Director: Raj Mehta
Writer: Rishhabh Sharrma
Cast: Akshay Kumar, Emraan Hashmi, Diana Penty, Nushrratt Bharuccha
The good news is that Selfiee is the best Akshay Kumar movie in years. As a Bollywood superstar named Vijay Kumar, he finally shows glimpses of that famous comic timing. You can see him milking his own career when Vijay deals with a pushy producer and fawning politician; he treats them like failed social experiments. You can see his pre-patriotism irreverence when Vijay’s wife teases him for his ‘gummy smile’; he offers us a chuckle at his own expense. You can also see his Nineties’ action swag when he feuds with a stubborn cop; the Main Khiladi Tu Anari title track is a neat touch, given that Kumar was the slick policeman who inspired a Bollywood superstar (Saif Ali Khan) in that film. But the bad news is that Selfiee is still not a good movie.
The problem isn’t the familiar premise – which not only adapts the Prithviraj-starring Malayalam hit Driving Licence (2019), but also follows in the footsteps of Hindi parasocial dramas like Fan (2016) and An Action Hero (2022). Vijay Kumar urgently needs a driving license to shoot his film’s climax in Bhopal. But a misunderstanding with RTO officer Om Prakash (a sincere Emraan Hashmi) – who is also a Vijay superfan – results in a clash of gloriously fragile male egos. Om decides to put his idol through press and bureaucratic hell to teach him a lesson. If anything, this is a potentially enjoyable story, especially when you consider that it’s tailormade to extend Kumar’s brilliant satirical cameos in Om Shanti Om (2008) and An Action Hero. There’s even a nod to his iconic Om Shanti Om clip (where his hips and crotch do the work of a gun). Vijay’s bitter rival (Abhimanyu Singh) in this film does a commercial in which – wait for it – the hero uses his cast-iron buttcheeks to crack a walnut. It’s a gym ad, in case you’re wondering.
The problem, however, is the pressure that the film feels to appropriate this premise. It’s this pressure – to address a moment rather than explore a culture – that robs Selfiee of a voice. I haven’t watched Driving Licence, but it’s clear that the distinct legacy of South Indian fandom shaped the film’s identity. Selfiee, on the other hand, is blunted by its desire to be timely yet diplomatic in the Boycott-Bollywood era. Bearing in mind that the makers have borne the brunt of the anti-Hindi-cinema movement, Selfiee feels like damage control and image revival at once. Despite its theme, the film seems afraid to swing big and challenge either side. It refuses to complicate the superstar as well as the superfan, instead suggesting that it’s always the world and its mother that’s responsible for their rift. It’s like watching a lovers’ tiff in which everyone except the lovers is at fault. The commentary on celebrity culture is not its primary purpose. The media is again villainized for cheap laughs. Not that it’s inaccurate, but the Arnab Goswami spoof is well past its sell-by date.
As a result, the Akshay Kumar we get isn’t the cheeky cameo specialist. It’s the performative social-message specialist – the sort who sicks a mob of fans onto a dissenter only to innocently admit that he had no idea they would turn violent. Or the sort who goes the extra mile for his producer while cementing his status as a family man. If you listen closely, you might just hear the tagline: “It’s all about loving your Akshay Kumar”. Every time Vijay acts cocky (and the film becomes fun), Kumar recalibrates the character to be sanitized and saintly. Even though he’s a Bollywood star himself, it often seems like he’s ‘playing’ one here. It’s almost like the film hides from itself in the hope that audiences don’t feel too judged. You can see it coming from the pre-film disclaimer by Kumar, which explicitly insists (in his best anti-smoking tone) that Selfiee is a heartfelt tribute – not an indictment, okay? – to fans.
This paranoia bleeds into the design. Consequently, the irony of a driving exam propelling the film’s drama is lost in a sea of self-serious staging. There’s merit to the idea of locating a public feud in the most mundane setting possible. A face-off like this tends to be globe-trotting and action-packed, but Vijay and Om engage in a battle of wits at…an RTO. The fan delivers punchlines and grins, but while foxing the star with trick questions in a quiz. The superstar does his slow-motion strutting and striding, but after passing the ‘H’ test on practical assessment day. Their do-or-die duel plays out like a small-town reality show. Yet, director Raj Mehta – whose narrative perception came to the fore in Jugjugg Jeeyo – misses a trick or three here. The execution of these scenes in the second half lacks self-awareness and humour, turning Selfiee into a story that’s seldom in on its own joke. It doesn’t help that the women are footnotes, and the supporting cast is cursed with corny sound cues.
Which is to say that the title of the movie is perhaps its most interesting aspect. In the old days, an autograph would fleetingly bridge the gap between celebrity and commoner. All it took was pen and paper. Now, of course, it’s a selfie. The optical illusion is worth noting – the mirror-image picture implies that the camera allows the two faces to trade places. Or, in this case, exchange roles. The star becomes a harried everyman, and the fan acquires reluctant fame. At some point, Om all but spells it out: He can’t even go to the liquor shop without worrying for his safety. It’s a pity the rest of the film struggles to supply – and smile at – the symbolism of its title. I left as an unsatisfied viewer. But at least I came out a better driver.