At the start of “Call My Agent Bollywood”, Jignesh (Rohan Joshi), a junior agent for the ART agency, takes newcomer Nia (Radhika Seth) to the script and contract room. “It all depends on the scenario,” he told her. “Without the scripts, there are no films, no money, no actors, their agents, their assistants and you.” Unfortunately for the show, which fell on Netflix late last month, its creators seem to be completely unaware of this corporate truth. For an adaptation of a successful French original, the narrative of the Hindi version is offensive at best and boring at worst. And every aspect of the series – acting, directing, cinematography, music – seems to be infected with acute indifference.
Take for example the end of the second episode where Nia and Treasa Matthews (Soni Razdan) share a cigarette on the roof. Treasa advises Nia, who is obviously depressed for some reason, not to worry too much. “Har ek fikr ko, dhunye me uda de (Let every worry turn to smoke.)” Before saying smoke in this line and the next, she stops to take a puff and exhales some smoke. Would it be more amateur? One wonders where director Shaad Ali, who directed the delicious “Bunty Aur Babli” (2005), was when this scene was shot. And what about free drone photography of the city skyline? There appears to be a pandemic in the original content of streaming platforms.
But more than technical issues, ‘Call My Agent’ is deeply disappointing because although it is Bollywood-focused, it gives us no insight into its inner workings. Bollywood, or the Mumbai-based Hindi film industry, can be seen as a tightly knit society with an almost tribal code of conduct. As Professor Rosie Thomas, a pioneer in the study of popular Hindi cinema, demonstrated in her book Bombay Before Bollywood, the film industry can be a rich field of anthropological study. This world is one of endless fascination with foreigners – those trying to take a break, journalists, academics and regular fans. Bollywood has opened its curtains time and time again to let the avid public get a glimpse of how magic is created in its studios and sets.
One of the most effective storytelling strategies for this is to bring a character who is an alien into this world. In “Bombay Talkie” (dir: James Ivory; 1970), this outsider is the British novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal). Having written a book on Hollywood, she is in Bombay (Mumbai) to write another book. But she finds herself involved in this world when she falls in love with morning idol Vikram (Shashi Kapoor). This is the only movie in which Jennifer and Shashi face each other. With a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ivory, it’s a typical Merchant-Ivory movie – nostalgic for a world dying before it’s even dead.
Directed in English, the film does not really plunge us into the heart of the darkness of the film industry. But, two things about the movie still stand out, at least for me. The first is the legendary song “Typewriter, tip tip tip tip karta hain” (music: Shankar-Jaikishan) – with Helen and Shashi Kapoor dancing on a huge typewriter in a dreamlike sequence. The other is the opening sequence of the title cards. The film opens with a shot of Bombay, then the camera selects four workers carrying a billboard, typically used to promote films, in traffic. This is followed by a montage of billboards and city maps, with an evocative musical score in the background. Such a title sequence is probably inspired by similar sequences used by Satyajit Ray, who was a mentor for Merchant-Ivory and had composed the music for their previous film “Shakespeare Wallah” (1965).
A similar montage marks the entry of another outsider to Bombay in ‘Guddi’ (1971) directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. This is not a title sequence, but a montage of large billboards, with all of the major male stars of the early 1970s – Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Manoj Kumar and others appearing. also in cameos later in the movie. . The background music is not only music but songs, dialogues, even action sequences in the strong register that one expects from a masala film. But ‘Guddi’ is not a masala movie – in fact, it’s a thoughtful critique of the film industry and the effect it has on Indians.
In this film, the outsider is Guddi (Jaya Bhaduri) – a high school student in love with superstar Dharmendra, played by the actor himself. When Guddi dismisses the appropriate boy Navin (Samit Bhanja), his uncle, Professor Gupta (Utpal Dutt) hatches a plan to allow him to get a glimpse of the blood and sweat – literally – that go into making it happen. ‘a movie. He convinces Dharmendra to help him with this plan. In a plot device perhaps borrowed from Shakespeare’s “The Taming Shrew” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, Professor Gupta and Dharmendra stage a “drama”, so that Navin emerges as a hero for Guddi. This includes Navin beating Dharmendra in a badminton match and beating thieves (Dutt and Dharmendra dressed as burkhas) to save her.
Rachel Dwyer describes Bollywood as the mythology of modern India, but the filmmakers already knew it. Movie actors are nothing less than gods and goddesses to their fans like Guddi. In his “love” for Dharmendra, Guddi decides to imitate the 16th century Indian mystic Mirabai and never to marry. The screenplay, written by Gulzar, falters when it becomes didactic – but sparkles with humor. While “playing” is part of Professor Gupta’s script to exorcise Guddi from his infatuation, the characters also play other games, such as “the statue”. This is also crucial for the plot because at the climax, Guddi prevents Navin from leaving by shouting: “Statue”.
The blinding glamor of the Hindi film industry has inspired several wonderful performances over the years, such as “Chala Murari Hero Banne” (1977), “Rangeela” (1995), “Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon” (2003), “Om Shanti Om ‘(2007). But perhaps the most lucid portrayal of the prize for ambition was Zoya Akhtar’s debut film,“ Luck By Chance ”(2009). At present, the features genre of film on the film industry had become well defined – strangers wanting to join in, cameos from actors, references to movie gossip, a few nuggets of wisdom about how it’s all done -believing.
But Luck By Chance eschews all didacticism for a realistic portrayal of the Faustian market that its lead actor Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar) must hit to reach the pinnacle of popularity. A quintessential outsider, Vikram comes to Mumbai from Delhi to become an actor but struggles to find a break. He is morally supported by Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma), another struggling actor who plays roles in the movies. When an opportunity presents itself, Vikram must betray his friends, new co-workers, and even Sona to be successful in the dog-eating world of Bollywood.
In a revealing scene, he goes to a party at Kareena Kapoor’s house and meets Zafar Khan (Hrithik Roshan) – the superstar who dropped out of the movie where Vikram gets his big chance. After exchanging greetings, Zafar watches him from afar and assesses him with director Karan Johar:
KARAN: So, Romi’s uncle [producer’s] hero meets the discovery of uncle Romi.
ZAFAR (looking at Vikram): What do you think?
KARAN: Not bad. Potential. Did he thank you?
ZAFAR: What for?
KARAN: He’s only at this party because you left that movie.
ZAFAR: Come on!
KARAN: It’s a fact. This is how foreigners enter the industry. Someone writes an unconventional role, a big star turns down the role, and a newcomer gets a break.
ZAFAR: Give me an example.
KARAN: Darr, Baazigar. Many stars have refused these films. Finally, a man did. Shah Rukh Khan. Of course, Zanjeer. Seven stars refused it. Finally, the role went to a struggling actor, whose name is …
ZAFAR: Amitabh Bachchan.
KARAN: Good answer.
ZAFAR: Why didn’t you tell me that before?
KARAN: Well, you never asked.
They share a wry smile, the camera shifts to Vikram, acknowledging that a stranger becomes an insider here. For a cinephile, this moment is even more pleasant because he already knows the nuggets of wisdom that Johar has just passed on. For the clouded movie fan, right now they are no longer a stranger to the magical world of Bollywood. Their insider knowledge turned them into insiders.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at OP Jindal Global University, Sonipat