Selfiee on DisneyPlus Hotstar Review: Akshay Kumar, Emraan Hashmi as Star and Fan Miss the Point of Prithviraj’s Driving Licence

Directed by Raj Mehta, the film is about star-fan relationship that goes from sweet to sour
Selfiee review
Selfiee review

Director: Raj Mehta

Writer: Rishhabh Sharrma

Cast: Akshay Kumar, Emraan Hashmi, Diana Penty, Nushrratt Bharuccha

You’ve got to hand it to Dharma Productions. While having given India’s post-liberalisation era some of its most iconic commercial films and characters, as producers of adaptations, the company seems to have perfected the art of completely misinterpreting the source material, taking the essence of the original, discarding it as though it were decoration, and glamorising the meagre remains with a blitz of glitter and humour. First, they scrubbed the Marathi film Sairat (2016) clean of any reference to caste and made Dhadak (2018) adapting a story that is pivoted upon the viciousness of caste. And now, they’ve brought us Selfiee, based on the Malayalam film Driving Licence (2019). The adaptations are not bad films in themselves. They have a sense of narrative rhythm and heavyweight drama doused in a background score that refuses to let your eyelids get heavy. They just miss the very point of the story they are telling. 

Let’s begin with Driving Licence, a strange and wonderful two-hero vengeful story where a fan and a film star butt heads. A misunderstanding leads to Kuruvilla, a fan and a Regional Transport Office (RTO) inspector (Suraj Venjaramoodu), turning on his idol, superstar Hareendran (Prithviraj Sukumaran). Kuruvilla refuses to give Hareendran a driving licence, who needs it for a film he’s shooting. The film revolves around one question: When does your demand for self respect become a performance of your ego? The charm of Driving Licence is that it insists on blurring the distinction between protagonist and antagonist; both are both. There is no right and wrong here; there is just one masculine ego tussling against another. Over the course of a scene, your sympathy slithers between sides, from fan to star to fan. The central threat is to self respect as it solidifies, congeals and becomes ego. 

Selfiee, starring Akshay Kumar as the star and Emraan Hashmi as the fan, completely undoes this logic. Prithviraj in Driving Licence gives Hareendran an arrogance that’s both full of swag but also off-putting. His anger is loud and brash. His scowls burst. His coolness is derived from his edge and his edge keeps nudging the story forward, provoking the fan. In one of the most seething yet stylish moments of the film, Hareendran shows Kuruvilla the middle finger. 

Akshay Kumar in Selfiee
Akshay Kumar in Selfiee

The Hindi adaptation doesn’t dare to be even half as provocative. Selfiee seems contractually obligated to not have an edge. Akshay Kumar plays Vijay, who is not allowed to even raise his eyebrow in irony. He is a sincere do-gooder and a dull caricature of what Dharma Productions wants us to think Hindi cinema stars are. He is the antidote to #BoycottBollywood because he is such a flaccid nothingburger, no one would even afford him the attention needed to boycott him. The film even begins with a disclaimer in which Kumar tells us he’s not the hero in the film and that he loves his fans and owes his success to them, just so we never lose sight of the film being fiction. This is the problem. Selfiee thinks its audience is dumb; that is cannot distinguish a representation from a reality. And yet, it has the audacity to adapt a smart movie for this dumb audience.

Vijay is, for all intents and purposes, the protagonist of the film. In this lazy rewriting, Emraan Hashmi is given the role of the antagonist, the RTO sub-inspector Om Prakash Agarwal. His is the ego that bubbles to the surface so insistently, with his smirks and his sudden bursts of that rounded Bhopali accent — yes, Selfiee is set in Bhopal. 

Why Bhopal? Like Malayalam films which have a certain casual joy in setting their films in a local, broken-in world, Selfiee’s Bhopal is an aesthetic reprieve at best, one that allows for some top shots of the city as a sports car revs through it, one that allows the main antagonist an accent that has neither polish nor comfort. There is no joy in this Bhopal — the food, the clothing, the theatres, the way houses are built and decked. The dullness of this setting is surprising because Selfiee is shot by Rajeev Ravi, who gave us No Smoking (2007), DevD (2009), and Bombay Velvet (2015); whose frames have leaked sepia and colour with such a reckless artistry, who has made smoke look like puffy clouds shot out of rounded mouths. Yet Ravi’s frames in this film have the most grating lighting — a dining table for example, so dimly lit, in order for the fluorescent blue fish tank to pop; the bright, flat interiors, the bright flat lighting of the face where an afternoon cannot be distinguished from morning or evening. The tension of the last hour of the film involves a flight that needs to be caught, and yet, there seems to be no change in the light as we rev to that moment, as though Bhopal’s daylight is stuck in stasis. It seems Ravi was hired to do the exact opposite of what his filmography has boasted. It’s as though Dharma Productions is on a mission to co-opting talent till it looks and feels indistinguishable. 

Emraan Hashmi and Akshay Kumar in Selfiee
Emraan Hashmi and Akshay Kumar in Selfiee

Sprung from an idea that wanted to normalise both the hero and the fan as people whose love for each other is not unconditional, Selfiee loses its sharpness by trying to establish Vijay as a star. Director Raj Mehta and writer Rishhabh Sharrma try to spruce up the proceedings with routine, punctual gags. This is something Mehta has a strong, admirable grasp over. The humour, which includes a decked up actress farting in the arms of her lover during a shoot, has an unstable quality, completely liquifying any tension and steamrolling over any emotional flux. Take, for example, the fraught moment where Om Prakash’s wife (Nushrratt Bharuccha) calls him after seeing him being beaten up on television. She asks if he is okay, because she saw how people hounded him. She uses the phrase “pel diya” and its embedded humour is such an unexpected and sharp contrast to the seriousness of the situation, I burst out laughing in the theatre. 

A film like Selfiee needs to be a tender dance of humour and heavyweight feelings. What it needs most, to achieve this balance, is maturity. Yet where to find this in a film that wilfully looks at a text and junks its meaning? 

In case you were wondering, Driving Licence is available to stream on Prime Video. 

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