Note: This article contains spoilers.
There is an exhilarating trend afoot for movie lovers - cinema about cinema. Inward looking, self-aware and insubordinately cheeky about an art form we unquestioningly love, it is characterized by protagonists enmeshed in filmmaking, a story inundated with the magic you see behind the scenes. PR stunts, rich lonely Bollywood actors and all the things we as an audience suspect, but never really know for sure.
Coming off of the unconventional cinema genre that failed for the same reason it succeeded (it was fresh and uncanny, and he did it so much it wasn’t anymore), Ayushmann Khurrana goes from taboo to freakishly in-your-face with An Action Hero, a film that made my film fanaticism feel encouraged by the makers.
The film is a cat-and-mouse chase between a young Bollywood star Maanav (whose origins are deliciously vague - but the mania around him is all-too-familiar), who is hunted by a stoic, thuggish village politician, Bhoora Solanki (Jaideep Ahlawat) who loses his brother because of Maanav, and nothing short of his life is the price he must pay.
While not a perfect film, the movie is a worthy addition to the ‘films about films’ genre which create a self-reflexive lens, demystifying the process as well as the artists who toil endlessly to bring to life the most celebrated art form in the world.
You know there’s something here when the film opens with Khurrana shooting a climax, an end to his ‘movie’ about a man avenging his little brother’s death, which unbeknownst to us, is the plot of the movie about to unfold in front of us.
The main plot serves as a fitting foil for the analysis it lays bare - unabashedly narrating the present moment of Indian media. The movie is littered with parodies of news anchors, from screaming faux-furious government bootlickers (you know who) to liberal sceptics with measured tones (also you know who). Captured through these facsimiles is the trending urge to hate the people in the business of glitz and glamour, conflating their visibility with arrogance, and ambition with greed, something that feels like ‘the othering of the artist’. Hollywood is filled with movies so layered with their nation’s cultural references, a slice of the time and tide they were made in, that they have rambling Wikipedia entries dedicated to unravelling them all, a delicious rabbit hole if there ever was one. This movie could well be one of the same kind.
Meta approach to direction
Director Anirudh Iyer leverages An Action Hero to demonstrate his big love for the process of filmmaking, its make-believe nature and the magic we see on-screen. Early in the film, a camera shot aptly captures how insipid a movie looks as it is being shot versus when it comes together - really makes one marvel at just how deep this love for cinema can go.
The tension between the protagonist and antagonist upholds the film. Khurrana and Ahlawat effectively essay the incongruence of their characters. The scenes centred around their conflict, unravelling layers of Maanav and Bhoora’s personalities, and the gradual begrudging respect that they develop for each other are especially delectable to watch and get you hooked on the characters.
Pitch black humor
Dark comedy is a coveted genre to show off writing skills, fine directorial execution and the sort of smoothness in storytelling that comes from really knowing the universe your movie is set in. Most movies, however, don the label while making their dark comedy either much too dark or having too little comedy. An Action Hero, however, does not disappoint, mostly by treating its characters so irreverently that you enjoy when bad things are happening to them, like when Maanav runs on the streets of London after buying bread and eggs like a commoner, has a meltdown in his car, or when the ‘fish out of water’ Bhoora sits in a cramped aeroplane seat with anger simmering in his eyes.
Not only Bhoora but several peripheral characters in the film are used to comment on how absurd regular folks find ‘filmy’ people. Early in the movie, a police officer exasperatedly asks a cinematographer, “What do you do? How does your work contribute to society?” It is such a hilarious slap in the face of those enamoured with the movies, who might be compelled to ask themselves from time to time, “Who does this help, really?”
Another memorable moment in the film is when Maanav has been literally kidnapped by an international criminal, and yet Bhoora chances upon him dancing at this don’s relative’s wedding as if this is just another ‘heyday payday’, another gig for this celebrity. His calm demeanour transforming into bewilderment is one of the most sparkling comic moments in the film.
The perspective of the movie is like a swinging camera - first trained on the glitz of Bollywood, the next second behind the scenes, then at the relentless news machine, and the very next moment pointed at us, showing us how these perspectives merge and overlap. While engrossed in the plot, a bird’s eye perspective can get you thinking about what narrative you believe. If you dig deeper, you might even find out why.
Within Bhoora, his dead brother, and a faceless fanbase, Iyer has tried to explore the arrogance and entitlement of the Indian audience. By patronizing an actor, especially in their early days, the audience feels like a part of the actor’s journey. The pedestal the celebrity is then placed on is unforgiving, and any misstep is received as a personal failure by the audience. With social media and an oversaturated paparazzi culture, you have a little nanny cam on your favourite stars. When they inevitably fail, the media exists to relay these failings to us, which the audience heartily consumes with barely restrained moral smugness, aware that the source is biased.
Bollywood’s audience has long played a game of comparing our new releases to what Hollywood produces (and more recently, the Indian South), but it seems that when something amazing emerges from our stables, we don’t seem to give it the patronage it deserves. However, it is not surprising that cinephiles and film enthusiasts have already given this movie a thumping thumbs up. One can anticipate that as time passes, this film might be interred as a cult film, and as the genre proliferates, gaining more films under its ambit, An Action Hero will be heralded as one of the first of its kind in Bollywood to execute this style successfully.
Ultimately, like a lot of movies about movies, Bollywood is the protagonist and also the victim, the one who gets caught in the crosshairs but ultimately escapes. The same comes true in Fan (2016), where the fan who aptly justifies the root word ‘fanatic’ falls to his death, but the superstar only learns a lesson about the humans behind the screaming crowds. As a film looking inwards, perhaps the public perspective part is not yet fully realized.
When movies are based on real life, there is an obligation to realism, to adhere to some moral code. When movies are about movies themselves, the box is broken, and the rules fly out of the window. Realism can be so gleefully absent that it is acceptable if you have no greater philosophy to preach, and no morals to adhere to. An Action Hero has none really, except one - the actor always gets away with it.