Zoya Akhtar's Luck by Chance has the most nuanced take on Bollywood's outsider vs insider debate
One of the biggest achievements of Luck by Chance is the way it depicts nepotism in the film industry, probably the only mainstream Hindi movie to do so.
When Vikram reaches the office, the dingy-looking room is full of actors. Men from all over India occupy the room, their desperation, ambition, hopes and passion fill up the space. Shankar Mahadevan’s voice sings: 'Sapnon se bhare naina,' as the actors size each other up, fill up forms, rehearse lines. Someone turns to Vikram, and with an embarrassed expression, asks him for help to fill up the form — it’s in English. When Vikram asks, we realise it’s a form with basic details- name, age, etc. It cuts to the auditions. One actor is asked to leave, and he desperately asks for another chance. “I will do Ma’am, better than this” he says. I dare you to watch this song without your heart breaking.
When I watch Luck By Chance now — and I watch it all the time, on good days, on bad days, during extended lunch breaks and when I can’t sleep at night — I always, always skip this song. I love the song, it’s on all my Songs to Listen to While Doing Bartan playlists, but I can’t watch the video. It’s too powerful and too sad.
In another scene from the film, during the of launch Niki Walia (Isha Sharvani), daughter of yesteryear superstar Nina Walia (Dimple Kapadia), Niki tells the media, “I never thought I’d become an actress. I wanted to be a vet, animals ki doctor. When mom told me Romy uncle wanted to sign me, I said, “What are you saying?” Main itni nervous thi, itni nervous thi… But then I said “Why not”?”
The difference between the star kid and the struggling actor is startling, and you feel disgusted, much like Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma) who is watching the interview on television. But one of the biggest achievements of Luck by Chance is the way it depicts nepotism in the film industry, probably the only mainstream Hindi movie to do so.
Niki Walia gets her launch handed to her on a platter, with superstar Zafar Khan (played by Hrithik Roshan) even though she has no experience acting; she's a bad actor, and can’t even perform her dialogues properly. (The scene where Anurag Kashyap, who plays the scriptwriter, tries to teach her how to say "khoon" and then replaces the word with murder, is one of my favourites.) Luck By Chance also compares this privilege with struggling actors, Sona, Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) and Abhi (Arjun Mathur). The film is filled with contrasting ironies: when the film shows Nina Walia calling the shots for her daughter, demanding branded clothes and Louis Vuitton bags, when Sona has had to sleep with a producer for years, hoping to play “second lead” in a movie, Vikram has to find a grandfather clock just to get on a movie set, and Abhi has to do theatre night after night for an uncaring audience, all in the hope that they would land one movie, somehow.
The film takes its time to show that Niki seems to belong to that world, as she casually attends film premieres and strolls into Kareena Kapoor’s house for a party. The party is also where one of the most significant conversations take place, in the context of outsiders and stars, between Zafar and Karan Johar. Karan Johar says, "this is how outsiders enter the industry. A big star refuses a role and a newcomer gets a break," citing Shahrukh Khan who got Darr and Baazigar after many people had said no to the roles, and of course, Amitabh Bachchan who got his first big hit Zanjeer, after seven heroes had said no to the film.
But the film doesn’t stop there. It refuses to deal with nepotism in such simplistic terms, opting, much like Zoya Akhtar always does, to go for the nuance. And Luck By Chance is filled with subtle nuance. It does a good job of highlighting Niki’s insecurities and the pressure on her, so that as a viewer, you can’t hate her even as it recognises her privilege.
In a scene, she’s standing in front of this huge blow-up of her mother’s face, showing the comparisons that are inevitable. You feel her humiliation as her mother tells her to work out, reminding her that a “lot of money is riding on that waistline”. And in contrast, Vikram is ultimately shown to be shrewd and manipulative. He manipulates his competition to act in a way he knows the director will hate. He is shrewd in the way he charms both Nina and Niki Walia, he takes advantage of his friends and acquaintances and everyone he knows. The narrative never faults him for it, and while all these machinations might make one uncomfortable, you can’t help but feel for Vikram when he breaks down because his friend tells him he won’t make it. He's merely doing whatever he needs to, to make it.
Enter Romy Roli (Rishi Kapoor), a successful film producer who’s been making films for decades. He’s hilarious, complete with superstitions, the insistence to work with one star (“Zafar mera beta jaisa hai”) and the obsession with making a commercially-successful movie (when there is news that someone got stabbed in a queue for a movie he produced, he says “Cheers to that”). Rishi Kapoor is obviously fantastic in this role, but Akhtar doesn’t make Romy Roli a character you can just laugh at. She shows his powerlessness too — the struggle to get an investor for a film without a big star, the pain as star-after-star rejects the role, and when he finally breaks down because Zafar won’t return his calls, and he feels disrespected and rejected, you realise how each individual in this system is just a cog-in-the-wheel, whether it is the successful producer or star kid, or struggling actor.
The film also comments on power structures in the industry — and no, it isn’t always the producer with the power. It’s telling how quickly the film they’re making, Dil Ki Aag, falls apart when Zafar leaves the film. Investors back out. Other leading actors won’t touch the film, and come up with all kinds of excuses for it. Abhishek Bachchan, in a cameo, says he doesn’t want the controversy that will start if he replaces a leading actor in a movie. The producer is powerless here.
Luck By Chance reminds us that it’s not a simple battle of outsiders versus star kids. There are many deep problems in how the industry functions, that people don’t want to address. Luck by Chance is an important reminder that movies too are made by humans. Humans with their own passions, own motivations and own failings.
And that the world isn’t divided into good people and Bollywood producers.
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