You'd be forgiven for thinking Rajat Kapoor and Oliver Assayas's most recent projects are exercises in narcissism. Kapoor's RK/Rkay is about the making of a film in which Kapoor is the star and director of both the film as well as the film within the film. Meanwhile Assayas made his streaming debut this year with Irma Vep, a miniseries about the making of a miniseries. If both sound like the Spiderman meme but as high concept, you're not far off the mark. However, rather than being self-indulgent (which is what narcissism tends to be), RK/Rkay and Irma Vep are fascinating reflections upon the creative process. They take the art seriously while poking fun at the artist. Although Irma Vep and RK/ Rkay have many differences, they're both teasing the audience with the same question — is life imitating art or art imitating life?
Assayas's Irma Vep draws heavily on a film by the same name that he made in 1996, in which a director attempts to remake a classic silent film series titled Les Vampires. The miniseries is also about a director remaking Les Vampires, this time for the small screen as a show titled "Irma Vep". A key difference between the 1996 film and the streaming series is in the character of René Vidal, who is the director of the film within the film. Originally, René's role was played by Jean-Pierre Léaud (a legend of the French New Wave, he is best known for his work with director François Truffaut). In the new Irma Vep, René, as portrayed by Vincent Macaigne, is a barely-disguised stand-in for Assayas himself.
Similarly, in Kapoor's new film RK/Rkay, Kapoor plays a director known as RK who's in the process of making a film. Much like René's "eight-hour film" is an ode to a bygone era of European cinema, RK's film, titled "Mera Naseeb" (My Fate) is a throwback to vintage Bollywood movies from the Sixties. Another parallel is that in both, the glamour quotient comes from a popular actress — Mallika Sherawat in RK/Rkay and Alicia Vikander in Irma Vep — who has chosen to do this indie project. In an interview with Film Companion, Kapoor said it was important that he was the actor playing RK because that helped create a convincing "illusion". To further blur the lines between reel-life and real directors, RK's two children have the same names as Kapoor's children.
On one hand, the self-reflexivity of these two director personas is funny. In RK/Rkay, when RK shows the first cut of his film to a select crowd of three, one of them mimes putting a gun to his head. The same person, who is one of RK's assistant directors, also tells RK to take comfort in knowing Mera Naseeb is not RK's worst film and in any case, the moment a film is described as 'independent', it can get away with pretty much anything. It's a self-deprecating dig at Kapoor's own filmography. In Irma Vep, René, with his need to control the narrative and his actors, is a parody of Assayas. For instance, an actor who keeps questioning René and making suggestions for his scenes is, at one point, packed into a basket by René for a shot that sees said basket hurtling down a long flight of stairs. And yes, the actor is inside the whole time.
There's also a vulnerability that comes with putting aspects of one's self on display like this. One of the most poignant moments in Irma Vep so far (the series is ongoing) is when René's therapist asks him about the film version of Irma Vep that he'd made, in which he'd cast his now ex-wife. "I was completely in love with her … and then it just faded. One day it was over," René tells the therapist and it's impossible to not think of Assayas, his actual film version of Irma Vep in which Maggie Cheung played the title role, and the fact that Cheung and Assayas were once married and are now (amicably) divorced.
Much of RK/Rkay is about the relationship between the art and the artist. Kapoor imagines a situation in which a character escapes from the frame of the narrative written for him and develops free will (the title Mera Naseeb is obviously a pointed reference to this). Mid-way through the edit of Mera Naseeb, RK and his team are horrified to discover Mahboob, the hero of the film, has literally disappeared. There's no trace of him anywhere in the raw footage because Mahboob has found a way to come into the real world. Kapoor has a lot of fun with the idea of a runaway character. There's a hilarious scene in which Kapoor and his producer file a missing person complaint with the police. "He's a character," Kapoor tries to explain to the policeman who asks for the missing person's basic information. "We see loads of characters here," the policeman replies confidently, and asks for Mahboob's father's name. RK goes on to identify himself as Mahboob's mother because "maine janam diya hai usko" (I gave birth to him").
Yet alongside the humour is an anxiety. When the art takes on a life of its own, what happens to the artist? To whom does the art belong? RK keeps insisting that Mahboob is his creation, implying that RK is the one who controls him. However, soon after he's entered RK's world, Mahboob proves he's difficult to order around. There's also a telling scene in which Mahboob has a conversation about love with RK's wife Seema (played by Kubbra Sait). Shot from two angles, part of the scene has Seema and Mahboob facing the camera, with a blurry outline of RK's silhouette visible in the frame, watching the two of them talk. The other angle shows Seema and Mahboob in profile, but there's no RK. It's as though the director is disappearing from reality much like Mahboob has from Mera Naseeb.
If you watch RK/Rkay carefully, you'll realise that Mahboob's disappearance is less random than it initially seems. If anything, he seems to have been conjured into being by the director. Before the character appears in real life and after RK has realised his film is not working out as he'd hoped, there's a montage that begins with a scene in a corridor. It has many doors and Mahboob, with his fedora and suitcase, is seen walking up to the camera. He comes so close that all we see is the top of his hat, which lifts to reveal RK's face (without the moustache that is Mahboob's identifying feature for most of the film). Then a drawing of a forest briefly appears, after which we see RK sitting in a corner, faced with a collection of circular mirrors which show him upside-down reflections of himself. When RK tries to touch his reflection, the montage cuts back to the corridor where Mahboob is seen backing away, arms raised. A tarot spread appears for a brief moment before the card of the Hanged Man (signifying sacrifice, lack of direction and contemplation) is seen in place of a doorbell. A flurry of shots follows — RK hugging Seema; a blue carpet and peeling plaster on a wall; Mahboob in the final scene of RK's film; RK on set, dressed as Mahboob, simultaneously occupying both the role of actor and director; a hand ringing a doorbell, which has the Hanged Man card under it.
The jumble of scenes is an expression of RK's anxiety as he struggles with the edit of Mera Naseeb and the repeated appearance of the Hanged Man raises the question of what needs to be sacrificed. The legend of the Hanged Man in tarot is that he is positioned between worlds by his free will — much like Mahboob and later RK, who is upside down (like the Hanged Man) in the reflections he sees of himself in that montage. Soon after, Mahboob slips out of a place that looks vaguely like the Aarey forest in Mumbai — which, ironically, may well soon be about as fictitious as Mahboob — and hails a taxi, the modern equivalent of the ferryman who takes souls across worlds.
Mahboob disrupts RK's world in many ways, but he also completes it and by the end of the film, it's difficult to say who's more real between Mahboob and RK. Ultimately, what lingers and proves to be more lasting than the ephemeral entertainment of a director and crew trying to make a film, is the art itself. While offering a glimpse inside the mind of a director, Kapoor and Assayas, in their own ways, hope to show that the processes behind creativity can be artistic as well; that their love and passion for the work that they do might redeem them in some way.
RK/Rkay is out in theatres today. Irma Vep is streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.