Art & Culture

Why Fan reminded me of puppetmasters and their psychotic dolls

Jai Arjun Singh
Jai Arjun SinghApr 17, 2016 | 11:24

Why Fan reminded me of puppetmasters and their psychotic dolls

An oft-used theme in horror or fantasy cinema is that of a ventriloquist (or a puppetmaster) starting out in control but eventually being taken over by his dummy; the manipulator becomes the manipulated, the wooden "child" dominates the flesh-and-blood "father". (The brilliant last segment of the 1945 British anthology film Dead of Night provides a must-see example.)

Maneesh Sharma's Fan - with Shah Rukh Khan playing his own stalker, as you'll already know if you've been around planet Earth recently - put me in mind of that theme, not least because of SRK's unsettling appearance as the young fan Gaurav.

His face slightly altered by make-up and VFX to create the illusion of being young and callow, he seems unreal, not quite human, at times - especially in the scenes where he has a faraway or glazed expression in his eyes, or where the light catches his cheeks, making them look just a little too smooth and round and shiny. A bit like a doll's or a puppet's. (What's missing is a dab of red.) In short, at least as plastic as the videogame-hero-come-alive played by Khan in Ra.One.

I don't know if this effect was intentional, but given what Fan is about - the many dimensions, including the uncomfortable, controlling ones, of the star-fan relationship - it may well have been. At a surface, narrative level, Gaurav is clearly a flesh-and-blood person (with parents and a house and a business) and his resemblance to the superstar Aryan Khanna is presented as a coincidence, one of destiny's silly little jokes.

A still from Fan.

But there is a symbolic level too, where Gaurav can be seen as a product of Khanna's celebrity: he tells us early on that his life is in many ways a "cut-copy-paste" of Aryan's; he is 24-years-old, which means he came into existence at around the same time that Aryan first developed a big following. (In one sense - and I'm sure dissertations will eventually be written about this - it is possible to see this film as the story of a father refusing to take responsibility for the child he helped create.)

Sticking to the surface level though - the power equations between the two men keep shifting, and the question arises: who holds the strings - the fan whose life is defined by the star, or the star whose existence is validated by his fans?

The narrative begins with the star as privileged object of worship and the fan as scraping worshipper, but that divide is soon muddied. We realise early on that Gaurav could be just one of the thousands of star-impersonators who occasionally appear in C-grade movies as clones of their idols; living their lives in someone's shadow, using someone else's path as a template for their own.

This makes him seem the clear underdog. And yet, later in the film, there is a scene where Aryan Khanna, powerful superstar, performs like a monkey for a rich NRI's daughter's wedding (and is spoken to curtly by the man who obviously thinks the star is his personal toy). It would be simplistic to see Gaurav's impersonations as degrading while not recognising that Aryan too is a puppet - and a prisoner - in some ways.

There is a haunting shot in the opening scene of Spike Jonze's Being John Malkovich, where a silent exchange of glances seems to pass between a puppetmaster and his puppet, who is looking up at him. Fan has many scenes where Gaurav looks up at Aryan, or at an image of Aryan: when waiting on the road outside his house; when lying, battered, on the floor of a police station while Aryan looms over him, holding all the cards.

In the climactic scene, the two men maintain those positions - the star is looking down at the fan, the fan is looking up at the star - but the roles are no longer clear. It's apt that the film doesn't let Aryan's smug, homily-filled speech (be your own person, work hard like I did, he tells Gaurav) have the final word; that would have been against the tone of a story that knows the dark, symbiotic relationship between celebrities and their followers.

Here the hero makes the speech all right, but the carpet is pulled out from under his feet; his words of inspiration and counsel melt into the foul west Delhi air; and the "dummy" falls to earth and smashes into pieces, so to speak - but one senses that its spirit will haunt the puppetmaster for a long time to come.

Last updated: April 17, 2016 | 11:24
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