Director: Rajat Kapoor
Writer: Rajat Kapoor
Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Mallika Sherawat, Kubbra Sait, Manurishi Chadha, Ranvir Shorey, Chandrachoor Rai
A filmmaker past his prime, RK (Rajat Kapoor), sets out to direct – and star in – his new film. Once production is complete, RK struggles with the edit. The movie isn’t panning out the way he imagined. It becomes a full-blown crisis when the embattled hero escapes the footage and disappears from the film altogether. The team frantically searches for their missing character across Mumbai. The director hopes to insert the character back into his story so that they can finish the edit and release the film as per schedule. But it’s not so simple. The runaway hero is, after all, a refugee who is starting to discover that the grass is greener on the other side. With every passing day, the fictional character – a fantasy version of RK himself – begins to feel a little more real.
RK/RKay is a science-fiction fable set in the world of films. It’s also a meta story about the language of storytelling. It’s also an existential comedy suspended between an artist and his art. It’s also a coming-of-age dramedy about…an errant film. No matter how you look at it, though, the important thing is that RK/RKay is immensely entertaining. The busy, farcical tone channels the best of both stage-writing and student-filmmaking: concept-driven mediums that thrive on the punchline of visual economy. A lot of Rajat Kapoor’s films (Raghu Romeo, Mithya, Fatso, Ankhon Dekhi) feature a protagonist going through either a physical or psychological identity crisis, but RK/RKay finds the most organic setting for this trope. Film-makers are often conflicted about the “I” in identity. Therefore, literalizing a director’s worst nightmare – the losing-control-of-narrative syndrome – without getting stylistic and preachy is quite the narrative heist. That Kapoor himself is in control of RK/RKay – a quasi-personal, crowdsourced film starring him in a double role about a director starring in his own mid-budget film – makes the rabbit hole even more inviting.
At a surface level, it’s hard not to enjoy the gags – a period hero trapped in the modern city; the deadpan balance between implausibility (the crew struggles to lodge a missing person’s complaint) and suspension of disbelief (they go looking for him anyway); the heroine ornately waiting for her absconding hero in empty frames; the villain continuing to plot from his seedy lair; the parallel dimensions of movies and life colliding on a road in Film City. The little touches, in particular, walk the thin line between thoughtful and funny. The film within the film, Mera Naseeb, is intended to be a kitschy tribute to 1950s Bollywood melodramas. In it, RK plays a Muslim hero/lover named Mahboob. When Mahboob enters the real world, a mournful retro glow follows him everywhere: in the kitchen, in a taxi, at the station, on a couch, in the edit suite. The character is inextricably married to the colour tone. The longer Mahboob stays out of his film, the weaker this glow gets.
During the shooting of the film, a pretentious RK is seen advising the actor (a rip-roaring Ranvir Shorey) playing the villain to “improvise,” so that even he can’t predict what he might do next. This brief cleverly translates into the time this villain, too, escapes the film – as an underwritten, one-note man wreaking havoc on Mumbai streets. Then there’s my favourite blink-and-miss moment. The first thing Mahboob does in reality is hail a cab to Bandra Terminus, because that’s what heroes escaping from gun-toting villains are conditioned to do. He sits in the stationary car but alights a second later, asking the bemused driver if they’ve reached – an ingenious nod to the “jetlag” of a movie character who’s used to having his life edited. In a film, a single cut might have transported him to the station. It’s a fleeting scene, but one that speaks to the film’s persistent curiosity about the relationship between art and life.
The performances, too, are an uncanny mix of satire and self-awareness. Kapoor plays puppeteer and puppet in a way that undercuts their outward contrasts with an inward resemblance. The tension between the two men is a consequence of the unlikely chemistry between them – RK is almost surprised to see that Mahboob is inherently a nice person yearning to transcend a bad film. Watching Mahboob is like watching his own vanity grow a conscience. It’s a loaded double role in that sense, but Kapoor never loses sight of the fact that duality is the afterlife of porous individualism. As a director, Kapoor has a knack for crafting the density of indoor life – there’s peripheral noise, people speaking over each other, action and reactions bleeding into one another. Consequently, much of the supporting cast in RK/RKay manage to stand out and blend in at once, bringing to mind the intimate chaos of Khosla Ka Ghosla. I especially liked Chandrachoor Rai as the ubiquitous assistant director. The actor was a scene-stealer as a murder victim in Kapoor’s previous film, Kadakh; here, he does the entire there-but-not-there hustler act with nonchalant fluidity. Mallika Sherawat does well as the glamorous diva, playing along with the film and the film within the film’s conceit. Most of all, Manurishi Chadha, an actor for all seasons, is a hoot as a builder-turned-producer who carries his own Black Label bottle wherever he goes. From the moment he signs the actress with a “Welcome abroad,” he brings a seedy urgency to the events of a film that circumvents the cheap thrills of cultural stereotyping.
Unlike most film-making stories, RK/RKay embraces a sense of levity and never lets it go. Even in its ‘serious’ moments, it resists the temptation of descending into a dark space, trusting the viewer to choose the subtext they prefer. For instance, at some point, I was quite taken by how RK/RKay could be read as a psychological drama unfurling entirely in the head of the director. The humour is a front for the existential dread of an independent film-maker who is breaking bad – by going mainstream. Doing a retro tribute-cum-original is him joining the rat race. Even RK’s wife wonders why he’s doing it. The protagonist goes rogue because the film-maker himself lacks the conviction to pull it off. It’s the equivalent of, say, Johnny Balraj escaping Bombay Velvet during the edit, shacking up with Anurag Kashyap, and refusing to budge until the climax is reshot. (The actor’s initials, too, read: RK).
Mahboob’s distress at RK’s decision to kill his character – and deny him any agency beyond the mediocre lines written for him – is also a potent riff on the God Complex of new-age creators, who often think nothing of the truth they manipulate, revise and appropriate in the name of art and capitalism. That Mahboob is a Muslim hero with a dreamy moustache, a penchant for chaste Urdu and an affinity towards cooking only informs – if perhaps unwittingly – a country’s fetisization of a culture that is defined by the dispensability of Bollywood fame. RK only wants Mahboob to perform for him, die for him and save his career; everything else is window dressing. In other words, the social bleakness of this comedy lies in the eyes of the beholder. Even if one doesn’t go looking for messages and depth, RK/RKay holds up wonderfully as a movie made by people who love the movies. In a parallel world (or not), our reaction to this witty, low-budget comedy is probably a part of the film. And if that’s not a homage to the democracy of storytelling, I don’t know what is.