Early in ‘Call My Agent Bollywood’, Jignesh (Rohan Joshi), a junior agent at the agency ART, takes newcomer Nia (Radhika Seth) to the scripts and contracts room. “Everything depends on the script,” he tells her. “Without the scripts, there are neither movies, money, actors, their agents, their assistants and nor you.” Unfortunately for the show, which dropped on Netflix late last month, its makers seem to completely ignore this truth of the business. 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, direction, cinematography, music — seems to be infected by an acute indifference.
Take for instance the ending of the second episode where Nia and Treasa Matthews (Soni Razdan) are sharing a cigarette on the roof. Treasa advises Nia, evidently depressed for some reason, to not worry too much. “Har ek fikr ko, dhunye me uda de (Let every worry turn into smoke.).” Before she says smoke in this line and the next, she pauses to take a drag and exhales a little smoke. Could it be more amateurish? One wonder where director Shaad Ali, who had helmed the delightful ‘Bunty Aur Babli’ (2005), was when this scene was shot. And, what’s with gratuitous drone photography of the city’s skyline? There seems to be a pandemic of it in the original content of streaming platforms.
But more than technical issues, ‘Call My Agent’ is deeply disappointing because despite being focussed on Bollywood it provides us no insights into its inner working. Bollywood, or the Hindi film industry based out of Mumbai, can be thought of as a closely-knit society with almost a tribal code of conduct. As Professor Rosie Thomas, a pioneer in the study of popular Hindi cinema has shown in her book Bombay Before Bollywood, the film industry can be a rich field of anthropological study. This world is one of endless fascination for outsiders — those trying to get a break, journalists, scholars, and regular fans. Bollywood has time and again parted its curtains to let the eager audience have a glimpse of how the magic is created in its studios and sets.
One of the most successful narrative strategies for this is getting a character who is an outsider to enter this world. In ‘Bombay Talkie’ (dir: James Ivory; 1970), this outsider is British novelist Lucia Lane (Jennifer Kendal). Having written a book on Hollywood, she is in Bombay (Mumbai) to write another book. But she gets embroiled in this world when she falls in love with matinee idol Vikram (Shashi Kapoor). This is the only film in which Jennifer and Shashi were cast opposite each other. With a script by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Ivory, it is a typical Merchant-Ivory film — nostalgic for a dying world even before it is dead.
Made in English, the film does not really take us to the heart of the film industry’s darkness. But, two things about the movie still stand out, at least for me. First is the legendary song “Typewriter, tip tip tip tip karta hain” (music: Shankar-Jaikishan) — with Helen and Shashi Kapoor dancing on an enormous typewriter in a dream sequence. The other is the opening sequence of title cards. The film opens with a shot of Bombay and then the camera picks out four labourers carrying a billboard, typically used to promote films, in the traffic. A montage of billboards and shots of the city follow, 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 music for their earlier film ‘Shakespeare Wallah’ (1965).
A similar montage marks the entry of another outsider to Bombay in Hrishikesh Mukherjee-directed ‘Guddi’ (1971). It is not a title sequence, but a montage of large billboards, with all the leading male stars of the early 1970s — Rajesh Khanna, Dev Anand, Shammi Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, and others, who would also appear in cameos later in the film. The background score is not only music but songs, dialogues, even action sequences in the loud register that one expects from a masala film. But ‘Guddi’ is not a masala film — in fact, it is a well-considered 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 infatuated with superstar Dharmendra, played by the actor himself. When Guddi rejects suitable boy Navin (Samit Bhanja), her uncle Professor Gupta (Utpal Dutt) hatches a plan to let her get a glimpse of the blood and sweat — literally — that goes into making a film. He convinces Dharmendra to help him with this plan. In a plot device possibly borrowed from Shakespeare’s ‘The Taming of the 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 defeating Dharmendra in a badminton match and beating up robbers (Dutt and Dharmendra disguised in burkhas) to save her.
Rachel Dwyer describes Bollywood to be the mythology of modern India, but filmmakers knew that already. Film actors are no less than gods and goddesses for their fans like Guddi. In her “love” for Dharmendra, Guddi decides to emulate 16th-century Indian mystic Mirabai and never get married. The script, written by Gulzar, falters when it gets didactic — but sparkles with humour. While “playing” is a part of Professor Gupta’s script to exorcise Guddi from her infatuation, the characters play other games too, such as “statue”. This is also crucial to the plot because in the climax, Guddi stops Navin from leaving by calling out: “Statue.”
The blinding glamour of the Hindi film industry inspired several wonderful depictions 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 clear-eyed depiction of the price for ambition was Zoya Akhtar’s directorial debut ‘Luck By Chance’ (2009). By now, the film-on-the-film-industry genre’s characteristics had become well-defined — outsiders wanting to make it in, cameos by actors, some reference to film gossip, a few nuggets of wisdom about how all of it is make-believe.
But Luck By Chance eschews all didacticism for a realistic depiction of the Faustian bargain its leading man Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar) must strike to scale 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 provided moral support by Sona Mishra (Konkona Sen Sharma), another struggling actor who does bit parts in films. When an opportunity presents itself, Vikram must betray his friends, his new colleagues, and even Sona to make it in the dog-eat-dog world of Bollywood.
In a telling scene, he goes to a party at Kareena Kapoor’s house and meets Zafar Khan (Hrithik Roshan) — the superstar who had dropped out of the film where Vikram gets his big break. After they exchange hellos, Zafar looks at him from a distance and evaluates him with director Karan Johar:
Read more at- Huge Titan
KARAN: So, Romi uncle’s [producer’s] hero meets Romi uncle’s discovery.
ZAFAR (looking at Vikram): What do you think?
KARAN: Not bad. Potential. Did he thank you?
ZAFAR: What for?
KARAN: He is only at this party because you left that film.
ZAFAR: Come on!
KARAN: It’s a fact. This is how outsiders enter the industry. Someone writes an unconventional role, a major star refuses the part and a newcomer gets a break.
ZAFAR: Give me an example.
KARAN: Darr, Baazigar. A lot of stars turned down these films. Finally, one man did it. Shah Rukh Khan. Of course, Zanjeer. Seven stars turned it down. Finally, the role went to a struggling actor, whose name is…
ZAFAR: Amitabh Bachchan.
KARAN: Correct answer.
ZAFAR: Why didn’t you tell me this before?
KARAN: Well, you never asked.
They share a wry smile, the camera cuts to Vikram, acknowledging that an outsider is becoming an insider here. For a cinephile, this moment is even more pleasurable because they already know the nuggets of wisdom that Johar has just imparted. For the fan in the darkened cinema, at this moment, they are no more an outsider to the magic world of Bollywood. Their insider knowledge has transformed them into an insider.
The writer’s novel, Ritual, was published in 2020. He teaches journalism at O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat