequences in Naach (2004) while Reva (Antara Mali), the film’s protagonist, creates imaginative choreography in everyday situations.

There were two other films that spoofed Hindi cinema and its haggard, formulaic ways — and co-incidentally, both belonged to the then-emerging multiplex film market. Nagesh Kukunoor’s Bollywood Calling (2001) was a classic fish-out-of-water tale but set in the caricaturish version of Hindi cinema. Throughout the film, Pat (Pat Cusick), the crossover acting talent from American B-grade movies, keeps asking for a copy of the final script which never arrives. Kukunoor pokes enough fun at the industry, making great use of stereotypes like the producers’ love for dated potboiler ideas, the incongruous costumes worn by heroines, and the arrogance of male film stars who aren’t used to hearing no for an answer. Ultimately, the conflicts are resolved in the feel-good fashion that’s characteristic of Kukunoor’s storytelling, with even the most incorrigible of characters receiving some epiphanous redemption.

The darker side of glamour

While Varma hinted at the Bollywood-underworld connection in Satya (1998) and Company (2002), Kaizad Gustad’s Bombay Boys (1998) made an open statement of that relationship. Naseeruddin Shah played Mastana Bhai, a mafia man who wants to make a cheesy bad Hindi film to convert his black money into white, even if it means incurring losses. Mastana loads his film with laughable set-pieces and against all odds, the film becomes a raging box-office success. Gustad’s film played for humour and perhaps the plot was his way of critiquing Bollywood, but it was also a reminder that there is a reason that the film industry struggled to be seen with respect. As a largely informal industry, it was filled with people who occupied grey areas in the blurred boundaries between legal and illegal, moral and immoral.

Sudhir Mishra’s Khoya Khoya Chand (2007) also offered a look at the darker, sleazier side of Hindi cinema as it followed actress Nikhat Bano’s (Soha Ali Khan) career in the Sixties. The film is nostalgic but also scathing in the way it shows how Nikhat is exploited by different people in her life, both professionally and personally. Mishra didn’t tone down the harsh realities of the industry — be it the omnipresent male stars who can make or break careers, or the sexual exploitation of women who were trying to get their foot in through the door — and there is an air of tragedy to all these characters as you see them making compromises and morally questionable choices. Set in what is often described as a golden age of Hindi cinema, the film industry comes across as a small, dysfunctional family where one’s paths keep crossing with those of disgruntled, estranged familiars.

Closer to the present, Madhur Bhandarkar confirmed every middle-class family’s worst suspicions about the big, bad world of show business with films like Page 3 (2005), Fashion (2008), and Heroine (2012). Many of the events in these films may be borrowed from reality, but they appear synthetic thanks to Bhandarkar’s raging zeal and sensationalist style of storytelling. Unlike most directors who have made films that look at the industry they work in, Bhandarkar’s gaze is loaded with disappointment and distaste at the show business. The world of films reduces people to their worst, it seems. Fame and glamour are like Faustian bargains, secured at a terrible and tragic cost.

Luck by chance

In many ways, the mainstream Hindi film industry has been forced into a period of introspection. On one hand are the conversations that have been sparked by actor Sushant Singh Rajput’s suicide case and the tsunami of grief and rage that regularly comes forth from Rajput’s fans on social media. Speculations about vice, nepotism and glass ceilings in Bollywood have always found their way into conversations, but now there are fears of these conversations making an impact in commercial terms. While the industry struggles to change the perception of being closed to outsiders and indulgent of star kids, there’s the uncomfortable truth that the same audiences that are critical of Bollywood’s love for insiders, are also disinclined to spend money on watching newcomers and outsiders. Blockbuster films invariably feature A-listers and star kids. Newcomers and unconventional films invariably struggle to find the favour of audiences.

In the last couple of decades, we have had films like Kaamyaab (2018), Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon! (2003), and Bollywood Diaries (2016) that have explored the perspective of a struggling outsider. However, ironically enough, the film that really tapped into Bollywood’s fondness for nepotism was made by a bonafide insider who is the child of two legendary screenwriters of mainstream Hindi cinema, and sister to a beloved actor-director.

Zoya Akhtar’s Luck by Chance (2009) is arguably the definitive Hindi film about Bollywood, offering an affectionate yet unforgiving overview of the internal mechanisms of the industry. Like in Khoya Khoya Chand, there are no saints or sinners here. Everyone has their share of tragedy and troubles in this cutthroat business. Akhtar and her long-time associate Reema Kagti craft the screenplay in a way that makes it difficult for the audience to choose a protagonist. We see the narrative unfold through multiple perspectives. There’s Romi Rolly (Rishi Kapoor), an old-timer producer exhausted by young stars and their tantrums. Veteran actress Neena (Dimple Kapadia) is forced to play taskmaster to her daughter Nikki (Isha Sharvani) while putting everything on the line to give her a lavish start. Just like Bollywood Calling and Bombay Boys (on which Akhtar had assisted Gustad), these self-contradictory people are amusing with their antics, but also reveal just how problematic the film industry is. Akhtar captures their moments of self-doubt and anguish with equal warmth.

Most importantly, Luck by Chance shows what it means to be an outsider in a place like Bollywood. Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) and Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma) come to Mumbai with similar ambitions but follow different paths to pursue their goals. While the film begins and ends with Sona’s moments of hope and self-discovery, it gives space to Vikram’s struggle. One of my favourite moments sees Vikram arrive excitedly for an audition, only to find himself one of the countless aspirants, all of whom are pacing nervously, waiting for that big break. There’s a heartbreaking montage with these dreamy-eyed actors giving it their all, which reminds us that each time someone like Vikram gets selected, there are so many whose dreams are dashed. 

Luck By Chance is one the few films in which the Hindi film industry comes across as both credibly real and yet satisfyingly aspirational. We need more of these stories to be told on screen and the present — when the film industry is grappling with new challenges while enjoying a more global audience — is perhaps a perfect time to view the industry through the lens of fiction. 

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