FAN: Identity, Obsession, And Indian Stardom

What if Eminem’s ‘Stan’ were a Bollywood action movie?

It’s hard to explain Shah Rukh Khan to most non-Indian moviegoers, but a scene halfway through Fan does exactly that. Bollywood superstar Aryan Khanna, SRK in every way but name, finds himself being held at a London police station. A white English police officer snarks and condescends, brushing aside the actor’s sold-out stage appearance. Circumstances have made the actor a suspect in a rather bizarre series of events, and the officer treats him like a petty criminal. The policewoman taking his mug shot however, happens to be Indian. She stares at him slack-jawed, barely able to comprehend being in his presence. When her superior officer isn’t looking, she breaks protocol and asks him to join her for a selfie.

After a few hits in the early ‘90s, SRK really burst on to the scene with Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge in 1995, and if you want to know the kind of place both he and that film have in the popular Indian consciousness, I implore you to watch it next time you’re Mumbai. It’s still playing at a theatre by my house, and has been every single day for twenty-one years. They don’t call him ‘The King of Bollywood’ for nothing.

Fan is about a Shah Rukh Khan obsessive who also happens to look like him. While the film calls the actor Aryan, presumably for legal reasons, it’s Shah Rukh’s performances, mannerisms, famous lines and ubiquitous iconography that all take center stage. SRK plays both roles, the arrogant superstar in the spotlight, and small-town boy with dreams of following big footsteps. He undergoes a digital face-lift to portray the literally and figuratively wide-eyed Gaurav, looking halfway between his younger self and an expert impersonator. Things go awry after their first face-to-face encounter, and the film goes on a few tonal tangents that are best described as bizarre. In fact, the trailer does a great job of showing off every single one of the film’s extremes, from its quiet meditation on fandom, to its… 007-esque rooftop chase in Croatia. But before you watch the trailer for yourself, know that whatever it’s selling isn’t the full picture.

If you’re thinking it’s an excuse to have India’s biggest star fight himself in increasingly ridiculous scenarios, you’d be right. Or half-right, anyway. The film hasn’t sold nearly as many tickets as SRK’s last three, but the blame lies squarely on the marketing. While it might look like it exists in an ethereal realm where actors and fans are also invulnerable stuntmen (this isn’t the case, but we’ll get to that), it’s actually grounded in a reality far more true to life. The trailer hints at the film’s opening montage, putting you in the shoes of a child who grows up experiencing not just SRK’s movies, but a saturation of him in the media. His impersonators are real and numerous, and televised competitions to find the best look-alikes/act-alikes aren’t uncommon. Every inch of Guarav’s room is covered with SKR memorabilia, and during the lead-up to Fan’s release, news channels didn’t have much trouble finding people just like him. The film is most certainly a fantasy about what would happen if these people were drafted into an action scenario opposite their idol, but it’s also a thorough examination of constructed identity through the creation (and re-creation) of stories.

As famous as Shah Rukh Khan is, the story of how he came to be is equally well known, and such is the case with his fictional reflection. Like Shah Rukh, Aryan was a small-town Delhi boy who moved to Mumbai (then Bombay) with little in his pocket, and the film embellishes this by including the details of the overnight train he took and the sketchy hotel he stayed at. The SRK creation myth is something young Gaurav aspires to. Himself a small-towner from just outside Delhi, he earns his living by running an internet café by day, and performing as ‘Junior Aryan Khanna’ at night. He’s roped his parents into his fantasy, and they now pull the ropes of his stage curtains as he performs all of SRK’s signature dances while backed by footage of the man himself. If there’s one thing keeping him going, it’s the idea that he’ll someday meet his idol.

The star’s award acceptance mantra of “I’m nothing without my fans” has Gaurav believing himself to be special. Meeting SRK isn’t just his desire. He considers it his destiny. He travels on the same train to Mumbai, sans ticket like his idol, and risking being thrown off rather than paying for one. He picks the same hotel and even pays double to stay in the same room, re-living the Aryan Khanna mythology and arriving just in time for the star’s birthday. Like the real-life Shah Rukh, Aryan allows the hordes of fans and fanatics gathered outside his bungalow a brief glimpse of himself. He appears above them like an enigma, gone sooner than he arrives, but not before striking his signature pose, as worshippers who re-create themselves in his image bow at his feet.

The gesture comes from his romantic films of the ‘90s, where the camera would pull out as he stood atop a European cliff or hillside. He leans backward every so slightly, raising his arms as if to embrace mother nature herself, but as time has gone on and he’s moved further away from the mountains, it’s turned into a show of power. It’s what the fans crave, but it’s also the vain superstar absorbing adoration like a Roman God. Gaurav looks upon this living colossus for the first time, tears in his eyes as he holds up the trophy he won for impersonating him, but SRK looks down and sees only an amoebic mass. The horde moves like the ocean tide, back and forth as their Neptune stands above them, just out of reach. Once he leaves, Gaurav goes back to being just another fish. But he’s not done yet.

There’s no way an actor as influential as Shah Rukh Khan didn’t have a creative hand in Fan, which makes it a fascinating crossroads. The actor’s public persona has varied between sincere and downright pig-headed, involving everything from Kanye-like proclamations of his status to feuds with other superstars, and the film is as much an examination of him as it is of his fanatics. Gaurav crosses a very dangerous line by assaulting another actor (as a ‘gift’ for his one and only), the inciting incident for which happens to be a fued between the two stars. Aryan Khanna, the king on his cultural throne, and Sid Kapoor, the up-and-comer sure to usurp it. Aryan can’t stand the idea of not being the apex predator, but Guarav really can’t stand it, nor can he stomach even an ounce of disrespect towards a man he has religious reverence for. Gaurav’s violent antics certainly earn him an audience with Aryan, but not in the context he’d expected. An Indian star’s influence can be spectacular, but it can also be a dirty, dirty game, one where he’s in control of all pawns including police. While Gaurav expects a welcome party, he instead receives a gun in his face, and it’s here that film starts to explode wildly, but through controlled demolition.

A ridiculous action sequence ensues, one that doesn’t feel part of a movie that’s been discernibly ‘realistic’ thus far, but what’s notable is that it lacks finesse from the get-go. Before the scene fires on all cylinders, with the scaling of buildings and the hopping of balconies, you get a blink-and-miss look into Gaurav’s fight-or-flight response, a revelatory moment that begins to unravel his psychology. His movements and reactions when he’s under pressure are imbued with an action-movie sensibility. He rolls and somersaults when he can easily walk or run, often stumbling and only getting away by accident. Later, when he finds himself at a particularly low point, his emotional outbursts are almost laughably melodramatic (as a brief shot in the trailer might indicate), in a way that feels typical of Shah Rukh Khan.

SRK is a brilliant actor who’s known for hamming it up for mainstream audiences. His range is unlike anyone else, varying from subtle and withheld in his cultural identity drama Swades, to borderline offensive when he plays an autistic man trying to meet President Obama in My Name Is Khan. The film plays with these two extremes, pulling back the curtain and taking us inside the life of Aryan/SRK (in what may be his most withheld performance yet), while simultaneously allowing Gaurav to embody every SRK parody in existence, all the way down to the way he quivers when he cries. In addition to learning the actor’s tone of voice, it’s as if super-fan Gaurav has internalized his cinematic persona, and his overt, grade-school assembly displays of sadness are manifestations of genuine emotions.

The fact that he’s able to tell Aryan, in earnest and with digitally exaggerated puppy-dog eyes, that he would kill for him if asked, is downright terrifying. But when the film skips forward a year, after Aryan essentially turns his biggest fan against him, shit really starts to hit the wall. Having perfected his impersonation, a spurned Gaurav impersonates the star at Madamme Tussaud’s in London, making a ruckus by confronting SRK’s wax double and yelling at him for being fake! It’s a layered display of both Gaurav’s feelings for the man, and the systematic takedown of his reputation by making it seem like the star has lost his marbles. It’s also unbelievably entertaining to see a manufactured celebrity meltfown in a high-risk environment. That it’s carried out by a nobody who spent a year planning it is a long-con that will never come to pass. Except in the movies of course, which is what makes it the perfect move.

Tussaud’s is just the tip of the iceberg, and Gaurav goes to some truly remarkable lengths to make Aryan look like an asshole in the public eye. How else would you hurt a man who wants for nothing, than by tarnishing his image? It’s a scheme so fiendish that no one could possibly believe the actor, so Aryan is forced to chase down his fan-turned-nemesis in person. The rooftop action is directed with an expert eye, but it makes sure both men stumble even as they perform the most professional of stunts. It momentarily turns into a mindless bonanza, but it’s an exciting one, and it serves the purpose of a fan being so disappointed with an actor’s private persona that he forces him to take on the roles he’s known for.

Things get even more complicated when Gaurav enters Aryan’s home, methodically destroying the actor’s numerous self-portraits in a painstaking single take (not unlike when he scornfully rips down his own pictures of Aryan), to which the actor responds by travelling to Gaurav’s town and ruining his reputation by impersonating him. It’s ludicrously enjoyable to watch Shah Rukh play himself impersonating his own impostor, who’s also played by himself (take as much time as you need to process that) while the film starts to operate on the level of a countdown thriller, making it an audaciously entertaining blend of hilarious and heart-stopping. But the purpose of the impersonation-switcheroo doesn’t stop there.

The film could’ve easily cast an actual Shah Rukh Khan impersonator – lord knows they aren’t in short supply – but by having SRK play both roles, their cat & mouse game takes on a whole new meaning. As a man constantly in the public eye, often exchanging words with other actors of his caliber, partaking in the destruction of Aryan’s image feels like coming to terms with the fragility of his fame and adoration, and how it can all be reduced to dust in a matter of moments, even by his own hand. The realization of this impermanence has him chasing his former self, a small-town boy whose passions were pure, before he was weighed down by the realities of celebrity life. Aryan’s return to Delhi in order to impersonate Gaurav is also SRK’s return to the stage, and to simpler times. It also comes with the dark intention of wanting to destroy Gaurav, but his mother implores the star not to harm her son. On some level, he doesn’t want to purge himself of this doe-eyed doppelganger. It’d be like parting with a piece of his soul, which makes their final hand-to-hand brawl all the more brutal.

Two characters who want something as simple as to be loved, one by an idol and one by the people, beating each other to a pulp because the other robbed them of it, is pretty damn harrowing. And without getting into spoiler territory, it all comes down to a pair of conversations and a movie quote. Initially, SRK takes a stance on fandom that he might’ve taken years ago, when the spotlight was still fresh and he was learning to live as the object of a nation’s attention. He dismisses Gaurav’s adoration entirely, perhaps with valid reason, but he dismisses him all the same. Later in the film he takes a different stance, one that comes from a place of understanding and tough love. The SRK of today, fifty years old and approaching the end of his stardom, tells the young fan that he doesn’t need to create an identity around someone else, because that would mean giving up his own dreams. Gaurav has spent so long forging an identity based on SRK that he has no other recourse, but it’s not just that he needs to keep on this path. He wants to.

In the 1998 romantic film Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, which reunited Shah Rukh with his Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge co-star Kajol, the pair utter the words “Tum nahi samjhoge” during a pivotal scene. You don’t even really need subtitles to watch it, all you need to know is that SRK’s character has just found out that Anjali, the woman he’s fallen in love with, is marrying someone else, and he’s trying his best to be happy for her. “Kuch kuch hota hai” roughly means “Something happens” (here in the context of love) but more importantly, “Tum nahi samjhoge” means “You wouldn’t understand.”

What you see here is a rough midpoint between SRK’s hammy, over-the-top performances as he tries to put on a happy front, and his restraint as he tries to hide his disappointment. Kuch Kuch Hota Hai is also one of his most famous films, so when Aryan tries to talk Gaurav out of his obsession and Gaurav responds “Tum nahi samjhoge” (“You wouldn’t understand”), he’s speaking in riddles. He’s right on one level, in that Aryan will never truly understand why Gaurav does the things he does. Yet at the same time, the line’s original context implies Gaurav is deeply and madly in love with him. Aryan is his world, and while the superstar can easily separate Gaurav’s name from his, the obsessive fanboy can’t break his connection to Aryan no matter how hard he tries. It’s a messed up tale of worship that supersedes even self-care, made doubly twisted given that Gaurav has no self left to care about, save for his artificial self-image, and yet there’s a clarity to it that makes it almost heartbreaking. As wrongheaded as Gaurav’s love is, it’s unrequited, and who doesn’t know what that feels like?