Rajat Kapoor’s RK/RKay seems at first to be a somewhat facile film. A director, played by Kapoor and addressed by everyone as RK, is working on a film called ‘Mera Naseeb’, a romantic thriller apparently set in the 1950s. It looks quite unwatchable. RK plays the lead, an Urdu-speaking man named Mahboob, who’s trying to escape the gangster K.N. Singh (Ranvir Shorey) and be with his lover, Gulabo (Mallika Sherawat). It's suggested that RK was once a respected director. But his last few films have flopped and no one seems to have the nerve to tell him this one looks like a bust too. He’s been ignoring the advice of his team, and of his newbie producer (Manu Rishi Chadha). He’s reached that unfortunate stage in an artist’s career when the obstinacy from one’s early days has been retained but not the vitality.
After an extended scene with Sherawat throwing a tantrum on set, I thought I'd understood the kind of film RK/RKay would be: a spoofy insider look at filmmaking, the mediocrity of the creation redeemed by the sincerity of the creators. What I didn't realise was ‘Mera Naseeb’ was a smokescreen, and that RK/RKay was biding its time, holding its nerve.
On a lunch date with his long-suffering wife (Kubbra Sait), RK gets a call. Mahboob has gone missing. The scenes are as they were shot, but the character is no longer in them. And like that, RK/RKay reveals the film it actually is. It gets even better when the team’s search for Mahboob—including an attempt to register a missing person’s report at the police station—is unexpectedly successful. At the railway station, waiting for Gulabo, is the bemused but still polished Mahboob.
It should be clear by now that RK/RKay inhabits a kind of dream space, one which looks like everyday life but where the reappearance of an imagined character is accepted without much surprise. This is Kapoor’s 12th film as director. It's not on the level of his Ankhon Dekhi (2013), but shares with that film an ability to switch from farce to something more philosophical in the space of a scene. It’s not just Mahboob’s calm inquiries into the nature of his being ‘written’. What had seemed spoofy earlier—Gulabo’s pleas to her departing lover, for instance—now acquires a strange resonance.
Midway through a thoroughly bland year for Hindi cinema, it’s a relief to have a film that’s witty and inventive and shot with some measure of style (Rafey Mehmood is the cinematographer). The score is annoyingly insistent, but there’s a terrific low-flame love song in the scenes with Gulabo. Kapoor studs the film with references and tributes. There’s a nod—fittingly, during a long unbroken take—to Day For Night, Francois Truffaut’s 1973 film about filmmaking. ‘K.N. Singh’, and Shorey’s deliberate pastiche of a performance, acknowledge the first great villain of Hindi cinema. A poster for Fritz Lang's M—another character on the run from cops and criminals—stares down at RK from the walls of the editing suite. Kapoor’s theatre roots also show in a film that’s Pirandellian and Stoppardian, in which Mahboob does a version of Shylock’s ‘if you prick us’ speech from The Merchant of Venice.
RK’s dilemma is one any artist will recognize—his creation has gotten away from him. That's the way it is with art: what you give may be very different from what is received. Some might be puzzled by RK's dismissive attitude towards Mahboob, whom he keeps reminding of his reality, or unreality. But imagine his frustration. “The most difficult thing of all, painting on the spot, is to look at your canvas,” John Berger once wrote. RK had all but finished painting, but now his canvas is talking back to him and he can’t bear to look at it.
Everything coalesces around a beautiful irony: Mahboob, in wanting to escape his fate (he dies in RK’s movie), comes to seem more alive than his director. And RK, inward-looking, thinking of nothing but his film, cuts a diminished figure in front of the versatile, expressive Mahboob. Was RK always like this? Or is the film suggesting that the creation of memorable life on screen must be accompanied by an appreciation of life beyond it? Thankfully, RK/RKay doesn’t have any lessons to impart. Instead, it allows its ideas the space to wander and breathe. By the end, a sly fable has turned into something rich and strange.