In the cut-throat world of the film industry, the hierarchies of power are well-established. Unlike some other Western film industries, India is all about its stars. Then, perhaps the producer, um, no, the star’s managers, the director and so on. In this social scale that determines your importance on a movie set, the role of an ‘extra’ (yours truly has had the pleasure of being one in a Netflix ad) is exactly what it says it is: required but not essential. And yet for every extra, every bit role is another chance at potential stardom, a stab at cinematic glory, a shot at artistic immortality.
Hardik Mehta’s Kaamyaab exists to illuminate these faces, often eclipsed by the spotlight that shines solely on the stars. Sanjay Mishra plays Sudheer, a retired side actor who’s had some degree of success and what one would call, a cult following. When a TV interviewer points out that as per IMDB he’s done 499 films, Sudheer excavates his dusty wig, polishes his boots, tightens his belt and embarks on a mission to turn that figure to 500.
Mishra’s Sudheer, much like his existence on movie sets, has a lonely life. By his own choice, he lives alone, refusing to stay with his concerned daughter and her family. He adores his granddaughter but it’s evident that he has a fractured relationship with her mother. Evenings are spent drinking with his old friend, reflecting on the abyss that stares in front and a past that could never honour his true potential. So when his old friend, Dinesh Gulati, who runs a casting company with the tagline, ‘No Couch, Only Casting,’ gets him the role of the ‘father’ in a Baahubali-type epic historical, Sudheer jumps at the chance.
But things don’t go as per plan.
Recreating melodramatic scenes from ’80s movies, from the doctor who declares ‘inko dawa ki nahi, dua ki zaroorat hai’ or the shattered lawyer or the philosophical henchman, Mehta creates a world soaked in nostalgia and melancholy, while examining the broken dreams of someone who’s observed the world from a periphery. In a heart wrenching scene, Sudheer’s daughter, frustrated with his father’s whims, asks, “What will happen after your 500th film? You’ll still remain an extra.” Sudheer has no answers because she’s probably right. But what she doesn’t realise is that the record he’s seeking isn’t for the world, it’s for his own validation, to tell himself that he still has it in him.
Another scene that stands apart is the one where Sudheer ‘auditions’ for the part. In his original takes, Sudheer is atrociously hammy, over-the-top and what millennials would call ‘extra.’ It’s only after Gulati’s direction that he delivers a more understated, quiet performance. That scene singularly captures the generational shift, not just between artist and director but between cinema and audience, and how far we’ve travelled from what we used to be. Sudheer, though, is still a victim of his times, a prisoner of a past that’s no longer relevant.
Because so much of Kaamyaab is about the quest for relevance, a desire to see and to be seen. While it loses its heft in certain scenes, which go against its grain, Mehta has remarkable control over his story and crafts a terrific climax. While Deepak Dobriyal is delightful as the casting director (lowkey inspired by a popular Bollywood casting director), Mehta has an assorted bunch of peculiar faces of yore populating his narrative, adding a meta touch to his drama.
From Avtar Gill, Manmauji to Guddi Maruti and Lilliput, the film honours the contribution of these actors by putting a spotlight on them, one that has forever eluded them. However, the real ‘star’ of this film is Sanjay Mishra, who delivers a heartbreaking and pitch perfect performance. Whether it’s projecting an air of self-importance or crushing vulnerability, you get the full spectrum of Mishra’s astounding talent. In one terrific scene that encapsulates how the lines between fiction and reality have blurred, Mishra’s Sudheer takes a moment to realise when he’s called by his actual name: Babulal Chandola.
Because, ultimately, Kaamyaab is a story about stories that have disappeared in the relics of the past, broken and forgotten in their quest for acknowledgement. And in what could happen only in a cinema hall, just when the film ended, and the audience was still enraptured, and when Mishra, an actor who’s only now getting his due, was finally getting his big moment, in walked the film’s co-producer, Shah Rukh Khan.
And yet again, as he had been so many times in reel, Sudheer was once again relegated to the backdrop, eclipsed by the great superstar. Just another day in showbiz.