Luck by Chance

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.

Aside: Interestingly enough, rediff.com reports that Hrithik originally turned down Farhan’s role when it was offered to him. I think it was a few years ago.

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.

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14 thoughts on “Luck by Chance

  1. That actress you really liked – her name is Sheeba. I agree too, she played her role so subtly. A little dumb, dumb because she doesn’t quite want to see the truth, and extends that dumbness to her entire life.

  2. Thanks Banno! She was indeed fantastic.

    I love the sort of effort Zoya put into making sure that the peripheral characters like her and Abhimanyu got the reaction shots that made them more than cardboard cut-outs. Sheeba’s reactions during those scenes where she is in the company of her sister and brother-in-law, for instance, convey so much about her it’s heartbreaking.

    Or Abhimanyu’s reactions in the early stages of Vikram’s relationship with Sona. My first reaction to that was that Zoya had telegrahed the existence of a love triangle to the audience without actually being obvious about it. But now, when I think about it, Abhimanyu’s expressions may not necessarily have been conveying something on the lines of “This guy’s making time with my girl!” It could very well have been “This guy’s found another step on his ladder.”

    What’s your take on it?

    ~r

  3. Yes, I think it was more to do with professional rivalry. Though I didn’t approve of the way theatre actors were lampooned, and Abhi with all his idealism about acting, wanting really to make it in films. Of course, there are lots of actors like that, who use theatre as a stepping stone, but also lots of theatre actors who continue to be devoted to theatre, even though they may do film roles as and when. Sheeba is one of them.

  4. You’re right, the movie does paint the theatre-cinema divide in broad strokes, not quite on par with the subtlety that it displays so often elsewhere.

    I think with Abhi, it’s more a crisis of faith at one point when he sees Vikram — who has probably always considered just a so-so actor — going up in the world. His devotion to theatre probably remains, but I think it’s reasonable to think that he might have this moment of self-doubt as well.

    As for Sheeba, I guess I’m just happy that she chose to make this exception and do a movie 🙂

  5. Prasanna says:

    Nice review da. The first thing I noticed about this movie is how it capitalises (in a understated way) on humorous situations that must surely be dime a dozen in the making of any movie by a group of intelligent people. I mean it spoofs the movie industry without shouting from rooftops that is a spoof (cough, Om Shanti Om, cough). Zoya is clearly one to watch out for. What do you think of Farhan? That guy is so talented, it is unfair.

  6. Prasanna says:

    On that Mac Mohan scene, I was actually waiting for him to say something more. And it wasn’t until 2 seconds into the next scene that the implication struck me. It was as if Zoya left the audience hanging there – a bit like Hitchcock did (literally) with James Stewart in the opening scene of Vertigo.

  7. Thanks, machi 🙂

    Yeah, Farhan is turning out to be quite a guy. It seems 2008 has been a sort of tipping point for some young ‘uns with some serious talent. Farhan Akhtar, Abhay Deol…

    And now, in 2009, they’re first off the block with Luck by Chance and Dev-D.

    ~r

  8. Loved this review; spot-on! Also, you touched on an interesting point about the understated satire of this film, and the fact that it didn’t underestimate the audience’s intelligence. I went to see this on a full-house night and the BIGGEST laughs were for one of the most subtle moments: when Dimple runs her hand through her hair after Farhan makes (yet another) flattering remark. I’m so used to broad, slapstick comedy (Welcome, Krazzy 4, etc) getting the guffaws that I was just shocked to see how the audience responded with the same energy to this relatively understated humor. It goes to show that Mumbai doesn’t HAVE to use all those damned slide whistles!

  9. manjari makijany says:

    hey,
    im mac mohan’s daughter and really appreciate your comments.. i too wished he’d say something more in that scene.. but the last call is the director’s as u know..
    he will soon be doing more substantial roles.. the reason u’ve not seen much of him is that he has been choosy..
    thank u once again.

  10. p-pcc>> I think it also has to do with a movie finding the audience it deserves. Not always true, sadly, but every once in a while, a movie that trusts the audience to connect the dots gets watched by people willing to do it.

    manjari>> Thank you! I do hope we see more of him in the future. Say hi to your dad for me 🙂

    ~ramsu

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