Enter RK’s Alternate Universe
Rajat Kapoor’s new film toys with our mind, and is that rare sort of Bollywood movie that makes us think
Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Mallika Sherawat, Ranvir Shorey, Kubbra Sait, Manu Rishi Chaddha
Direction: Rajat Kapoor
Playing in theatres
Imagine that you are watching a film and the characters just saunter out of the screen, walk up the aisle, sit down beside you and start dipping into your bucket of popcorn. Surely that would leave you bewildered and mildly irritated.
Rajat Kapoor knew that and did a wise thing. He took donations from hundreds of people to mount exactly that sort of film because no single producer or production house would have backed it.
RK/Rkay, which Rajat Kapoor has written, directed and acted in, is what’s called a “high-concept” film, and as is the case with all such movies, we must believe in the alternative universe and reality it is presenting. In the case of RK/Rkay, the concept is as simple and silly as it is twisted and fun.
RK/Rkay opens with a montage of women being auditioned for the role of the female lead of a film. None of them work, and so writer-director RK (Rajat Kapoor), along with producer Goel (Manu Rishi Chaddha), heads to meet film star Neha (Mallika Sherawat).
RK is directing a film that he has written. Neha likes the script.
The film is set in a nicer world, our vintage past when people said “aap,” heroes had moustaches, heroines had a forlorn look and a rose in their hair, and the villains wore ascot caps and cravats.
The key characters in this world lit by 60-watt halogen bulbs are Mahboob Alam (Rajat Kapoor), his beloved Gulabo (Mallika Sherawat), and a gun-toting, unhinged goon who goes by the good name of K.N. Singh (Ranveer Shorey).
Gulabo is always in various stages of anxiety, including when she is in her bedroom and waiting for the large green phone to go tring-tring.
Some money is owed to the goons, but as is the case in all sorts of noir films, greed is the root of all chases and murders.
The film gets completed and is shown to a small group of people. Their response is so lukewarm that RK returns to the editing room to fix it. Some suggest the hero should not die. Others say RK should not have acted in the film. The editor says, “Give me 10 days, I’ll figure something out.” But then something happens.
The hero disappears from the film and a search begins. When he is found and is being coaxed to return to the film, other characters start disappearing from the film. And then Gulabo begins to develop feelings for…
As is often the case with Rajat Kapoor’s films (barring his fabulous Ankhon Dekhi), RK/Rkay too has “something old, something new.” The concept of breaking the fourth wall is everyone’s to play with, but RK/Rkay is quite obviously inspired by Woody Allen’s 1985 film, The Purple Rose of Cairo, whose lineage can be traced back to the silent era. But a lot of RK/Rkay is new and bold.
The movie is split into two parts – when the period romance-thriller is being shot, and when all of RK’s energies are focused on making Mahboob return to the film.
In the first bit we get our jollies from the duffer diva who can’t remember her lines, smart-alec assistants, and the general chaos and thrill of film shooting.
In the second half there’s a desperate RK who wants to release his film but can’t because his hero doesn’t want to die. The banter between the writer and his character who has come to life, the creator losing control over his own creation and shouting continuously in frustration, is the most engaging and entertaining part of the film. It’s also very difficult to pull off.
RK/Rkay’s screenplay is sharp except in a few places where it takes its concept too far, like when RK tries to lodge a police complaint and asks the cops to find his character. But the irritation with this bit doesn’t last long because, despite being high on concept, RK/Rkay is not pretentious.
The credit for this goes to the film’s writer-director, of course, but also its actors.
All its characters feel real and believable, and we are emotionally invested in them. We want RK to complete his film, but we don’t want Mahboob to return to RK’s film because his glorious presence lights up “our” film.
Rajat Kapoor, who is a very decent actor, outdoes himself playing RK and Mahboob. One is crabby, tense and self-important, the other is light, fun and takes great pleasure in life’s small joys. Both are so distinct that in scenes where RK and Mahboob are arguing with each other, it feels like they are two different actors.
Manu Rishi Chaddha is excellent as the whiskey-chugging producer. And Mallika Sherawat is truly an inspired choice. With her hair swept to one side and decorated with a gulab ka phool, she is so good as Gulabo and so bitchy as Neha that I want to beg her to stay in both the characters for a few more films.
Ranveer Shorey, who is always very good, is quite bad here, as is the character he plays. Rajat Kapoor gives K.N. Singh a dapper look, but not much of a character. Usually Ranveer Shorey is able to pull it off despite weak writing, but not here.
Kubbra Sait, on the other hand, is adorable. She plays Seema, RK’s wife and has little to do. But her presence, warm and unpredictable, lingers even when she’s not on the screen.
RK/Rkay’s screenplayis smart and packed. A lot happens in the 99-minute long film. We see a marriage that’s going stale and a director who has lost his touch, and witness Indians’ obsession with Bollywood.
RK/Rkay is also laced with various kinds of nostalgia – nostalgia for a time when dialogues were in Urdu and heroes conveyed their love euphemistically, in verse. There’s also Covid-induced nostalgia for the world that was and our beautifully chaotic lives with completely meaningless irritations and struggles.
But what makes RK/Rkay stand out is that it toys with our mind.
At times I thought that the disappearance of Mahboob Alam from the film was a metaphor for the disappearance of Muslim characters from Indian films. And this character’s appearance in real life, refusal to return to the silver screen, insistence on living in our midst and teaching us a thing or two about tameez and tehzeeb, felt like a yearning for a more decent, calmer past.
At other times I thought RK/Rkay was bringing to life what Rajesh Khanna had said in Anand: “Hum sab toh rangmanch ki kathputhliyan hain jinki dor uparwale ke haath mein…” And during some scenes my mind drifted to strange thoughts – what if we are not watching the films, but the films are watching us.
And this, ladies and gentlemen, is a very rare thing in Bollywood – to make a film that makes us think.