A for AK vs AK

[This overexcited, untimely review is brought to you after having seen Coolie No. 1 (2020) starring Varun Dhawan and Sara Ali Khan earlier in the day, and receiving a hate DM from a verified celebrity who’s responsible for a clusterfuck of a show I reviewed in the recent past, who in his DM claimed I like shitting on others works. Joke's on him as I'm proceeding to write this out of my way cause that's how enjoyable this is.]

Anurag Kashyap knows his audience. With his mid-life crisis set in place, he, now, knows what sells. Combining these two elements with his on-screen candidness, he equals Anil Kapoor's performance in AK vs AK (2020). A Netflix India release, this comedy-thriller is self-reflective; the gaze of the camera does not spare anyone—whether it’s Boney Kapoor shrieking at Kashyap to not rehearse so much before the actual film, almost as if letting the viewer know his shortcomings as a director—to the dig by Harshvarrdhan Kapoor on getting screwed over by Motwane (Kashyap’s frequent collaborating partner) for his work in Bhavesh Joshi Superhero (2018)—to the award-winning speech by the debut director in the end, as she thanks her list. There's something for everyone, whether you're there to learn the scoop or staying back for the drama.

AK vs AK builds on the excesses of Bombay cinema, and is nurtured with a typical Netflix marketing meets Netflix marketing within the film. The viewer is allowed to know the backstory to each of those seemingly regular events that they otherwise try and gauge from paps and gossip publications and stitch those together to understand the complex star lives which it extends to the film plot itself. For example, Anand and Sonam’s highly followed wedding leads to a subtle-glimpse into their happily-ever-after as Anand tries to trace Sonam, independent of Anil Kapoor’s versions which throw him off the rails, all for the viewers to watch. These are the same viewers who followed every second of the wedding footage to trace Sonam online, independent of any director or star dad. Do you see the point?

AK vs AK is a Christmas present, wrapped tightly with deliberately confusing marketing; it screams deception from the get-go. When I first came across the announcement of the film, months ago, I was under the belief that this will be a fuckall interview show where they’ll claim to know people and throw each other under the bus. It got further from it, as they released the trailer, and an unnameable friend tweeted about how confused she was.

Echoing her thoughts, I saw several others relay the same. It sounded unstable, confusing, and definitely, like an experiment gone wrong, as often is the case with people in Bombay cinema attempting something other than clichés. I was proven wrong and I couldn’t be more glad. You’d know if you’ve been following this page for a while and the kind of shit show I’ve seen in the last few months.

The plot of the film is a tried and tested formula—a father attempts to find his kidnapped daughter. Kashyap’s done this previously, with Ugly (2013) in a seemingly fictional setting with characters conceived out of imagination. This time, it’s a real-life celebrity, a star playing himself while trying to locate his star daughter, sans his entourage. The daughter has been kidnapped by a disgruntled director as the two share bad blood over botched project propositions and their bruised egos. The star actor has until the next sunrise to find her alive and rescue her. Kashyap, playing himself, attempts to avenge for the media instigated insult by Kapoor (referred to as “AK” among his family and others) by proposing a film script to him where the supposedly fading star has to find his kidnapped daughter without reaching out to any family member, outsider or cops and perform a role of a lifetime. All this while, the camera rolls consistently, capturing planned and unplanned events that occur throughout. I don't think any comparisons to Guru Dutt made any sense but sure, I'll take those and the ones made to Tarantino and Scorsese among others.

What starts off rather well, paces itself in the second half. You know it cause you start fiddling with your phone and streaming the film passively. While the first half of the film has you gripped, the second loses the sheen, however, you’re still invested in every minute, in the chase sequence across Grant Road Station followed by the neighbourhood Christmas celebration as they make for exceptionally riveting camera work and performance in this otherwise dialogue-driven film. The second half goes as far as including a song-dance performance, with Anil Kapoor repeating his famous performance on My Name is Lakhan, the kind of dance you find yourself YouTubing after a night of heavy drinking and virtually partying with your friends.

Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane (who's also bashed within the film in a terrific performance delivered by Harshvardhan Kapoor), the film ensures it does not lack any typical element as it forces re-hashing of dialogues from old Phantom Films hits and pays an equal homage to Kapoor’s career spanning over four decades.

What truly stands out in the film is the city of Bombay—as it unfolds through the eyes of the three entities—AK the Director, AK the actor, and the camera. You are made privy to what is a star actor’s household and the interiors of his living arrangement in Mumbai, followed by the intimate space of a maverick film producer/director as Kashyap’s residence (or a recreation) opens itself to the viewers. The final gaze of the camera takes the audience through the city of Mumbai. It takes one through the journey between Film City to Chembur to Yari Road. Throughout this journey, you encounter cinephiles in ordinary jobs, going about with their lives. They scream, “Anurag Basu” when they see Kashyap on the road and go as far as labelling Kashyap as “Madhur Bhandarkar”, as he fulfills requests after the request for selfies, while Kapoor finds himself negotiating information on his daughter against sponsored Instagram posts. One of the more stunning moments in the film highlighting this is a cab driver who takes Kapoor's sarcasm for real and insists on requesting director Anees Bazmee's contact number for him to submit scripts for work.

Shot in Mumbai, AK vs AK travels to a place no filmmaker has been to previously; the excesses of lives lived digitally and those lives then traversed through screens. Kapoor trades Instagram posts for CCTV footage and Kashyap tries to locate his parents via iPad, maladies of our times, as we turn ourselves to our devices and willingly hand parts of ourselves to the people we choose to interact without our consent—our devices—and their extended interaction within the city. This isn’t the first film in any regard to interacting with a CCTV camera or iPad, but it is one where the roles of these devices in our lives is shown to be extensively linked, almost as if it is an extension of our body. Dibakar Banerjee had attempted something similar as a form of introduction of these devices intrinsically linked to Bombay cinema and our lives when he directed Love, Sex aur Dhokha (2010) combining cinema, surveillance, and 24-hour news channels. Kashyap, in a way, takes that narrative forward via this experiment.

Most people in India like, or at least find themselves viewing digs on celebrities, either in the form of prime-time news slots on the national television or in the leading dailies or via their family and friends as forwards and direct shares over IMs. Those clips, mini performance pieces as gossip stories, videos, photographs, and leaked forwards make their way as forming an ancillary industry of media around Bollywood. The creators who use these media clips or create further content from here have emerged as stars; their fandom and extensive hero-worshipping of these celebrities form the bedrock of this cinematic industry. Taking a leaf out of instant vs cinematic popularity, Kashyap finds himself in a boat where he takes on himself as a creator and shutting down the audience on trying to equate making cinema presumably with that of being an instant (seemingly so) creator. He summarizes a bunch of emotions together all rooted in his valuation of hard work and struggle, necessary for arriving there.

“What advice do you have for young filmmakers like us and how can we make it big into the industry like you?”
“You can’t…these snake people, privileged kids, they come to their first film festival and go, “Papa, I want to be a director…That’s not how it works. You don’t succeed overnight. Until and unless your surname is Kapoor…”

Both Kashyap and Kapoor, despite arriving from different backgrounds and evolving into hugely different icons in Bombay cinema have arrived from a space of hard work and dedication. This first dig and the starting point of the film serves as a reminder to the audience to respect them both equally before setting out to pick teams later in the film.

If I haven’t said it loud and clear, then make it a point you read now—AK vs AK is a dazzling piece of entertainment from Bombay cinema. Whether you hate Kashyap or Kapoor, this is a film to enjoy and rest your bones with at the end of a testing year. Savour it and definitely prioritize over any other film/TV show or remake you have in mind. This is worth the time, drama and all that unpleasant extra marketing everyone worked towards to ensure you know about the premise.

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Anisha Saigal

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Pop-culture omnivore. Survived publishing, academia, film school. Struggling with the pandemic.