Fan is the story of a superstar (Aryan Khanna) and his devoted fan (Gaurav Chandna), and what happens when the mask of stardom comes off. Let me start by saying that I think Fan is one of the biggest risks of Shahrukh’s career, and an extremely commendable one at that. And if I may say so, it was totally worth it! It’s a challenge for a mainstream actor to step so far out of his comfort zone.
From the moment we slowly followed the fan Gaurav Chandna with his back to the camera as he swaggered with confidence and took the stage to emulate his hero, I was hooked! Fan triggered my thinking on a few different aspects.
- Return of the psychotic antihero
- The tension between Shahrukh Khan’s and Aryan Khanna’s star image
- Commentary on the complicated relationship between fandom and stardom in India
Return of the psychotic hero
As many may remember, in the early 1990s, Shahrukh Khan’s image was that of a psychotic antihero. You didn’t hate him, but felt pity for his internal angst and restlessness. Be it Darr (1993), Baazigar (1993), Anjaam (1994), or even Deewana (1992), Shahrukh’s characters represented a psychosis that was symptomatic of the times, just as Amitabh’s Angry Young Man represented the unrest and frustration of the 1970s.
Then came Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge (1995), ushering in the Bollywood-ization of Indian cinema, and Shahrukh became the dimpled poster child of that era. The psychotic antihero made a brief reappearance in Don (2006). Shahrukh’s rendition of Don was far more ruthless and cruel compared to Amitabh’s original. Good did not triumph over evil in the dark SRK version of the classic movie. We discover at the end that our “hero” was actually long dead.
In Fan, Shahrukh portrays not one, but two psychotic characters – one obsessed with a star, and the other – the star – obsessed with himself.
The tension between Shahrukh’s and Aryan’s star image
This for me was one of the most intriguing parts of the movie. The director created a very complicated persona of both Shahrukh and Aryan by blurring the lines between them on several levels. I literally did a double take in the beginning when we were shown Shahrukh’s real home Mannat (a landmark in Bombay) as the home of Aryan, with no attempt to obscure its name or location.
All the images and video clips peppered throughout the film from Aryan’s career are actually very recognizable visual artifacts from Shahrukh’s own career. Aryan’s iconic pose (leaning back, arms outstretched) is also, as we all know, Shahrukh’s signature move (also emulated by Gaurav in the movie). The remarkable overlap in personas was stunning, especially given that Aryan is a self-centered and stoic businessman. Again, it was really brave of Shahrukh to tread in these murky waters.
The new and critical part of Aryan’s persona was what he says at an award show which Gaurav assumes as the gospel truth – the part where Aryan says that he is what he is and where he is because of the love of his fans. That was the only “archival” footage that was carefully shot like it’s from an award show, but wasn’t actually archival.
Commentary on the complicated relationship between fandom and stardom in India
The deity status that Gaurav confers upon Aryan might make a non-Indian dismiss the issue as contrived. But this is a reality in India, especially for superstars like Rajnikanth or Amitabh Bachchan. Their screen persona is assumed to be their real self, and that’s where the complication begins. Movie stars and cricket players have always been placed on a pedestal and worshiped as idols to be emulated and followed. They are assumed to be extraordinary superhumans and enjoy unbridled attention. This usually comes at the price of their privacy and most seem to give in to that inevitability.
Aryan is openly resistant to the adulation. It may seem like Gaurav is making a big deal out of a small issue – it might seem like he wants a movie star to apologize to him for “breaking his heart.” But that is not it at all. He wants Aryan to acknowledge the connection that he believes exists between them. He wants Aryan to believe everything about his own star image. Stars’ presence on social media exacerbates this already complex situation. When Aryan refuses to acknowledge that connection right until the end, Gaurav feels like decades of his devotion have been betrayed. Nothing else holds any meaning for him.
In reality, yes it is bizarre to assume a relationship with someone you don’t know but that’s the nature of fandom in India, especially when it comes to the superstars. The fact that both characters are played by one actor adds even more layers to this heavily textured narrative.
Shahrukh delivers a solid performance as both characters. When I read in other reviews that Aryan’s character is egoistic, I was expecting some exaggerated and tedious dialogues about self-importance. But Shahrukh downplays the narcissism and conveys it very subtly. He makes the fact that he’s a “regular” egotistical person very convincing. One moment that comes to mind is when Aryan looks into a hand mirror and smiles at himself.
Aryan and Gaurav’s first encounter lends itself to much interpretation. High angle shots of Aryan showing Gaurav tower over him signify the power struggle between them. Most remarkable in that scene is the part where we see Aryan’s reflection in the mirror talking to Gaurav. It raises the question of which Aryan is real – the image or the man whom the image belongs to? Or are neither real?
Even with Shahrukh in a double role, there is no hero in this film. Even though Aryan towers over his fans in the end, signifying perhaps the restoring of his superiority in the fan-star relationship, he also realizes that it’s not as simple as all that.
Were there implausible instances? Of course, yes! Why is a superstar chasing his fan through the streets? Why does he meet his obsessive fan by himself without any security? This might be the cinema studies academic in me reading too much into it, but I see it as Shahrukh Khan’s struggle with his own star identity.
As he’s been growing older, we’ve seen Shahrukh try on different personas and redefine himself. His psychotic characters in the past have often been obsessed by an all-consumable and self-destructive love. The object of his affection this time, was himself, or at least a version of himself.