How AK vs AK effortlessly holds the Hindi film industry accountable while also being hilarious
The genius of AK vs AK lies in its ability to have a whole lot of fun while holding the film industry to task.
Picture this: Anil Kapoor, four-time Filmfare Award-winning actor whose lineage extends to Prithiviraj Kapoor and who by effect, makes up the first family of Hindi cinema, breaks down on a pavement outside Grant Road station reminiscing his prime. “In 1986, I delivered 13 back-to-back superhits,” Kapoor, bloodied and battered, having just been run over by a car, tells the camera trailing him in Vikramaditya Motwane’s meta-fictional outing, AK vs AK. “I’m a fucking failure,” the 64-year-old actor concedes the next second. In that moment, Kapoor is playacting and not acting at the same time.
The backdrop is a terse, labythrinian chase for a kidnapped daughter in a fictional movie. But the beating heart of this sequence is the identity of the father delivering these lines: Anil Kapoor, four-time Filmfare Award-winning actor whose lineage extends to Prithiviraj Kapoor. On screen, the lines between father and superstar can’t help but blur. Now, picture it this way: An ageing star, exhausted by the excruciating cycle of pretence finally confronts his growing irrelevance in an industry that has stopped being powered by the might of starry surnames. As Motwane seems to suggest – after all, who is to say that fact and fiction can’t be two sides of the same coin?
That’s precisely the absurdly addictive appeal of AK vs AK, possibly the most fun any Hindi film has had while holding the mechanisms of the industry to task. The film’s premise is practically a meme: A disgruntled indie filmmaker kidnaps a superstar’s daughter, challenges him to find her before sunrise, and captures his ensuing search across the city as footage for his next film. The nuttiness of the thriller is exacraberted by the metaness of its casting: The disgruntled filmmaker is Anurag Kashyap, the smug superstar is Anil Kapoor, and the kidnapped daughter is Kapoor’s actor daughter Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, all of them playing exaggerated versions of themselves.
AK vs AK is a film that wears its premise like a ruse, winking at the audience by inviting their unbridled curiosity and goading them to peel off its layers every step of the way. In a way, the duality that defines the business of Bollywood – new-age voices vs old guards, auteur vs actor, struggling outsiders vs star-kids, celebrity culture vs cinephilia – is the centrepiece of Motwane’s kooky Netflix outing.
The idea of utilising self-referential mythologising as a filmmaking device is a relatively novel idea in Bollywood.
In the past, filmmakers have shown an inclination to employ it mostly to serve their own mythmaking. Every other Karan Johar outing for instance, will have one pat on the back to the filmmaker’s earlier outings, a modus operandi that mistakes self-congratulation for self-awareness. The closest Johar came to underlining the absurdity of Hindi cinema is a scene from Ae Dil Hai Mushkil where Alizeh (Anushka Sharma) freezes in the cold while trying to recreate a standard Bollywood love song wearing a barely there chiffon saree, is dressed like a tribute to the Yashraj universe of movies.
There are exceptions. Take Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om for instance, a film in which digs at Bollywood’s tantrums are aplenty, even though they might be too innocuous to stir up the conscience of an entire industry. But its crowning glory was a 10-minute show scene, featuring cameos by Akshay Kumar and Abhishek Bachchan playing versions of themselves unafraid to the butt of all jokes. Its metaness remains compelling not because it parodies Bollywood but because it reveals the industry to be a parody of itself.
Then, there was Maneesh Sharma’s hugely ambitious Fan that relied on the inimitable, unquantifiable cult of Shah Rukh Khan, the superstar, to drive home the madness of hero-worship in the country. And earlier this year, Hardik Mehta’s sensational Kaamyaab, a film about actors who end up as characters in the fringes of the industry felt eerily monumental, in particular, the filmmaker’s decision to use actual character actors in the background of scenes. It is in these moments, Mehta, a crafty filmmaker, comments on both the gatekeeping visible in a film industry that pretends to be democratic as well as the short-term memory of viewers who ignore to accord these character actors the dignity of remembrance.
Yet these three films merely blur the lines between real and surreal in flashes, treating the transgressions of a film industry as well as the audience that enables their transgressions as merely an inside joke. By designing an entire movie about the language of one-upmanship that is like a mother-tongue to Bollywood, AK vs AK might just be the first instance of a Hindi meta-fiction film that treats that inside joke as an everyday language. It’s an indictment on Bollywood and its indulgences that doesn’t deal in absolutes. Sure, the ageing superstar gets to strut around his privilege but that doesn’t necessarily mean that indie filmmaking is the balm for that faultline.
One of the most ingenious themes in AK vs AK hinges on dismissing the romanticisation of creating art through endangerment, a philosophy that most struggling filmmakers hold dear. In AK vs AK, Kashyap doesn’t come across as a saviour or a crusader; instead he’s a deranged shell of an artist with a victim complex. Then there is the film’s searing take on nepotism, potent enough to finally end the debate once and for all. It’s probably apt that Harshvardhan Kapoor, a star-kid who Motwane has worked with in the past, is the vehicle for this language of cultural commentary. In that hilariously staged sequence, performed to perfected by Kapoor, Motwane distills the entitlement of a star-kid as well as the futility of any outsider deluding themselves in believing that age-old structures can be dismantled overnight.
The thing about Motwane who boasts of a filmography that is as curious as risky is that he understands that the only way to hold the Hindi film industry accountable is by speaking to it in a language it understands: a film. It’s what makes the in-jokes of AK vs AK so compelling.
If Kashyap is an anti-establishment film school by virtue of being an outsider who broke into an industry that functions like a kitty party, then Kapoor represents the billboard of that very establishment, who has never needed to transform into a film school by virtue of being the one throwing the party. If the idea of struggle is a state of mind for Kapoor, then it is a way of life for Kashyap. These aren’t just two different filmmaking philosophies (AK vs AK starts off with a disagreement between Kashyap and Kapoor over whether the real authority of a film is its director or the actor spearheading it) or two fandoms but more importantly, two worldviews. One can’t exist without trampling on the other. That’s the nature of the film industry – it’s as much an attack as it is a fact.
In that sense, AK vs AK’s payoff hinges completely on an entire country’s blind obsession with celebrity culture. The ingenuity of it all is that Motwane is that rare filmmaker who understands that when a superstar gets on stage and dances to your tunes, it doesn’t matter if you’re a wide-eyed filmmaker or an eager viewer, you end up being sidetracked.
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