That Sanjay Mishra and Sudheer are almost indistinguishable from each other isn’t only inspired casting. It also forms the very fabric of the Kaamyaab universe: a gamble that is as pivotal for the effectiveness of its narrative as Shah Rukh Khan playing himself in Fan and a version of himself in Om Shanti Om. Without Mishra’s spellbinding turn, Kaamyaab ceases to exist much in the same way the Hindi film industry is rendered inefficient without its cortège of character actors, who have perpetually been treated as disposable goods despite their indispensability.
Written by Radhika Anand and Mehta, who has previously won a National Award for his documentary short Amdavad Ma Famous and co-written Vikramaditya Motwane’s Trapped, Kaamyaab almost feels like the successor to Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om – or atleast a spinoff of its riveting first half. Like the 2007 film, Kaamyaab is a movie about the movies so precise and heartfelt in its affection that it might as well have been called Once Upon A Time in Bollywood. In a sort of meta-tribute, the poster of Om Shanti Om finds a place in the film, and its star, Shah Rukh Khan, is a co-producer.
Kaamyaab feels more like a love-letter to the actors who consented to performing versions of themselves, all to land a spot on the fringes of success.
Kaamyaab opens in present day, when a washed out and lonely Sudheer is interviewed about his greatest hits by a TV host who insists that his omnipresence in Hindi films of the ’80s and ’90s – as a doctor, lawyer, rapist, security guard of a graveyard, and even “the man standing behind the dead body” – is a grand achievement. A cynical Sudheer doesn’t quite share her enthusiasm until she mentions that his filmography boasts of 499 movies, dangling just on the verge of the magic round number. It’s this piece of information that triggers Sudheer’s decision to come out of retirement, giving him a semblance of purpose. Almost overnight, his listless self acquires an energetic makeover in the pursuit of his 500th film.
But even when Sudheer turns to Gulati (Deepak Dobriyal), a former actor-turned-streetsmart casting agent, landing his 500th role isn’t a cakewalk. For one, he has to fight off an aggressive Avtar Gill (the actor plays himself in what is easily a stroke of casting genius). Then there’s the fact that he is a visible relic of the past, not attuned to the changing demands of the film industry. So even when good news comes his way (there’s a charming sequence where Sudheer and his friend break into an impromptu celebration after he lands his 500th part at a party), it’s underlined by adversities. In a cruel twist of fate, his much-anticipated first shot turns out to be his last, a misstep that reveals not only the faultlines of his profession, but also his own shortcomings – as a temperamental artist and an absent father.
What elevates Kaamyaab from just being a character sketch of an underdog, is Mehta’s keen detailing; it puts the magnifying glass as much on its subject as it does on the environment that constrains them. The film’s meticulous and joyful recreation of the golden era of Hindi cinema evokes the kind of sentimentality (Rachita Arora’s score is especially fetching) that is doused with a genuine tenderness for a time when movies, despite their business of exaggeration, were marked by gentleness.
That Mehta is a Hinda cinema nerd comes through in Kaamyaab’s humour as well as its litany of references that celebrate the rung of Bollywood that’s often overlooked. There’s a lovely sequence in a dingy bar, where Sudheer is flanked by a group of optimistic out-of-work veteran actors while a relatively in-demand Gill smirks at them from another table. The side actors in question ‒ the late Viju Khote (Kaamyaab is dedicated to him), Birbal, Manmauji, Liliput, Ramesh Goyal, and Anil Nagrath ‒ are all cast to play themselves.
The Hindi film industry is built on the back of side actors who have slipped through the cracks of our memories, and vanished from the backgrounds in film posters.
In that sense, Kaamyaab feels more like a love-letter to the actors who consented to performing versions of themselves, all to land a spot on the fringes of success. The central preoccupation of the film is: How do people who never get to see success define it? Kaamyaab is as much about Sudheer, who has bent himself to such an extent that he’s abandoned his own identity, as it is about giving the spotlight to Sanjay Mishra, an actor who has never demanded the centrestage even when he deserved it. On his part, Mishra turns in a career-defining performance, condensing a lifetime of survival eked out of struggle.
In Kaamyaab’s moving closing sequence, the distinction between artistry and stardom is crystal clear: It’s the stars who get the frenzied welcome, but it takes an artist to march on even when the curtains close on them and the world looks away.