The Bollywood film industry is a notoriously incestual beast. Film culture is so much a part of the Indian psyche that films are referenced and cross-referenced across all forms of communication from the visual and performing arts to political discourse and beyond. It therefore comes as no surprise that Bollywood films about Bollywood films are in no short supply, nor have they ever been. But Maneesh Sharma's Fan is another beast altogether, and one that is perhaps more interesting in concept than execution.
To begin, it might help to have a little primer on the film's star and his recent history in front of the camera. Shah Rukh Khan is Bollywood's biggest international star. He's no longer the bigger box office draw, he's given those records up to the likes of Aamir Khan and Salman Khan over the last few years, but he's undoubtedly the face of Bollywood around the world. He's become so popular that he has all but given up acting in films in favor of performing. He is so instantly recognizable, and his past performances so iconic, that it has become impossible for him to disappear into a character.
The thing is, this is all perfectly okay with him. He's stated in more than one interview that he's more interested in being a star than an actor, and if that means occasionally acknowledging his place in popular culture, he's happy to do it.
The first real attempt at SRK on SRK was 2006's Om Shanti Om. That film was an ode to Bollywood's glorious heyday in the '70s with SRK playing dual roles of a film fan who is obsessed with an actress and a film star reincarnated from the aforementioned fan. Om Shanti Om was a massive success, and Khan discovered that he's actually pretty good at playing himself on film. His character is a massively self-important, self-centered, and selfish superstar who eventually makes a turn for the better when he remembers that in a former life he was actually a good guy. His performance is astoundingly unsubtle, but perfectly in line with his own self-caricature and the style of the films being worshipped. In the end, SRK finds his humanity in the life of a common man he once knew.
Not too long after that, Khan delivered Billu. In Billu, Irrfan Khan (Jurassic World, The Lunchbox, Slumdog MIllionaire), is a small town barber who once knew the biggest star in Bollywood, played without a lick of irony by Shah Rukh Khan. Billu is a retelling of a tale from the Mahabharata in which a common man who once friends with lord Krishna rekindles a friendship after many years. In Billu, SRK plays a character named Sahir Khan, and his fame is illustrated from numerous montages of clips from his films, all SRK classics, which was a first. Identifying yourself as a fictional superstar using actual footage from your own films requires massive balls, but no one has ever accused SRK of subtlety. This film was less successful on every front than Om Shanti Om, but in the end SRK found his lost humanity in the lfe of a common man he once knew.
That was 2009, in the years between now and then, Shah Rukh Khan has chosen to comment on his own celebrity in slightly less overt ways. He addressed his own struggles with being both the most famous Indian on Earth and also a Muslim who attracted unwanted attention in several airport transactions in the USA in his ludicrous fairy tale My Name is Khan. He also made a film with Singham director Rohit Shetty called Chennai Express that was a commentary on the kinds of films that made him famous in the '90s, big romantic action drama masala films. But these were child's play and not nearly meta enough to make anyone really notice what was going on. Which brings us to Fan.
In Fan, the serpent has fianlly eaten its own head with Khan playing dual roles as a major Bollywood superstar named Aryan Khanna - finally a different surname - and his biggest fan, young Gaurav Chandna. The story of the obsessive fan whose enthusiasm is rebuffed by the object of their affection is nothing new. DeNiro and Tony Scott went there with The Fan, Edward Bianchi and Lauren Bacall went there with their film of the same name, and Eckhardt Schmidt and Desiree Nosbusch went there with Der Fan. However, where Khan's film trumps all of these is that fact that he's playing both roles, which leads to some interesting challenges.
Gaurav - played by Khan through the assistance both prosthetics and CG - is the kind of fan who pays tribute to the object of his obsession through mimicry. He's a regular at an annual talent show in which he performs as "Junior Aryan Khanna", recreating some of the fictional star's real life dramatic line readings, action sequences, and song and dance routines. It's actually pretty entertaining to watch, until you let your mind wander for a bit and parse what is actually happening on screen. The levels of narcissism required to pull this off convincingly - an actor playing a fan of a fictional version of himself and mimicing his own mimicked dances - would make an onion cry. But, perhaps unsurprisingly, Khan pulls it off. I cannot think of any other actor who would dare to even attempt such a thing, let alone succeed so successfully.
Khanna, on the other hand, appears to be modeled on a real life version of SRK that no one is really certain even exists. When we first meet him it is his birthday and he comes out to the front of his home, stands atop a permanent structure designed to allow fans to gaze lovingly upon him, and waves at them as though he's giving them a gift. The amazing thing is that both parties feel that to be the truth. Even more amazing is the fact that this is a thing that actually happens in SRK's real life, and that structure actually exists, the sequence was shot at his own home, which everyone in Mumbai knows the location of. In the US, stars go to extremes to keep their private lives private, but in India, they are public property, or perhaps the public is their property. As Cyndi Lauper might say, the mind boggles at the possibilities.
When the two meet in person after Gaurav gets a little too enthusiastic with a star who is angling ot dethrone Aryan, his dreams of a loving hug and quiet moment to share his love with his hero are dashed, and the film takes a dark turn. Gaurav is now out to mangle and destroy Khanna in anyway he can, using his passing resemblance as a way to spark international incidents. To be honest, all of this stuff feels cast off from better caper films. Actor Aryan is apparently a motorcycle pro and parkour master - hopefully a nod to the loose physics that populates all Indian action spectacles - but these sequences go on too long, and the payoffs are never quite worth the wait.
Khan puts in one of his best performances in ages, somewhere in between his incessant but endearing mugging and what I imagine he's actually like lays this Aryan Khanna. Gaurav is a goofy caricature, but at least it's a relatively unusual one for SRK, and that at least offers something new. It's his performance as Aryan, though, that works best for me most of the time. There are occasions when it goes unnecessarily dark and loses whatever loose grip of believability it's working with, but overall it's engaging and SRK is the literal embodiment of charsima, always has been. This is probably the closest he's come to molding that charisma into actual acting since the mid 2000's duo of Chak De! India and Swades.
The biggest issue with this film that I actually found largely engaging if massively flawed, is that it is a thousand times more interesting to think about than it is to watch. Khan performs admirably, his supporting cast does fine, though no one stands out as anything special, and the actual execution of the thing is perfectly adequate. It does become very clear, very quickly, however, that Shah Rukh Khan is the only reason this film exists. He is its alpha and omega, and I don't think this film could even be made with any other film star working in India these days. The fact that he did it and it worked as well as it did is incredible, even if the film itself is terribly middling.
I am a Shah Rukh Khan fan. I'll vouch for most of his films in a heartbeat, and when he starts to look inward as he has over the last decade, I'm the first in line. However, this is a mediocre film saved by the presence of its overpowered, overexposed, and overconfident star. This is one for the Fans.