AK vs AK, The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives, Sushant Singh Rajput: Curious case of fact-fiction and the unreliable narrator
Vikramaditya Motwane's Netflix mockumentary AK vs AK rounds off a year characterised by its hybrid genre. From shows like Masaba Masaba and The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives to mainstream media coverage of Sushant Singh Rajput's death case, the lines between fact and fiction were constantly blurred.
Vikramaditya Motwane's mockumentary on Netflix India, AK vs AK, put an exclamation point to a year charactertised by its hybrid genre, where the line between fiction and fact was constantly blurred. Familiar characters and settings, mobilised by unprecedented circumstances — was the elevator pitch of Project 2020.
The past year can be viewed as a depository of binaries — inside vs outside, motion vs stability, rich vs poor, positive vs negative, and near vs distanced. Where the poles gravitated towards each other was the amalgamated realm of fact and fiction, both on and off screen. WhatsApp forwards and rabble rousers went on overdrive, as disoriented consumers tried to make sense of the novel coronavirus.
The entertainment industry was quick to respond to the situation with several multi-narrative projects, facilitated by streaming platforms at a time when theatres were shut down for most part of the year. Anthologies like Unpaused and Putham Pudhu Kaalai on Amazon Prime Video India incorporated four or five diverse narratives as a response to the pandemic and its consequences. There was no singular, unified reaction to the situation because of the uncertainty and scale involved. The issues broached by the filmmakers ranged from the migrant crisis and frontline warriors to the middle class' practical limitations during the lockdown.
The story a maker chooses to tell reflects their priorities, takeaways, background, and perspective. Avinash Arun's Vishaanu, which was picked by many as the most nuanced and thought-provoking among the five short films in Unpaused, demonstrates how he perceived the lockdown more as an inconvenience for the masses, rather than a necessity. When fact marries fiction, it is best analysed through the narrator's headspace.
For instance, AK vs AK speaks volumes of the reality that director Motwane inhabits. In an interview, Motwane admitted he had a soft corner for the filmmaker-protagonist of his Netflix film, played by Anurag Kashyap, who kidnaps Anil Kapoor's daughter to stage a hostage thriller. Motwane claimed that he was feeling low after the failure of his 2018 vigilante film Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, which is why he decided to pursue the script of AK vs AK, which writer Avinash Sampath presented him years ago.
The failure of Bhavesh Joshi Superhero, is what he claims spawned both Trapped and AK vs AK. The desperation to fetch a star instead of an actor in order to get more bums on seats, or even the opportunity to secure enough screens for that, is felt throughout AK vs AK. What starts with the stakeholders of showbiz turning against Kashyap for publicly splashing water on Anil's face soon transforms into an ego trip, where the filmmaker is determined to go to any lengths to make the movie in his head. This underlines the unadulterated indulgence every great filmmaker is guilty of.
What prevents Motwane from falling into the trap of indulgence is the fact that Anil has indirectly co-authored this mockumentary. The actor had revealed that Motwane encouraged him to share his own journey, setbacks, milestones, weaknesses, and principals before they locked the final script. Since the film was modelled on Anil, and customised as per his personality and life story, Motwane ceased to be an unreliable narrator. Rather than justifying a filmmaker's angst and indulgence by mocking the trade diktats, he also offers a peak into the limitations and struggles of an actor's life.
(Also read: How AK vs AK effortlessly holds the film industry accountable while also being hilarious)
Sample the scene when Anil is asking slum residents whereabouts of his daughter's kidnapper, but they agree to help him only after he entertains them with a dance on 'My Name Is Lakhan.' Taking a cue from his cousin and mentor Raj Kapoor's 1975 classic Mera Naam Joker, Anil masks his desperation and anxiety with a gleeful veneer and breaks into his trademark dance, with sunglasses shielding his pain-ridden eyes and bloodied face. Even in the sequences that were shot in guerilla fashion, when Anil enquires taxi drivers of the kidnapper's whereabouts, they shake their head promptly only to demand a selfie later. And Anil readily complies.
This is a stark reminder of what transpired earlier in the year. Untruths were misrepresented as facts, as reality turned into a reality show particularly on prime time television news after the death of Sushant Singh Rajput. The actor's death was milked to an unprecedented degree by several unreliable narrators for reasons of their own. Meanwhile news channels like Times Now and Republic TV, which violated numerous reporting laws and ethics to garner more TRPs, were later sued by film producers for defamation. Kangana Ranaut painted the tragedy as a tool to further her narrative against exploitation of outsiders by nepotistic forces of Bollywood. And certain political leaders exploited the wide interest in the case for mileage ahead of the Bihar Assembly Elections (Rajput's hometown was Patna).
(Also read — Bollywood Strikes Back: With theatres reopening, Hindi film industry needs its audience more than ever before)
While some on the fringes defended Bollywood and urged to shift the focus on Rajput's history of mental health, some claimed the industry dug its own grave by choosing to remain silent all along. Sure, it is a personal call to go on record with your mental illness battle, or for that matter, any disease. Deepika Padukone has been a key voice in the discourse on mental health ever since she opened up on her battle with clinical depression. But at the same time in 2020, there was a Chadwick Boseman who chose to work till his final day without revealing he was also battling cancer.
But the same year is a testament of when stars or famous personalities choose to open up, they often become unreliable narrators of their own stories. Netflix India projects like Masaba Masaba and The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives felt like extensions of social media accounts of their creators.
Masaba Gupta, who made her acting debut through a show that conveniently oscillated between fact and fiction around her life, put up an honest performance as herself in the show. But as a narrator of her own account, she could not go beyond what is already chronicled and well known about her private life. In fact, the idea of #HotMess she celebrated through the show only weakened the storytelling. The mess in her life was #hot only because it was too cool to be genuinely messy.
Similarly, docu-series The Fabulous Lives of Bollywood Wives had immense potential to be an insightful study of those in the industry whose perceptions are glamorous, but realities are only a fraction of that. There were glimpses — Chunky Panday speaking emotionally, almost with lament, of the opportunities gone by when he was at the peak of his career; Sanjay Kapoor confessing it took him decades to collaborate professionally with a friend whom he has known for decades; an aloof Samir Soni precariously uninterested in socialising unlike wife Neelam; and the mental toll of separation on Sohail and Seema Khan's lives. But whenever the husbands considered speaking their heart out, the wives promptly hijacked them with their 'Fabulous Lives'. And to make matters worse, producer Karan Johar stepped in whenever the show was 'losing steam' to play agony aunt.
(Also read: Netflix's newest reality show should have been called The Guarded Lives of Bollywood Wives)
But can one really blame the Johars, the Bollywood Wives, and the Masabas (two of them in the title) for throwing light only on the spots that the audience wants to see? Probably. Because it adds to the culture of exchanging facts for fiction whenever conducive to the narrative one wants to build. This convenience comes dangerously into play when speculation around the death of an actor is played on loop for emotional voyeurism. Meddling with facts for fiction's sake can often snowball into a space where the two cease to be mutually exclusive. An unreliable narrator, coupled with the audience's lust to consume the Hot Mess in the Fabulous Lives of those who entertain them, can have lethal consequences, as 2020 stands witness to.
All images from Twitter.
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