Directed by: Shaad Ali
Writer: Abbas Dalal, Hussain Dalal
Cast: Aahana Kumra, Soni Razdan, Ayush Mehra, Rajat Kapoor
Cinematography: Sunita Radia
Edited by: Farooq Hundekar
Streaming on: Netflix
I expected global remakes of the addictive HBO show, Entourage, years ago. Its fictional super-agent Ari Gold, at one point, became the de facto voice of the American showbiz hustle. But I suppose Entourage’s nostalgic Hollywood frat-boyishness was so specific that the window to celebrate it shut the moment social media started to shape popular discourse. The casual sexism and crass masculinity of the show would never fly today. (The allegations of sexual misconduct against Ari Gold actor Jeremy Piven during MeToo felt depressingly inevitable). But Call My Agent!, the French hit series revolving around the talent agents of a doughty Parisian firm, is universally adaptable. It suffers from no such time-driven ailments. As long as art exists, the dysfunctional stories of those shaping its commerce will remain relevant. In fact, while binge-watching the first few seasons of Call My Agent!, I remember thinking when – not if – an Indian version would be announced. High-profile talent agencies aren’t anomalies anymore; the time is riper than ever to mine the decade-long streamlining of the Hindi film industry. The agents are the protagonists, but Bollywood is the star. In fact, the myth is so ingrained that it’s harder to go wrong than right.
Yet, against all odds, like a David against the Goliath of fate, director Shaad Ali gets it woefully wrong with Call My Agent Bollywood. I can’t stress on the “woefully” enough. The crime is so obvious that a trial seems futile. Given that both titles come from the same studio, you’d imagine that the very first idea – before the script is written, before a human is hired – would be to aim for a cultural translation of the French series. It goes without saying that the history and anatomy of West European cinema is different, which, by extension, makes their quirky situations and perspectives and crises different. Yet, the makers opt for a literal translation – a scene by scene, moment by moment, theme by theme, look by look remake – that offers little to a Netflix India viewer other than the desire to demand a Hindi dub (or subtitles) of the French original. The personal and professional arcs don’t imitate so much as ape, with each episode eschewing even the slightest transfer of context. It’s like copying from an exam paper only to submit it to the wrong teacher.
Despite following a foolproof narrative template – actually, precisely because of this – the lack of nuance is startling. Of course, the characters are Indian (I think), but “four agents from different walks of life” is appropriated into a Hindu-Muslim-Parsi-Christian team. The aggressive Parisian go-getter who isn’t defined by her sexual identity translates into a hot-headed, foul-mouthed and sex-crazy lesbian who smokes cigars and yells at everyone in sight. Even the showbiz conflicts – where industry faces appear as themselves in self-aware client cameos – play out more like homage scenes from an Om Shanti Om (or an old AIB skit) than a semi-authentic dramedy. Dia Mirza driving an ageism episode, a rivalry between Ila Arun and Lilette Dubey, a mother-daughter faceoff between Akshara Haasan and Sarika, Lara Dutta facing a tax problem – with all due respect to the good-natured turns, the client roster makes it difficult to sense the gravity and chaos of a leading agency in Mumbai. Farah Khan and Jackie Shroff cameos aside, the company seems to be operating in a parallel French universe where every one of their artists is a superstar earning them crores in commission and cultural currency.
But the dissonance in stature is stark. The spark – of French counterparts like Isabelle Huppert, Cécile de France, Juliette Binoche – is sorely missing. I did enjoy director Tigmanshu Dhulia’s cheeky little performance (“I’ll open in Cannes”), but it’s also true that he could have done this in his sleep. And casting filmmaker Nandita Das as a “legendary arthouse darling” directing a campy masala potboiler reveals a reductive late-1990s view of parallel Indian cinema. The entire landscape has moved on, but Call My Agent has apparently not.
But to simply call this series unoriginal and lazy would be to underplay the sheer atrocity of its film-making. Even if one were to accept the copy-paste syndrome and view it in isolation, it’s impossible to get past the jarring production design, poor casting, indifferent acting, unimaginative writing, patchy camerawork and tacky direction. For starters, the agency is called ART, so that a rival agency called CELEB can trigger an “art is dead” metaphor. The offices are decked in garish massage-parlour blues and reds (the conference room in the middle could’ve been called the Red Room of Pain), as though it were trying to convey the…forget it, I don’t care to know why. Even Mad Men would get a coronary. The shot-taking is strange: Ultra-tight close-ups of faces interrupt the visual rhythm of most scenes. The hues of every frame are eye-popping, every room and person and object is hyper-stylized and hyper-sexualized (a young meet-cute features an intern accidentally photocopying her cleavage), and Rajat Kapoor is made to wear vivid turtleneck sweaters and jackets in Swiss-Mumbai weather. The office is prime property, staged directly across VT station – shots of which emerge in various permutations and combinations – with a terrace cafe to allow characters to smoke, kiss, flirt, cry and converse in questionably-written dialogue.
Now for the real issues. For some absurd reason, each episode ends with the characters breaking the fourth wall to look squarely at us aghast viewers. (As if to ask: Why are you still watching?). The fetisization of Aahana Kumra’s Amal is hard to watch: she randomly drops Urdu conflections like “mohtarma,” “janaab” and “miya” in the middle of exchanges, lest we forget the social significance of her character. (One might argue that two women kissing in broad daylight in front of VT station is a step forward for on-screen LGBTQ representation, but the execution of the scene is so showy that its intent is lost). I don’t think it’s Kumra’s fault that her performance lacks calibration. What makes it worse is that the series features the most sleazily filmed sex scenes in recent memory. Amal’s trysts with auditor Jasleen, in particular, are tailored to fit the porn-driven male gaze of “girl-on-girl action” rather than actual real-life intimacy. At one point, Amal is simply seen squeezing a half-naked Jasleen’s butt on the couch in a red hotel room – a tasteless frame that fantasizes about, rather than informs, the sexual tension between the two women.
It’s all so wrong that I desperately looked for an in-joke, a reason, a wink, something, anything, to explain the lack of sensibilities. I could go on, but Call My Agent Bollywood has left me with no hair to pull out. I can maybe move on to my teeth, a prospect less painful than the threat of having to watch another season.