Tuesday, 26 April 2016

'Fan': An Indian film for non-Indians.

I saw Shah Rukh Khan's innovative crowd-pleaser Fan for the second time on Saturday. Not out of obligation to my friends at Mind Blowing Films, not to appease my SRK-loving wife (she's in Las Vegas), and not as a mere 'time pass' -- a term used by many Indian moviegoers to denote a dull but passable film.

I went because in a world of bloated franchises and indie predictability, Fan sizzles from first shot to last and boasts a performance from SRK that's as brilliant as any in his 25-year career.

About the finest testament I can offer Fan is that the second viewing was better than the first. It's not tortured plot twists or cartoon violence, the bane of so many Bollywood films, that carry Fan: It's a well-constructed story that avoids the Untainted Hero vs Diabolical Villain cliche and forces its audience to find moral clarity in the fog of its flawed protagonists. Leaving a packed cinema on opening night my wife and I agreed we'd enjoyed Fan but struggled to explain why. If you know the man's history you can't help but be burdened by expectation, and this film defied them all. No silly cheesecake item numbers, no shoe-horned romance with a woman half his age, no anthemic theme song ... Fan is a thriller made for all moviegoers, not just Indians raised on Bollywood formula.

Which is why the film won't break attendance records in India and, at this writing, is doing exceptionally well in international markets.

Watching the film for the second time I was struck by how carefully the film avoids passing judgment on obsessive fan Gaurav Chandna. His acts of vengeance are wrong, of course, but how much is he a victim of the industry created around superstar Aryan Khanna or the punishment meted out by cops acting at Khanna's behest? Gaurav's hero worship is a boon to both himself and his parents and he's a local celebrity to the people of his Delhi colony. All is well until Gaurav travels to Mumbai to show Khanna his most recent trophy for winning the colony's talent contest. Why shouldn't he expect an audience with his idol? Conversely, Khanna's sense of entitlement is understandable but years of being worshiped give him a deluded sense of control. He's oblivious to the possibility that screaming throngs at the bottom of a two-story fence in front of his Mumbai fortress might not be satisfied with a once-a-year birthday wave.

As Gaurav states repeatedly to questioners of his obsession, "You wouldn't understand."

Opening night ticket.
Khan's transformation into Gaurav is as believable and potentially iconic as Marlon Brando's turns as Vito Corleone in the first two Godfather films. The difference, of course, is Brando didn't have to portray both Corleone and those who wanted him dead. Dual roles have been a Bollywood trope for generations but not like this. Nine-time Academy Award nominee and 3-time winner Greg Cannom's first Indian cinema effort results in a character that's similar enough to Khan's to make his Aryan-impersonations legitimate yet sufficiently unique to make Gaurav magnetic in a way Aryan is not. Fan doesn't rely on special effects to make you care for its anti-hero -- that's all Khan's doing -- but Cannom's brilliant work means you're never distracted from Gaurav's worshipful bliss or unhinged torment. You're just captivated.

In place of item numbers director Maneesh Sharma fuels Fan with breakneck chases along the facade of Mumbai's crumbling Delite Hotel, atop the clay rooftops of Dubrovnik and through Delhi's Inder Vihar colony. Thunderous, Mission Impossible-esque music accompanies each sequence and each is edited like a particularly frantic Bourne film. Deliberate or not the connections are clear and make Fan relatable to Western audiences in a way no film from fellow superstars Salman Khan or Aamir Khan has ever been.

Of the three Indian cinema heavy hitters, Aamir's created the most creative template for box office hits with 'big ideas' in India -- but those big ideas are very India-focused. Salman's films are the most simplistic, aimed most at the 'common man', and therefore the most commercially successful. (A trailer for his upcoming Sultan brought cheers from the opening night crowd -- but not the second.) The feral fanbases of Shah Rukh and Salman guarantee good opening weekends but each release is run through a prism of past cinematic glory that leaves little room for growth. Like college students forced to produce first grade report cards to prove their worth the two Khans are shackled by their pasts. One, Salman, chooses not to fight it. The other, Shah Rukh, fights to expand it.

If Fan is the template for SRK's cinematic future releases, he just might find himself becoming a household name amongst a new variation of fan: Non-Indian ones interested in the quality of each film ... and absolutely nothing else.

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