The phenomenon that was Bojack Horseman ended recently. Early on in the show, there’s an episode where Bojack fluffs his first day on Secretariat, his comeback movie after years of oblivion. The scene returns in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, where has-been actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, flips out in his trailer, after a terrible false start on set. The fear of screwing up a second chance, of failing to click back into your craft, haunts the best and worst of actors. Hardik Mehta’s showbiz dramedy, Kaamyaab, harks back to this emotion.
The film isn’t acerbic (like Bojack) or overly ambitious (like Once Upon...). Modestly made, it’s a gentle, light-hearted stroll through Bollywood, a tribute to the numerous nameless faces surrounding its hallowed stars, all those villains and henchmen and smugglers who populated the Hindi cinema of the 80s and 90s.
The film honours their legacies but also cares to probe deeper, asking questions usually ignored in the verve of movie nostalgia.
When the penny drops during an interview, character actor Sudheer (Sanjay Mishra) emerges out of retirement to do his 500th film. With the help of a casting director (Deepak Dobriyal), he lands a role in a lavish period drama, but struggles to get past the opening scene. Old and haggard, he messes up his lines, again and again. He’s kicked out by sundown, after picking a fight with the production manager. It sends him on a bender, thrashing and snarling in the pouring rain.
At last, he ends up drunk by the roadside, shaking his fist at a billboard and mumbling about ‘kamyaabi’ (success).
Sudheer’s angst against a cruel and indifferent industry is genuine. His career is summed up in glitzy flashbacks that play as retro movie clips. Lovingly recreated and scored, these flashbacks tell a dark and affecting story: of a journey cut short by booze, betrayal, and untimely deaths. There’s also Avtar Gill in a very Mr Peanutbutter role as his well-to-do frenemy.
The film, however, isn’t interested in self-pity. Far from using a supporting actor’s tale to heap scorn on Bollywood, it turns the lens inward, into the strained relationship between Sudheer and his daughter (Sarika Singh), and his reluctance to move on from the past.
Hardik provides modern counterpoints to the old-world sheen. Isha Talvar plays a neighbor who works on YouTube shows. “Yeh reel wale actor hai…digital nahi,” Deepak quips at a studio, “He’s a film actor, not digital.” Returning to set after years, Sudheer places a sly request for alcohol. The humiliation that follows reflects the professional shifts in Bollywood (This is smartly offset by the mention of a tainted producer).
Some stretches feel a bit tired, like the track involving broken cassette tapes and an extended dream sequence that’s blandly formal. The delayed release of Kaamyaab is flecked with irony. Completed in 2018, this ode to the bit players of Bollywood didn’t have enough takers until recently, when Shah Rukh Khan saw the film and decided to back it.
As the Red Chillies banner turned up in the opening credits, I was reminded of their past productions like Kaal and Always Kabhie Kabhie, which always ended with a cameo by SRK. Kaamyaab, on the other hand, closes out with an in memoriam, black-and-white frames playing over a minimal score. As the names roll out — David Abraham, Keshto Mukerjee, Leela Mishra, Mahesh Anand — they become outlines in a constellation of lesser stars.
Director: Hardik Mehta
Cast: Sanjay Mishra, Deepak Dobriyal