The opening credits of Luck by Chance appear over a montage of shots that depict the frayed boundaries of what is sometimes referred to as the Dream Factory. Old security guards, projectionists, dilapidated buildings serving as make-up rooms for the extras…
The funny thing is, it strikes you neither as a preview to a Madhur Bhandarkar-esque expose, nor as a glimpse of the rose-tinted world that is often affectionately referenced in many other movies set in the film industry. It just feels real. It is as though Zoya Akhtar is saying, “I don’t need to satirize or lampoon this world in any form. I just need to keep my camera trained on this world.” There is genuine affection in that unblinking gaze.
I say this, of course, with absolutely no idea of what the film industry is really like. (When has that stopped me anyway?) But as a world created in a movie and inhabited by its characters for the running length, it rings true.
Take the scene where a bunch of young hopefuls are graduating from an acting class, with Mac Mohan presiding over the proceedings. When he gets up to speak, one of the students ask him to speak his line from Sholay, and the man obliges: “Sarkar, poore pachaas hazaar.”
The beauty of it is, that scene plays tangentially like the ending for a Mac Mohan biopic. I haven’t seen enough of the actor to judge his talent, or what he would’ve been like in a more substantial role. Maybe it is his tragedy that his career has boiled down to that line. If you didn’t keep track of actors’ names, you’d probably just refer to him as the guy who played Samba. But think about this for a moment: nine of ten actors in that graduating class should be so fortunate as to have at least this much to be remembered by.
The central conceit of the movie is that an actor gets the lead role in a big production through a series of chips falling in place at exactly the right time. Some of this is his own doing, his flattery of a yesteryear actress at a party serving him well at the right occasion. When he sees his competition sitting across him in the studio and waiting for his audition, he is not above a little carefully done gamesmanship either. And when the actress’ daughter (who is his co-star as well) comes on to him, he decides to play this new card he’s been dealt. And this, despite having a girlfriend — another struggling actress who unwittingly played a part in his rise — waiting in the wings. And so it goes.
The plot doesn’t entirely escape the shackles of the struggle-rise-corruption-realization cycle that one automatically expects from this premise. The good news is, it manages to do it with a fair degree of realism. Consider the scene where Vikram (the protagonist) gets a call from the big producer’s office asking him to turn up for an audition. The scene is set up so that you imagine he’s finally made it, until you see him entering a dingy hall filled with other actors who have been called to the same audition. The next three minutes are a master class in depicting gut-churning anxiety without too much outward expression, while Sapnon se bhare naina plays in the background.
What kept occurring to me throughout the movie was how precise it all was. There are moments of obvious satire, but the thing is, the movie doesn’t just know it’s satire, it knows it’s obvious. So it plays down the reaction shots to the point where the actors just suggest what they think and let you fill in the gaps. I like it when a movie trusts our intelligence and doesn’t feel the need to spell it out.
The performances are absolutely spot on. Farhan Akhtar creates a character who we have seen before in the movies, but never quite played this way before. He seems to be making a career out of perfect understatement, and the industry is so much the better for it. Konkona Sensharma plays the jilted girlfriend — there’s an undercurrent of irony in the fact that her character, a small time actress, keeps complaining about being typecast in “sister” roles, while Konkona herself seems to be caught in a different, but similar kind of rut in some ways.
Come to think of it, for a movie about struggling actors trying to make it in an industry filled with star families and beauty queens, the only major characters without pedigree are Dimple Kapadia and Isha Sharvani, who play the yesteryear diva and her daughter respectively. Dimple does what Dimple does — this character isn’t a stretch for her, but you can’t imagine too many other people in that role. “A crocodile in a chiffon sari,” one character calls her at one point. Isha Sharvani, on the other hand, is an absolute revelation. After the critical and commercial disaster that was Kisna and a few years in the wilderness of Good Boy Bad Boy and the like, this is her chance to make it big, and she grabs it with both hands. Rarely do actresses get to have this much fun in a role.
Rishi Kapoor seems to be having the time of his life, now that he no longer has to play the romantic lead. As the big producer trying to get his movie completed, he is a joy to behold. Likewise, Juhi has slipped quite nicely into the supporting actress slot and become someone who automatically makes you smile when she appears on screen. Arjun Mathur plays Vikram’s old friend Abhimanyu, now trying to make a career in theatre, who verbalizes the occasional discomfiting truth. Ordinarily, he would be written simply as the conscience keeper with no additional function, but the script has the sense to treat him as an actual person and give him his own axe to grind.
My favourite supporting performance though, is that of Sheeba Chadha (thanks, Banno!) who plays a small-time producer Chaudhary’s (Alyy Khan) wife and Juhi’s sister. There is a moment where she sees her husband with a woman he is having an affair with and has just dumped, and knows what she is seeing but probably can’t even admit it to herself, much less confront her husband about it. Her conversation with her husband strikes such a perfect pitch, it feels like a punch in the gut.
Hrithik has an extended cameo as a superstar Zafar Khan, the star who walks out of the big production to star in a Karan Johar movie, thereby gifting Vikram the break. Interestingly enough, it is Karan Johar himself who points out the folly of this move. His reaction to that is a study in carefully practiced inscrutability. After the movie, my wife and I were discussing what it would be like if he had done Farhan’s role. Personally, I think he now has the acting chops to do it, but his screen presence is too overwhelming. If you could take Hrithik the actor from today and Hrithik the star from around six years ago, you’d have your man.
Other well-known film personalities make guest appearances, either as themselves or in a small supporting roles. Their appearances are mostly used well and not just piled into one overlong song sequence (do I hear sighs of relief?). Anurag Kashyap has a nice turn as the hassled scriptwriter. Saurabh Shukla steals the show as the acting teacher Nand Kishore. SRK appears as himself and dispenses sage advice at a critical moment. Aamir Khan, Rajkumar Hirani, Manish Malhotra, Abhishek Bachchan, Vivek Oberoi, Ranbir Kapoor, John Abraham, Kareena Kapoor and Akshaye Khanna all get a little face time. Of the lot, Akshaye seems to have the most fun — God, does that man radiate smugness!
But my favourite is still Mac Mohan.
ps: While you’re at it, go read this absolutely fantastic piece by Banno on her reactions to the movie.