Maybe it's because I'm a filmmaker-in-waiting, or I was (uncharacteristically) PMSing, but either way, I found Zoya Akhtar's well-crafted directorial debut to be very moving. I especially liked the starting credits, where she takes us through the labourious processes that take place behind the facade of glitter and dancing lights that is our cinema. I took delight in every frame of that introduction,; it was like watching scenes from my native village.
The story revolves around Delhi boy Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) and Kanpur native Sona (Konkona Sen), both of whom are looking to make a break in the industry. Vikram lives with his aunt, while Sona lives in the same apartment block as Vikram's friends (one a wannabe director and the other a theatre actor), which paves the way for their friendship and eventually love. Vikram attends a film school while Sona does bit roles in films and TV shows, all the while waiting for producer Chaudary (Alyy Khan) to offer her a role he's been promising her for ages. As they await their breaks, they offer each other moral support.
Meanwhile Producer Romy Rolly (Rishi Kapoor) has just flagged off a new film which marks the debut of Nikki Walia (Isha Sharvani), the daughter of yesterday star Nina (Dimple Kapadia) and is being directed by Rolly's brother, failed actor-turned-director Ranjit. However, the leading man, superstar Zaffar Khan (Hrithik Roshan) pulls out of the film, and Rolly is forced to look for a new leading man. Enter Vikram, who steals everyone's hearts, especially that of the cantankerous Nina - and her daughter.
Eventually Sona discovers that the lead role Chaudary had been promising her for so long does not exist anymore. She is heartbroken, and Vikram lends her his support - for the last time. His newfound star status changes him and his dynamics everybody around him as the shooting progresses. These developments make up the rest of the film.
The characters are all in shades of grey - sweet to people in their faces and backstabbing them later. Yet, that is perhaps how it should be, for in a place where people can replaced at the slightest hint of trouble is a merciless one. For a newcomer, duality is probably the only way to stay close to the top. The stories of these people who are trapped in their own dreams are poignant.
This is best illustrated in the scene where Nikki goes to Vikram's bedroom (a favourite scene of mine for other reasons too, which I'll come to later.) She flirts with him outrageously, and he moves from shock to acceptance to control, knowing that turning down Nikki might jeopardize his big break, and turns the situation to his advantage almost involuntarily.
Konkona shines as usual as a starry-eyed small-town girl; her independence and perseverance is endearing. Also, she shares a surprisingly brilliant chemistry with Farhan; he, in turn, does a great job as Vikram, a man with charisma and cunning in equal doses. Same goes for Hrithik Roshan as Zaffar Khan - he succeeds in bringing these dualities to the fore in the limited screen time he has. Rishi Kapoor sparkles while Sanjay Kapoor makes a decent comeback. Juhi Chawla as Rolly's sweet but nagging wife is also very good. No wonder she's one of the few superstars who's still getting plum roles. Maybe there IS justice, after all.
One thing I liked very much about the film is that romances, live-in relationships, extra-marital affairs and exploitation are not portrayed openly; yet they make their presence felt in the movie thanks to Zoya's talent. The very first scene between Sona and Chaudhary has underlying tones of the casting couch, but portrayed solely through their eyes rather than visual and dialogue. The relationship between Vikram and Sona, including the live-in/sexual aspect, is depicted entirely through hugs, close physical proximity, sharing of feelings and other physically affectionate gestures that bring out their closeness beautifully. Konkona and Farhan, and Zoya deserve full credit for portraying this man-woman relationship as more than just a sexual union.
Another scene - and my favourite in the whole film - was the scene between Vikram and Nikki in the former's bedroom. The heavily curtained bedroom and the strategic amber lighting create a strange atmosphere, one that sets the tone for carnal indescretion and yet is somewhat claustrophobic. In this one scene, one can actually see Vikram's personality change; from being bemused at Nikki's childish sense of entitlement, to shock and helplessness at her openly flirtatious advances, to a growing awareness of her sensuality and finally realisation that yielding to her is the chance to get into the big league. For her part, Nikki drops her "mama's girl" mask to reveal a side that she keeps hidden even from her mother. Clearly, the spoiled little star kid is not that innocent; she knows the power of her sensuality and uses it successfully. Zoya does a good job of playing out an important shift of the film and its characters in this one room.
There are plenty of cameos - Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, et al, and - surprise! - Anurag Kashyap as the hapless writer for Ranjit Rolly's film. In a scene that cleverly pokes fun at his "kind" of cinema, he passionately narrates a particularly Kafka-esque suicide attempt and is dismissively asked by Ranjit if he intends to send the film for a film festival instead!
The screenplay is fairly tight and the music moves the story along without being too distracting. There is sufficient depiction of the luxuried life of movie stars as well as the struggles of those who aspire to be them. This film must be watched at least once, if only for the fact that it acknowledges the invisible people behind the sets, costumes, lights etc. who disappear into the razzle-dazzle.
There is no solid ending. Instead, the story follows the ensuing rift between Sona and Vikram, the sudden catapult of Vikram into fame, the tabloid gossip that follows soon after, and tapers out into an ending where the characters are still a work in progress. It seems a little abrupt but perhaps it's for the best; after all, in the real world there are happy journeys, but no happy endings; and sometimes no ending at all.