More like a deranged Dogme 95 experiment than the salacious Bollywood slugfest that was promised by its misguided marketing campaign, AK vs AK is an inventive but inconsistent film that achieves moments of movie magic, but often struggles to maintain the integrity of its internal logic.
Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane and starring Anil Kapoor and Anurag Kashyap as exaggerated versions of themselves, AK vs AK is a gonzo romp that isn't afraid of biting the hand that feeds. The film industry, it suggests, devotes more time to creating false idols than memorable cinema, all in service of an audience whose loyalties can switch on a dime.
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'Shameless' is the word that Kapoor uses to describe himself in an early scene, his eyes misty with memories of a glorious past. That's the secret to his sustained success. He's on stage with Kashyap at a MAMI interaction, where their clashing ideas about filmmaking come to the fore. While Kapoor — a product of the 80s — is someone who believes that the star is the most important component of a film's (commercial) success, Kashyap counters by reciting the auteur theory at him.
As tempers flare, Motwane allows the exchange to escalate, which might help provide necessary context to viewers unfamiliar with the these two men.
In many ways, it is impossible to appreciate the full scope of the picture without having at least a cursory idea of who Kashyap and Kapoor are. More than anything else, though, Motwane taps into the impressions that've been created of them in the public — sometimes in tandem with the press, and on other occasions, without their consent.
Kashyap in the film is still bitter about Kapoor having passed on his edgy scripts many years ago, back when he was the new kid on the block and Kapoor had a 'superstar' image to protect. But the times have changed, and the status quo has shifted. Now, Kashyap is making movies for Netflix, and is revered by college kids with strong broadband connections. Kapoor's days as a leading man, meanwhile, are behind him. So when the actor suggests that Kashyap cast him in a project, the filmmaker, without even bothering to look up from his phone, says that he is no longer interested in working with him.
This simmering anger reaches a boiling point on that MAMI stage, when in an act of profound pettiness, Kashyap commits career kamikaze by hurling a glass of water on Kapoor's face. The incident sparks outrage in the industry, and Kashyap is immediately made a pariah. Even Nawazuddin Siddiqui won't risk working with him.
Fuelled by resentment, Kashyap concocts a dastardly plan. He kidnaps Kapoor's daughter — the actor Sonam Kapoor — and gives him till sunrise to locate her. He then lays out the rules: he will trail Kapoor relentlessly, with a cameraperson in tow, and film his every move. Together, they will make a hostage thriller unlike any the world has ever seen.
There's a rather sinister tone to AK vs AK. The whole thing hinges on the premise that Kashyap, who's cultivated a very particular Twitter persona — one day he's recommending a good film, and on the next he's scheming a mass protest — could be crazy enough to do something like this. At one point in the movie — and I was stunned that they chose to retain this moment, considering its real-world implications — Kashyap smacks a woman across the face in a fit of anger.
To be clear, he's essentially playing a fictional character, but still, it's a fictional character who is joined at the hip with the real man. It's a fictional character who's called Anurag Kashyap. For some reason, him hitting a woman once registers more emphatically than the dozens of times that he exchanges blows with Kapoor.
But in addition to physical violence, the script calls for them to inflict psychological damage on each other as well. Snarky comments are made about careers and personal lives. There are a couple of throwaway mentions of Kashyap's brother, Abhinav, being the only filmmaker in the family — there are three — to have directed a hit. Motwane doesn't even spare himself, and in a terrific sequence midway through the film — one that features a scene-stealing Harshvardhan Kapoor cameo — a joke is made at the expense of Bhavesh Joshi Superhero.
In the film's most twisted moments, Kashyap appears to be channelling the infamous filmmaker Lars von Trier. His persona in AK vs AK often reminded me of von Trier in The Five Obstructions, an experimental documentary in which the Danish enfant terrible basically played a Bond villain. Kashyap acts only occasionally, but it's no wonder that he routinely extracts strong performances from the cast in his own movies — he is quite the skilled performer himself.
And then there's the stage sequence, perhaps the best, most transcendent stretch in the film. Following the breadcrumbs that have been laid for him across Mumbai, Kapoor finds himself at a neighbourhood Christmas party, hot on the trail of a taxiwallah. He climbs onto a stage where a band's performing and snatches the mic. "Have you seen this man?" he asks the gathered crowd, and realises that he won't get any answers unless he gives them what they want. And what they want is for him, Anil Kapoor, to sing for his supper.
A strange euphoria takes over him, and he dances like a man possessed, as his classic song from the film Ram Lakhan blares on the loudspeaker. His moves are fuelled by desperation, and his voice quivers with fear for Sonam as he submits to the crowd — he owes his success to these people, and they have him by the gonads. It's a terrific performance, and the expression on my face mirrored Kashyap's shell-shocked reaction in the corner of the frame.
But the message is clear: you, the paying public, have dehumanised celebrities. On several occasions in the film, random janta approaches Kapoor for selfies on the street, ignoring the condition that he's in, as he chases one clue after another, knocked around like a pinball by the city he loves.
But cracks begin to appear in the film's third act, when the premise threatens to crumble under its own conceit. Characters start behaving irrationally, and instead of taking the path of least resistance, the film, confusingly, heads in a direction that not only affects what has already happened, but pushes the plot further into the realm of fantasy. It discards its desi Black Mirror premise — spare satire is replaced with crude contrivances — and instead takes a bite out of One Cut of the Dead, a cult Japanese movie about a film crew making a zombie thriller.
AK vs AK must've sounded like a home-run on paper, but it isn't as tightly constructed as it could've been and the twists are somewhat telegraphed. For all its ingenuity, it can't help but feel like B-material — a dusty old idea spruced up for the streaming age.