Director: Rajat Kapoor
Writer: Rajat Kapoor
Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Mallika Sherawat, Kubbra Sait, Manu Rishi Chaddha
Rajat Kapoor is Hindi cinema’s high priest of mischief and whimsy. His last film Kadakh (2019) unfolded over one night — a couple hosts a Diwali party while a dead body lies folded into a trunk in their bedroom. Before Kadakh, Rajat directed the sublime Ankhon Dekhi (2013), which ended with the protagonist flying from a cliff like a bird, finally experiencing the freedom that he sought all his life. In his latest, RK/Rkay, Rajat goes a step further.
RK/Rkay is a hall of mirrors. It’s a film about a director making a film. Kapoor has written and directed the film. He also plays RK, who has written and directed the film being made within the film and the film’s leading man Mahboob. The line between reality, fiction and fiction within fiction is fluid, constantly shifting and porous – literally.
RK is making a film that is designed as a sort of tribute to the Sixties. Ranvir Shorey plays an actor named Ranvir who is playing a villain named K.N Singh, obviously inspired from the iconic villain of that time. The heroine Neha, played by Mallika Sherawat, is a diva from hell – the sort who shows up on set at noon for a 9am shot. In a hilarious sequence, we see an assistant director kneeling, out of frame, giving her cues. But she can barely even manage acting then. Yet RK manages to wrap shoot efficiently within 36 days. But he is plagued by doubt and insecurity. His producer, Goel Saab (Manu Rishi Chadha), is pushing him to change the ending to a happy one. His assistant director Namit (Chandrachoor Rai) reminds RK that viewers “buri buri films independent ke naam pe dekh rahe hain (will watch the worst films just because they’re called independent). Keep the faith.”
And then Mahboob disappears – he literally runs out of the film’s negative. This is Rajat’s masterstroke — RK/Rkay evolves from an insider’s comic take on making movies to a larger meditation on the relationship between a creator and his creation, destiny and free will, the beauty and angst of movie-making and the question of authorship. Do directors make films or do characters eventually acquire a life of their own? Mahboob’s signature dialogue is “Mera naseeb meri mutthi mein hai (I decide my own fate)”. At one point, RK mournfully tells his wife: What a failure one must be if even the characters you write don’t listen to you. But Kapoor doesn’t let this become ponderous. There is a vein of absurdist humor running through the film. There’s also Chadha as Goel Saab, a builder who relies on whiskey to get him through the many challenges of financing a film.
RK/Rkay runs for an efficient one hour, 35 minutes, which is as long as the conceit can be stretched. The film was funded by crowd-sourcing – some 800 people, including director Sharat Katariya and actor-director Vinay Pathak, contributed between Rs 100 to Rs 50,000 to make it. The modest budget has impacted the scale, but not the look. Production designer Meenal Agarwal has created a distinct aesthetic, starting with the title sequence in which Mahboob is running in and out of multiple doors in a long corridor, with teal-coloured walls. The note of artifice is struck from the first frame.
Sagar Desai’s music enhances the surreal in the story. National Award-winning cinematographer Rafey Mahmood, who has shot all of Kapoor’s films, also lends a hand – the film is beautifully lit with frames bathed in diffused, amber hues, especially the indoor scenes of the film that RK is making. Sherawat is well cast as both Neha and Mahboob’s love, Gulabo. She is suitably shrill as the fumbling actor, but also pines for Mahboob with exactly the right touch of melodrama. The heavy-lifting, of course, is being done by Kapoor both behind and in front of the camera. Mahboob is a more charming, less curdled version of RK. In one scene, RK’s wife says she actually prefers Mahboob. There is a hint of sadness in a storyteller being able to create a fictional character who is more affectionate and charismatic than he is, but being unable to imbue his own relationships with enough warmth. Despite being surrounded by his film crew and family, RK is lonely and rarely at peace while Mahboob is every inch the dashing star. There is a tenderness in Kapoor’s rendition of the two characters; an affection, which roots the fantastical plot in real emotion.
In the last half an hour, RK/Rkay does wear thin. But mostly this modest film delivers on its big ambitions.