Sunday, April 17, 2016

Why Fan reminded me of puppet-masters and their psychotic dolls

Not a review of Maneesh Sharma’s Fan, just some thoughts, best read if you know the basic premise (and you do live on planet earth, yes?). I liked the film, though it was much less interesting in the second half when the obsessed fan Gaurav becomes a psychopath, and a practically omnipotent one at that – thus facilitating an abrupt right turn towards a fast-paced, suspend-your-disbelief thriller; very little from this point on lived up to the promise of the superb pre-interval scene where Gaurav and his idol Aryan Khanna meet for the first time. Still, a couple of very good Shah Rukh Khan performances make it worthwhile overall.

An oft-used theme in horror or fantasy cinema is that of a ventriloquist (or a puppet-master) starting out in control but eventually being taken over by his dummy; the manipulator becomes the manipulated, the wooden “child” dominates the flesh-and-blood “father”. (See, for instance, the brilliant last segment of the 1945 anthology film Dead of Night.) Fan put me in mind of that theme, not least because of SRK’s unsettling appearance as the young Gaurav. His face slightly altered by makeup and visual effects to create the illusion of being young and callow, he seems unreal, not quite human, at times – especially in the scenes where he has a faraway or glazed expression in his eyes, or where the light catches his cheeks, making them look just a little too smooth and round and shiny. A bit like a doll’s or a puppet’s. (What’s missing is a dab of red.) In short, at least as plastic as the videogame-hero-come-alive played by Khan in Ra.One.

I don’t know if this effect was intentional (and it doesn’t really matter), but given what this film is about – the many dimensions, including the uncomfortable, controlling ones, of the star-fan relationship – it may well have been. At a surface, narrative level Gaurav is clearly a flesh-and-blood person (with real parents and a house and a business) and his resemblance to Aryan is presented as a coincidence, one of destiny’s silly little jokes. But there is a symbolic level too, where Gaurav can be seen as a representation of fandom and as a product of Aryan Khanna’s celebrity: he tells us early on that his life is in many ways a “cut-copy-paste” of Aryan’s; he is 24 years old, which means he came into existence at exactly the same time that Aryan first developed a big following. (In one sense – and I’m sure dissertations will eventually be written about this – it is possible to see the film as the story of a father refusing to take responsibility for the child he helped create.)

Sticking to the surface level though – the power equations between the two men keep shifting, and the question arises: who holds the strings – the fan whose life is defined by the star, or the star whose existence is validated by his fans? The narrative begins with the star as privileged object of worship and the fan as scraping worshipper, but that divide is soon muddied. We realize early on that Gaurav could be just one of the thousands of star-impersonators who occasionally appear in C-movies as clones of their idols; living their lives in someone’s shadow, using someone else’s path as a template for their own. This makes him the clear underdog. And yet, later in the film, there is a scene where Aryan Khanna, powerful superstar, performs like a monkey for a rich NRI’s daughter’s wedding (and is spoken to curtly by the man who obviously thinks the star is his personal toy). It would be simplistic to see Gaurav’s Aryan-impersonations as degrading while not recognising that Aryan too is a kathputli – and a prisoner – in some ways. (I was a little spooked by the scene where Gaurav performs dances from Aryan’s films on a stage while behind him, on a large screen or pardah, we see Aryan performing the same steps: which of them is “real” and which is the shadow, one might wonder.)

There is a haunting shot in the opening scene of Spike Jonze’s Being John Malkovich where a silent exchange of glances seems to pass between a puppet-master and his puppet, who is looking up at him. Fan has many scenes where Gaurav looks up at Aryan, or at an image of Aryan: when waiting on the road outside his house; when lying, battered, on the floor of a police station while Aryan looms above him, holding all the cards. In the climactic scene, they maintain those positions – the star is looking down at the fan, the fan is looking up at the star – but the roles are no longer clear. It’s apt that the film doesn’t let Aryan’s smug, homily-filled speech (be your own person, work hard like I did, he tells Gaurav) have the final word; that would have been against the tone of a story that knows the dark, symbiotic relationship between celebrities and their followers. The hero makes the speech all right, but the carpet is pulled out from under his feet; his words of inspiration and counsel melt into the foul west Delhi air; and the “dummy” falls to earth and smashes into pieces, so to speak
but one senses that its spirit will haunt the puppet-master for a long time to come.

[Did a version of this for The Daily O. Related post: Bob Dylan and the extremes of fandom]


  1. Fuck all pretentious wannabe pseudo academic piece.

  2. Robwrt de noro cuts benicio del Toro femoral artery and both sit in sauna roop one dying one panting


  3. I thought it was rather apt actually, a very insightful interpretation. Looks like you didn't understand most of it, going by how you choose to attack the author for his entitled opinion rather than the subject itself. There are enough inane Bollywood films out there, stick to watching those as you're more likely to understand and enjoy them.

  4. Great piece. I sat up and took notice of the film when I saw the trailer. That the same actor (SRK) is playing the superstar and his fan came across as extremely interesting, especially the cinematic and thematic possibilties that came with it. Gaurav's resemblance to Aryan made perfect sense at the time. What better symbolic way to show the extent of obsession of Gaurav with Aryan than to show them sharing an eerily similar physical appearance (so something that went beyond voice and mannerisms that many mimicry artists master). But I was a little disappointed when I actually saw the film, especially the second half. I liked the parallels that they drew with God and the fact their first meeting happens in a police station in the first half-quite different from what Gaurav had imagined. I wished they'd included some more divine imagery and allegory. But to see that the facial and body-resemblance had a purpose in the second half so that they could make it into a thriller with one chasing the other like you said, downplayed the powerful symbolism that was there in the trailer for me somehow. I walked out of the theatre feeling the film had so much potential that was left unexplored.

  5. haha good one.

    i was rolling my eyes big time at all the parallels drawn here.

  6. Great piece, Jai. Perhaps the time is ripe for a piece on how Indian films are shooting double-roles so well - the technology they're using must be utterly remarkable. I remember watching Jeans and Duplicate and thinking 'ugh... the CGI is horrible, I know they're speaking into thin air', but in Fan, in almost every scene Aryan and Gaurav were in the same frame and it was all quite believable.

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