AK vs AK ****
Dir: Vikramaditya Motwane. With: Anil Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap, Sonam Kapoor, Harshvardhan Kapoor. 108 mins. No cert.
After an undistinguished pandemic year, Indian cinema closes out 2020 with a postmodern surprise, at once nifty and nasty. Surreptitiously shot, and announced mere days ago, Vikramaditya Motwane’s mock-doc proposes a seismic smackdown between two industry figureheads. In one corner, Anil Kapoor, cuddly patriarch of one of Bollywood’s most illustrious clans. In the other, filmmaker and longtime critic of movie nepotism Anurag Kashyap, going a fiendish extra mile here by kidnapping Sonam Kapoor and giving her dad ten hours to find her. Tailed at breathless pace by Kashyap’s crew, this meta round of hide-and-seek intends to generate what its onscreen orchestrator bills as “the most dangerous hostage thriller in the history of cinema” – words spoken like a true showman.
Bollywood postmodernism is nothing new: Shah Rukh Khan stalked himself through the ultra-knowing Fan four years ago. What Kashyap and Motwane bring to the form, assisted by Netflix’s hands-off censorship approach, is a sharper edge. Though Motwane and co-writer Avinash Sampath slyly reference Taken, a closer narrative precedent would be 1996’s The Fan, with Kashyap in the De Niro role of marginalised malcontent, his schemes updated for an image-saturated age. Kapoor dashes into a police station soon crowded with officers keener to snap selfies than hear the actor’s complaint; when they do, it’s met with applause, and the assumption their hero is rehearsing some monologue. As a thriller, it scarcely lets up, and provides no easy out: Kapoor continually has to hurdle his own public persona.Kashyap’s experiments in freshening up the Hindi mainstream have enjoyed variable success, but this time, the provocation takes. Yanked into the Mumbai night, Kapoor gets properly rattled, and his on- and offscreen tormentors home in on those compelling cracks forming in his “Mr. India” façade. It’s a little inside-baseball, maybe – you’ll enjoy it more the more you know these careers – and neither AK quite manages to address the role women have to play in this industry tussle, save as pawns in a boys’ game. Still, this is your one chance this Christmas to see a major star and director going at one another’s throats – and a timely reminder that Indian cinema remains capable of flexing and venturing grippingly off-book.