The success of the show Call My Agent! — the French title is Dix pour Cent, for the 10% fee agents charge actors — was seminal and in France, instant. Set in the glittering, gauzy world of French cinema, it followed, instead, the lives of the tired, flailing, manipulative yet caring, racoon-eyed agents who make the glamour stick. Despite being set in the tourist hotspot of Paris, it refused the glamourized gaze of an Emily In Paris, yet giving us immersive glimpses of what it would be like to live in Paris, as opposed to a quick bucket-list visit. The first season, which debuted in 2015, found instant love both in France — drawing between 3 and 4 million viewers per episode on public broadcaster France 2 — and once picked up by Netflix, abroad as well.
When asked about the success of the show, the producer Dominique Besnehard, a former talent agent himself, replied, “Because it’s very French – it’s in Paris, it has office love affairs … And because it’s on Netflix.” The fourth and final season aired this January, and a film is in the making.
What becomes immediately apparent on watching Call My Agent! is how the story is ripe for a remake, a cultural reinterpretation. Because every country has its own industry around cinema, its own dream manufacturer, and its own myths around the people who make and act in movies. The allure of blind items and tabloid gossip is universal, and a show like Call My Agent! taps into that wellspring. It is no surprise then that there is a Korean, Quebec, Chinese, Vietnamese, Italian, German, and British remake under production. There was even a Turkish spin-off that completely axed references to homosexuality, of which there are plenty in the show — one of the main character is a bisexual woman, and another is a gay man.
Releasing sometime soon, Call My Agent: Bollywood dropped their teaser, showcasing the primary cast swaggering to the rap of Kaam Bhaari. Written by Abbas and Hussain Dalal and directed by Shaad Ali, we can already see the characters mapping across continents.
Rajat Kapoor plays Monty Behl, an interpretation of Mathias Barneville (Thibault de Montalembert), the self-interested, talented, but Machiavellian agent whose empathetic limits are constantly tested. Aahana Kumra plays Amal Ahmed, taken up after the fragile yet fierce Andréa Martel (Camille Cottin). Soni Razdan plays Treasa Matthews, the Indian counterpart to Arlette Azémar (Liliane Rovère), with her lapdog Jean Gabin, remnants of old school cinema, passionate, yet indifferent to the competitive spirit that drives the talent agency. Ayush Mehra plays Mehershad Sodawala, the Parsi incarnation of the cuddly and caring Gabriel Sarda (Grégory Montel), whose solution to most problems is to dump his mouth with whipped cream, straight from the can, lying supine on his office couch. (Note the Hindu, Muslim, Christian, Parsi make-up of the lead.)
Each guest star is ribbing at themselves, but under the show’s empathetic gaze, they were never too caricatured, and their arc always ended in a soft, humanized glow.
Taken together, the characters in Call My Agent! cared as much, if not more about their clients — the actors, writers, and directors — than their actual families. Their personal lives are mostly in tatters, and with a motley, lively collection of office colleagues — the level headed Camille Valentini (Fanny Sidney), the talented but always agitated Noémie Leclerc (Laure Calamy), the most nervy, caring, and knowledgeable Hervé André-Jezack (Nicholas Maury), and the receptionist with thespian dreams, Sofia Leprince (Stéfi Celma) — the show is frothy, lively, and in constant tension. Everyone is struggling to keep their clients happy, the agency afloat, and if time remains, to go back home to loved ones, for a good night’s sleep.
There is always anxiety when a cultural landmark like this is up for re-interpretation. Will they get it right? Will they change too much? Will they change too little? (Shaad Ali’s Ok Jaanu and Saathiya, both remakes, were scene by scene copies of their Mani Ratnam sources) So, as we gear up for Call My Agent: Bollywood here are some of the things we hope the show gets right.
First Love: Cinema
Perhaps the most iconic, quote tweeted moment of the show is the last episode of the first season, when after a long, confrontational, tiring day, two of the agents — Andréa and Arlette, Jean Gabin on leash — decide not to go home, but to go to the theater instead, because “[w]hen things get you down, there is always the movies.”
The show is an unabashed celebration of cinema, and the lengths to which these agents will go — bribing, lying, stealing, manipulating — to pair the best writers with the best directors, the best actors. Sure, it is in their economic self interest — the 10% commission — but no one shows the cynicism that comes with long hours and a stale worklife. Everyone is here because there is no other place they could (as opposed to would) rather be, and because in the end, after tiring odysseys and demanding auteurs, it is about the film. This includes some Netflix-bashing as Mathias and his assistant wonder if they should push for a deal with Netflix for one of their clients, a most debasing prospect.
In the second season, they even bring in a reckless but ambitious Hisham to take over the flailing agency — the bottomline busting guy — to further hone in on these agents’ feelings for their clients, for whom they are always available, and for cinema, which has a way of making labour feel forgiven, forgotten.
Glamorous Guest Stars
Each episode of Call My Agent! features a titular guest star – Béatrice Dalle, Cécile de France, Guy Marchand, Isabelle Adjani, Monica Bellucci, Isabelle Huppert — each playing a believable yet caricatured version of themselves. So solid is the reputation of Call My Agent! that American actress Sigourney Weaver signed up for an episode in the fourth season without even reading the script.
Take the episode where Gabrielle secretly parcels Isabelle Hupert from one film set to the next because in her workaholic trance — a reputation she has garnered — she scheduled shoots with a French and American filmmaker the same night. Or the finale of season 2 in the sunny, seaside Cannes Film Festival where Juliette Binoche — known for her grace and activism in real life — after fending off a Harvey Weinstein-like producer, arrives on stage, tattered in her haute couture gown that was ripped in her pursuit for a quick pee, but stunning everyone with her affecting speech on the inclusion of women.
Sometimes, they even subvert a celebrity reputation. Like Béatrice Dalle — who made her debut in the erotic thriller Betty Blue, and has given interviews noting that she worked in a morgue, and had, while on acid, eaten a dead man’s ear — playing a dead body, who after fighting with her director who insists on nudity, goes to the convent as a reprieve. Or even Monica Belucci, a consummate sex symbol, complaining about the lack of dates (the kind you can take home).
The crucial element here, however, is balance. Each guest star is ribbing at themselves, but under the show’s empathetic gaze, they were never too caricatured, and their arc always ended in a soft, humanized glow.
It is not that Bollywood hasn’t had actors make fun of themselves. Om Shanti Om was an extended spoof reel. Farah Khan has often made fun of herself in shows like Masaba Masaba. Radhika Apte has made fun of her constant Netflix presence in a Netflix commercial. But the thing is we have never done caricatures with empathy — they are only employed as comic reliefs. To have actors willing to take a dig at themselves and to have writers write exaggeration with empathy — it’s a tough balance.
Rooted, Transgressive Characters
Despite all hell and havoc, all glamour and glitter, the show remained razor-focused on the lives of its agents. It was never waylaid by the reputation of the high wattage guest stars, or the airy platitudes of cinephilia. The episodic drama was always immediate and filled with tension. The stakes, personal or professional, were always high.
The characters also have a transgressive allure — Matthias’ bastard love child who is the ingenue in the first season, Andréa’s bisexual proclivities which leads her to becoming pregnant while working a full schedule. There are mistresses, an orgy, the lead up to incestuous love, office romance that would make any HR personnel’s head spin, stars propositioning agents, and agents babysitting stars. You could wave your hand and say, “It’s Paris after all”, but what happens when Paris becomes Mumbai?
Given all of this, the excitement for the Bollywood remake is propped by a palpable anxiety about how the specific, transgressive, tense, and uncynical tone will translate, if it will at all, or how it will be reinterpreted, if it will be at all.