Filmmaking as a form of textual struggle is a recurring narrative trope that remains propitious despite verging on triteness. Like authors wrestling with the questions of agency, poetic license, and characterological conflicts, film directors find themselves in a similar quandary but traversing a more collaborative, technologically-laden, and venture-capitalist medium. Rajat Kapoor's recent acting-directorial enterprise, RK/RKay, dwells on the meta-cinematic tradition with an acute awareness to resurface these authorial stalemates that occupy the writing process of filmmakers. It builds upon a web of self-referential loops that trigger the imagination with deadpan humour and mischief. However, the film also risks the thin line between being innovative and insipid by relying on the thematic questions too squarely.
Along a dimly-lit corridor stretch, suffocatingly painted blue with multiple doors on both sides, RK/RKay opens with several clones of Rajat Kapoor exiting one and entering another. The Kafkaesque prologue sets the impending mood of the narrative with a melodic rhythm that does not forego playfulness. Kapoor plays a not-so-successful film director named RK, who manages to complete shooting a film within the stipulated time given by his producer (Manu Rishi Chadha). But the producer harbours a contention with RK killing the film's self-played protagonist, Mehboob, in the climax — a twist that might not go well with the market. While RK stays true to his artistic integrity by not changing the ending, things go awry when his doppelganger protagonist escapes from the film, leaving a blank spot in RK's film edit.
In a medley of surreal events, other characters from RK's film escapes or starts interacting with the real world, questioning their memory and identity. But the narrative stubbornly anchors on realism to resolve the real-fiction conflict informing the mysterious heart of the story. From conceiving it as a glitch in technology, checking CCTV footage for the missing character, to eventually hunting down Mehboob to explain to him that he is a fictive character, the narrative harps on excruciating details and reductively probes the bizarre kernel of the dramatic conflict. As the narrative develops, RK tries to complete the editing process by directing Mehboob back to the film, who refuses to do so as he does not want to die in the climax.
The self-absorbed character of RK, suffering from a mid-life crisis with stressed emotional life, is effortlessly performed by Rajat Kapoor. Indeed, the portrait of a film director suffering from validation issues seems like an extension of the character, K, played by him in an earlier film, X: Past is Present. His other role as Mehboob from the 50s, constantly spewing Urdu shayaris, is more charming with a carefully understated execution. Equally measured is Mehboob's love interest, Gulabo (Mallika Sherawat), a pompous actress named Neha who repeatedly forgets her lines during the shooting of RK's film. The graveness of RK's crisis is balanced out by Manu Rishi Chadha's humorous responses, masterly playing an alcoholic builder already astounded by the uncanny nature of problems in his debut endeavour as a film producer. Further hyping the comedic tempo, Ranvir Shorey is impeccable in his burlesque mannerisms, emulating the popular Bollywood villain of the 1950s, K.N. Singh.
The predominating questions concerning identity, creator-creation relationship, authorial intentions, and the like seem conspicuously elaborated in the narrative. "What kind of a writer am I if my characters do not listen to me?" laments RK in a short emotional sequence with his wife (Kubbra Sait). Consequently, the film occasionally veers towards a certain drabness when RK's reality starts negotiating with his fictive world in a brazenly accessible manner. Instead of sustaining the incomprehensible chasm between the two worlds separated by the editing screen, there is concerted energy toward conflict resolution.
Referring to Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author, Thomas Mann's The Transposed Heads, or Woody Allen's Purple Rose of Cairo through props, Rajat Kapoor stays thoroughly conscious of the literary-cinematic tradition he is navigating. Another film which appears quite similar is Alain Robbe-Grillet's 1966 film, Trans-Europ-Express, where a film's creative team write the fate of a random co-passenger they meet for a short while on a train. After making him go through a series of escapades and racy encounters involving a romantic liaison, they decide to separate the lovers for a poignant ending. However, the film ends with the lovers reuniting beyond the dictate of the writers. In Robbe-Grillet's film, the boundaries between the two worlds in elaborating the conflicted writer-character relationship remain murky – they do not interact in a readily feasible fashion. Contrarily, Rajat Kapoor decides to take the author-character conflict further ahead toward a more dramatically absolving climax.
RK/RKay fares ingenuously with an astute economy and a well-paced storyline. Along with the distinct atmosphere and look of the film, admirably executed by the production team, the film's surreal touch imparts a gratifying and easily consumable experience, unlike the headier and darker uncanniness of films like Anurag Kashyap's No Smoking. Crowd-funded by 800 people, this film is a testament to the tenuous process of filmmaking, encompassing textual and logistical predicaments such as funding, casting, market expectations etc. Whether it serves justice or extends the addressed thematic concerns is subject to contestations, but it is undoubtedly a conscientious independent effort that succeeds in creating a cultish impression.