Director: Vikramaditya Motwane
Writers: Avinash Sampath, Vikramaditya Motwane
Cast: Anil Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, Yogita Bihani
Cinematography: Swapnil Sonawane
Editor: Bunty Bhansali
Streaming on: Netflix
A famously arty director feuds with a famous Bollywood star, loses credibility, kidnaps the man's daughter and films the star's desperate search for her in the hope of capturing a realistic performance. The director is Anurag Kashyap, as himself. The star is Anil Kapoor, as himself. The backdrop is Mumbai, as itself. If you're grinning at this logline, you must know that AK vs AK is not the sort of film that exists in a vacuum. It demands a certain level of engagement not just with the culture of filmmaking but also with the sub-culture of the Hindi film industry. It's a black comedy, but only in the context of the universe it addresses. Fortunately for the film, and unfortunately for the film industry, 2020 is a year in which this universe has expanded in exponential terms. Any other year, and AK vs AK might have been a geeky social experiment. But 2020 is a genre unto itself: it elevates the cheeky Netflix thriller into the realms of profound social messaging. I will however resist using adjectives like "important" and "soul-stirring" – because the point of the film is the difficult truth it conceals behind its caustic coolness.
The premise isn't random. A father looking for his abducted daughter is a classic mainstream trope, whose physicality is tailormade to complement Anil Kapoor's late-career bloom: he nailed the racing-against-time urgency of 24. And the meta-cinema trope of a twisted filmmaker forcing art out of life is a classic cinephile trope, whose madness is tailormade to mine Anurag Kashyap's alt-Bollywood legacy: his early-career angst with the mainstream elite is well documented. The lovechild – from this illicit affair between two rival schools of storytelling – is a viciously amusing, slyly provocative and deceptively dense film. Is there anything more satisfying than life pretending to be a parody?
I'll admit I was sceptical when I first heard of Vikramaditya Motwane's strange new project. It sounded like a glorified inside joke pitting the sweaty lanes of Versova against the manicured lanes of Juhu. But AK vs AK is a masterclass in cultural commentary disguised as a narrative gimmick. It is the consequence of an artist reacting to his environment in the language of art; Motwane is nothing if not a risk-taker, but his obsessive love for the medium is at its most inclusive here. The dinnertime altruism of celebrities spoofing themselves is usually limited to the stakeless confines of internet skits and talk shows. Watching Kashyap satirize his single-screen obscurity (a scooterist calls him Anurag Basu, the cops mistake him for Madhur Bhandarkar) or Harshvardhan Kapoor hamming it up to salvage his acting career ("Motwane f*cked me with Bhavesh Joshi, Anurag can redeem me!") is brutally funny, teasing the inherent voyeurism of movie audiences. But Motwane and co-writer Avinash Sampath transcend the cheap thrills by framing this conceit as an entire feature-length film. Kapoor insults Kashyap, Kashyap taunts Kapoor, the camera fools bystanders into believing that they're method-shooting a film. And the gaze of the camera fools us, the viewers, into believing that Motwane is method-venting on screen.
But at some point, all the jibes start to mean something, and it starts to say something about the times we live in. That Kapoor is posing in an Indian Air Force uniform on the sets of a patriotic biopic when Kashyap sets him off is not incidental. The makers have been forced to apologize by the IAF, because Kapoor's "inaccurate" uniform is a constant on his wild goose chase across the city. The actual subtext is lost on the outrage mobs. Far from being a self-referential ode to Janhavi Kapoor's Gunjan Saxena, this attire is symbolic of the performative new country – and by extension the performative new Bollywood – that those like Kashyap have long rallied against. The image of Kashyap gleefully following a celebrated star in the dishevelled colours of national pride is a strong one. It adds a necessary political dimension to a film built upon personal rage.
What begins as frivolous fun soon morphs into a sharp lament on the duality of new-age Hindi cinema. In a year that has seen audiences rail against this duality – between insiders and outsiders, stars and actors, content and entertainment – the ingenious form of AK vs AK collapses the space separating these poles. Anil Kapoor acts, Anurag Kashyap entertains, and the two "parties" feed off each other to repackage the futility of ideological war. At some level, the plot acts as a Bollywood troll's wish fulfillment fantasy: stripping the patron saints of nepotism of their dignity, reducing them to personal toys in the pursuit of performance art. But at another level, the climax of the film – clumsily executed but cleverly conceived – is a reality check, and an oddly striking indictment of lineage by a long-time Kashyap collaborator. It dares to declare a winner in the battle between the bitterness of a self-made artist and the ego of a privileged star. These days, it seems one cannot exist without the other. But this film suggests that one always exists within the other.
By doing so, AK vs AK becomes an unexpectedly mournful portrait, and my only grouse with the film is that it often runs the risk of being too playful to reveal the melancholy of the bigger picture. There's a dramatic monologue, a meltdown, a gun, a hit-and-run, a chase, a scuffle and a stylish twist. It's all very watchable and nifty, but it also tends to lull the viewer into consuming the film at face value. The craft – the long takes, superb on-location action, Motwane's distinct lensing of nocturnal Mumbai (those local trains and footbridges) – might hijack the psychology of the narrative. After all, how astute can a movie about the homegrown making of Taken possibly be?
The general perception is that 'serious' filmmakers stop at nothing to realize their vision – they will plumb the depths of hell, touch the skies of heaven or, in this case, swallow the star(s) of earth. For those who've followed Anurag Kashyap over the years, it's not hard to imagine his uniquely sentimental passion for cinema mutating into something more sinister on a dark day. Kashyap goes unhinged with disarming ease, lampooning his own reputation while staying true to all the pretentious-director stereotypes. Given that his most recent film (Choked) was more of an irate political statement than an artistic one, his AK vs AK role extends this reactionary tone into a personal space. His anti-establishment avatar has started to mould his sense of cinema, and the outcome is edgy to say the least.
The general perception is also that old-school superstars wallow in the ocean of accolades past – the desire to stay relevant is only rivaled by their counterparts' desire to become irreverent. Anil Kapoor has the rare gift of self-reflexive myth-making: the reinvention of his legacy is inextricably linked to being a good sport. His participation in this film is therefore a candid confession. He makes the search for his daughter feel like a last-gasp search for relevance and identity. Everywhere he goes – hotels, taxi stands, community events, even his own home – he is little more than the initials of his name. Being an idol rarely affords him the luxury of being human. At one point, alone and wounded for the camera, he breaks down on the pavement. In a more conventional film, he would be on stage for the searing monologue, baring his soul to a gathering of shocked faces. But here it's a naked moment, defined by the irony of a powerful film star in a fake IAF uniform – the fictional son of a nation – struggling to be a real father. This is perhaps when it dawns upon us that AK vs AK is not so much about a spat between two grown men as it is about the war of two Indias. One is more resentful than the other, but one cannot shine without the other. A black comedy it may be for the discerning moviegoer, but a tragedy it remains for the masses.