The best scene in Maneesh Sharma’s Fan comes early on, when young, lanky Gaurav Chandna (Shah Rukh Khan, under a layer of prosthetics and CGI), who runs a cyber café in West Delhi, performs at a local talent show sponsored by Western Union, with the MC taking the trouble to use their tagline each time he mentions the brand.
Gaurav is the biggest fan of Bollywood idol Aryan Khanna (Khan again, as a version of himself) around, we’re told. He also looks a lot like him, except shorter, skinnier, and seemingly incapable of growing facial hair. His room is a shrine to the superstar. So is his world, with Khanna’s face peeping out from hoardings, TV advertisements when it isn’t being blown up on 70 mm at one of Delhi’s few remaining single-screen theatres. There’s no escaping Aryan's stardom, the movie seems to be telling us, indirectly almost justifying Gaurav’s obsession with him.
In that scene, Gaurav presents a medley of scenes and songs from Aryan’s movies, changing several costumes in the space of minutes. His doting parents, otherwise exasperated by their son’s single-mindedness, provide adequate backstage support. Action scenes are re-enacted using ladi as a substitute for bullet ricochets; a camcorder manned by his father, somewhat unrealistically, captures his son’s performance, which is being reverse-projected on a screen in real time.
This sequence is Fan at its most likeable — slightly over-the-top and stagey, yet honest and heartwarming in a fable-like manner. If the visual of Gaurav failing ever so slightly to copy Aryan step for step, but still getting it 80% right, doesn’t bring a silly grin to your face, nothing will.
Or, to be precise, nothing in this movie, which allows its magic to dip steadily after this, opting to become an interesting-yet-somewhat-exhausting exercise in both narcissism and self-deprecation. A clip of the real-life Khan (attributed to Aryan here) from an old episode of Aap Ki Adalat appears in a montage, which quotes him as saying: “… the important thing is to believe that you’re the best, and stop worrying about everybody else.”
Sharma’s decision to use that clip doesn’t seem accidental. As a film, Fan is a lot like a mixture of Khan’s on- and off-screen persona — sometimes witty and on-point, sometimes self-aggrandising, and occasionally bombastic to the point of ridiculousness. When Gaurav travels to Mumbai to meet the love of his life (despite the presence of the very pretty and likeable Neha, played by debutant Shriya Pilgaonkar, in his life) and wish him a happy birthday, he is one among hundreds in a crowd thronging Khanna's Bandra bungalow, Mannat. The camera sees Gaurav, but Aryan — basking in the love of his fans, waving, posturing in a somewhat detached manner — does not.
At the end of the day, it’s up to King Khan to save the film from itself, and, for the first time in years, the man delivers.
To get his idol’s attention, Gaurav attempts to end a rivalry between Aryan and a hunky actor named Sid Kapoor (Tahir Mithaiwala), whom the former slaps at a party (a nod to one of Khan’s infamous controversies) in his own twisted manner. This involves him overpowering the well-built actor, who is at least one-and-a-half times his size, one of many things in this movie that doesn’t quite make sense.
Aryan himself is an extension of the real-life Khan, but only as per the movie's whims. A scene depicts him as a loving husband and father, who takes time out to help both his kids get better at video games, but doesn’t ever show him chain-smoking cigarettes (something Khan is notorious for). The film’s writers, Habib Faisal and Sharat Katariya, do their best to walk that tightrope between depicting their star realistically and maintaining his carefully cultivated image, with mixed results.
When Aryan rebukes Gaurav for interfering with his life, our sympathies lie with both characters. Then, things go stir-crazy, and, suddenly, it’s a year later and we’re in London. Gaurav is at Madame Tussaud’s for some payback — we know this because he says “Ab aayega mazaa!” to no one in particular, as though this were a sitcom — and the film suddenly becomes a collection of chase sequences set to a relentless and needlessly overdone background score.
It is here that I started disconnecting from the movie almost completely, as outrageous stunt followed outrageous stunt, with logic exiting and reappearing at random. For instance, in picturesque Dubrovnik (Croatia, the film neglects to mention), Aryan is performing at a wealthy industralist’s daughter’s wedding (another self-effacing dig). Fearing sabotage, he orders that everybody be subject to a computerised background check.
Gaurav poses as a volunteer and passes said check very easily, and this is never explained. I want to also say that he also very obviously looks like Aryan and someone should’ve raised a red flag. But then, in this scene, he’s wearing a fake beard and, let’s face it: this isn’t the first time a Yash Raj Films production has tried to pass off facial hair and a slightly different hairstyle as a convincing disguise.
A chase sequence that follows is even more ludicrous, given that there seems to be no fallout. Did an entire tourist town fail to spot a tuxedoed Bollywood superstar running behind a guy who looks a lot like him? Did no one ask later, “Hey Aryan, cool stunts; didn’t know you were a parkour enthusiast. Bee tee dubs, who was that dude you were chasing? Another parkour enthusiast? His stunts were cool too. Also, you guys look similar; what’s up with that?”
As Fan hurtled towards an action-packed climax, giving real-life fans a chance to see two SRKs duke it out on screen, it wore me down. Sure, it’s an audacious commercial experiment, blending elements from Hollywood film like The King Of Comedy, Misery, and The Fan with Indian masala to create an admirably unique smoothie. But even though its final shot is satisfying in all its bittersweetness, Sharma’s latest outing, although impressively mounted, lacks the discipline of his first (and best) film, Band Baaja Baaraat (2010).
At the end of the day, it’s up to King Khan to save the film from itself, and, for the first time in years, the man delivers. As the increasingly unhinged Gaurav, he finally gets the license to go over-the-top without appearing ridiculous (as he does in his collaborations with Rohit Shetty). His impossibly energetic skinny avatar brings back fond memories of the Khan of Fauji, Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman, and Kabhi Haan, Kabhi Naa the nation fell in love with . As Aryan, he’s less impactful, still coming across as a joyless, hammy on-screen superstar even in unguarded moments instead of the witty, eloquent man we see in interviews.
One day, hopefully, we might even get to see that man in a movie.