A Bollywood star, a star-struck fan. Like most actor-audience relationships, this love story is destined to be incomplete. Their chance meeting, however, nullifies all expectations. The fan sees a person inside an Almighty: dancing shoes hiding feet of clay. The common man swears revenge. The actor known for making the public dance to his tunes is dancing on the whims of his favourite devotee. The myths have shattered, the roles reversed.
Which movie does this sound like: Shahrukh Khan’s Fan (2016) or this Friday’s release, Selfiee, starring Akshay Kumar? There’s almost an in-joke here: that even a month after Pathaan’s release, Khan’s spectre still looms over Kumar. But that won’t be the whole story as a 2019 Malayalam release, Driving License, completes the puzzle, as Selfiee is its remake.
If you walk into this film with sub-zero expectations, I won’t blame you. It’s directed by Raj Mehta helming such masterpieces as Good Newwz and Jugjugg Jeeyo (which, like Selfiee, were bankrolled by Dharma Productions). They resembled shoddy episodes of Comedy Nights with Kapil. Mehta thinks his movies are funny and his audiences dumb so, scene after scene, his stock characters perform their buffoonery to a ‘slapstick-ey’ score, which conveys one of the following: “Comedy!” “Joke!” “Did you not get it — LAUGH!” Then there’s the production house which, over the last few years, has produced so many awful films that it’s difficult to keep track. Finally, Kumar himself – an actor turning into a punchline: someone who’s bad 11 months of the year and unbearable in August.
Selfiee’s start inspires little hope. It opens to a monologue by Kumar (more needy than sincere) dedicating this movie to his fans around the world. Mehta soon slips into his vintage mode. The prodding background score appears; so do flat characters and obvious foreshadowing. There’s actor Sooraj (Abhimanyu Singh) who, starting his career with Vijay (Kumar) and now doing silly ads and sleazy films, craves his competitor’s downfall. Another forced subplot, pivoted on Vijay and his wife (Diana Penty) about to become parents through a surrogate pregnancy in New York, unfolds like the equivalent of a screaming Chekhovian gun. Vijay’s co-star, an actress, farts on set and interrupts a scene – yeah, so far so bad.
But as Selfiee finds its rhythm, a different story starts to take shape – one cognizant of the power imbalance between a star and his fan. Its real hero, then, is not a star (neither inside the movie nor outside it): Emraan Hashmi. A sub-inspector at a Bhopal RTO office, Om Prakash holds an un-sexy, un-macho job: approving driving licenses. There’s nothing special about him – and he doesn’t feel special. Except when the lights dissolve inside the theatre and Vijay appears on screen. Om has admired the star for over a decade – so much so that his son has become a devotee, too.
The star-fan bond here isn’t unidimensional. Om is ordinary but not ‘abnormal’: he has a family, a job, an identity. He doesn’t go to Mumbai; Vijay comes to Bhopal. First to shoot a film and then to get his driver’s license made before flying to New York. Om makes a simple request: Vijay, the cop, and his son take a selfie. As expected, a misunderstanding sours their equation, and Om decides to make Vijay grovel.
Hashmi’s sincerity and admiration are striking – neither a notch up nor a notch below – melding both humour and pathos. When he’s asked to take care of Vijay’s driver’s license, Om says he’d deliver one that would “look like a wedding card”. When Vijay lashes out at Om, making him a mini-celebrity on news channels, he comes home and sees the poster of a Vijay film stuck on the bedroom wall. It’s peeling off from the edge; Om looks at it again and sticks it back: quarrel is temporary; love is eternal.
Vijay’s insults sting even more because they happen in front of Om’s son. The star hasn’t derided a fan but a father. So he fights for his dignity, showing his son that love is a two-way street. Hashmi’s attention to detail makes his performance ring true. His Bhopali accent stays in the background; in fact, you’ll have to strain yourself to detect his subtle changes in pronunciation (the way he says “option”, for instance, opening the ‘o’ to make it sound like “oaption”). Till the time Hashmi controls the film, Selfiee is compelling, meaningful, and moving. His anchor also ensures that Mehta stays away from his frivolous tropes.
Kumar’s character lacks specificity
But the other half, driven by Kumar, lacks solid specificity. His Vijay looks like a typical Bollywood star – he isn’t a character as much as an idea. A committed actor could have improved the role, but Kumar hasn’t done anything except sleep-walk through his parts for years. Mehta’s commentary on the relationship between the Indian media and Bollywood – via angry news anchors and “#BoycottBollywood” – is, at best, surface-level and, at worst, stale.
The movie becomes even more insipid when it tries hard. Its central conflict – centred on a star and a cop fighting over a driver’s license – may not have the same energy and tension as most mainstream films, but Mehta makes it worse by making Selfiee what it’s not. Several overlong sequences carry a sports biopic vibe. One of them has Vijay answering Om’s questions on driving rules in front of excited spectators with a live scorecard broadcasted on news channels. It’s a bit… too much. And with the Chekhovian guns flung at us early in the movie, it’s easy to guess the plot twists, making large portions drag.
Yet I was surprised. Maybe because, unlike many Bollywood films, Selfiee tucks in it a genuine fondness for the fans. Unlike Fan, it’s not milking and massaging a star’s ego – it’s the audience’s self-respect that matters more. Or maybe because Bollywood movies – and Kumar’s in particular – have spawned so much disappointment in recent years that ‘not bad’ has begun to resemble ‘good’. Selfiee isn’t completely impressive, and yet it’s Kumar’s best in a long time. While leaving the theatre, I was almost satisfied. Is this Stockholm Syndrome a new phase of relationship between Bollywood films and us? I’ve no idea, and I can’t even say ‘get your popcorn ready’ because, in this duel, we’re both participants and audiences.
This article was first published on The Wire.