July 26, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Rajat Kapoor
Hindi and English with subtitles
Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in an unnamed city in India, the comedy film “RK/RKAY” features an all-Indian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.
Culture Clash: After killing off the hero character in his most recent film, an independent filmmaker is frustrated and alarmed when the hero character takes on human form and infiltrates the filmmaker’s life to protest his on-screen death.
Culture Audience: “RK/RKAY” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Indian cinema that takes a satirical look at the art of filmmaking.
Although it can get a little too repetitive, the comedy film “RK/RKAY” offers a mostly breezy film-within-a-film story that parodies the cliché of “bringing a character to life.” This low-budget, independent Indian film can be considered a viable alternative to people who want to see something other than a typical Bollywood formula. Underneath the comedic antics is an effective portrait of someone going through a mid-life crisis who is afraid of becoming so irrelevant to everyone around him that he will eventually be “erased.”
Rajat Kapoor, a longtime independent filmmaker, is the writer, director and star of “RK/RKAY,” which was financed mainly through crowdfunding, after Kapoor got tired of getting rejections from potential investors to make this movie. In “RK/RKAY,” Kapoor plays two roles: (1) an independent filmmaker named RK, who has just starred in his recently completed movie (whose name is never revealed in “RK/RKAY”) that he wrote and directed and (2) Mahboob Alam, the hero character of RK’s movie.
The Mahboob character is a protagonist in a “Pink Panther”-type of comedic thriller movie that is set in the 1960s. Mahboob, who is 45 years old, has a moustache that’s very much like the type that Peter Sellers’ bumbling Inspector Clouseau character had in the “Pink Panther” films. By contrast, RK is clean-shaven and wears glasses.
RK thinks of himself as a suave intellectual, while Mahboob was created to be somewhat of a goofy character. RK writes and directs all of his films, so he’s very adamant about protecting his “artistic integrity.” RK gives the impression that he won’t take other people’s advice if they think something should be changed about his movies before the movies are completed.
To fully appreciate “RK/RKAY,” you should have a tolerance for very “meta” films. Anyone who gets easily confused by movie-within-a-movie films that are a wink and a nod to the filmmakers’ real-life experiences probably won’t enjoy “RK/RKAY” very much. The movie is a madcap whirlwind that taps into a nightmarish fear that some screenwriters might have but rarely dare to put into their work: What if a character created by the screenwriter became more popular than the writer?
In “RK/RKAY,” that fear becomes a reality for RK, whose has recently finished filming a movie where the hero Mahboob dies at the end because Mahboob was killed by the villain. RK is proud of the fact that he completed the film ahead of schedule (it was done in 36 days on a 40-day production schedule) and under budget. Toward the end of the film shoot, RK and the crew celebrated his birthday.
The film’s producer Goel Sahab (played by Manu Rishi Chadha) is fairly new to the movie industry. Goel’s main way to make money has been in the construction business. Goel expresses concerns to RK that the hero dies at the end of the movie. Goel asks RK later, “If the hero can’t stay in the film, why would the audience stay?”
Goel is also worried about the movie being in two languages (Hindi and English), because Goel thinks it will be too confusing to the “common man.” RK listen to Goel’s fears and assures this new film producer that he knows what he’s doing because he’s been making movies for years. But the issue about Mahboob getting killed will soon be a problem that no one involved in this movie can ignore.
As RK begins the stressful process of overseeing the film’s editing, in order to make the movie’s October 15 release, his workaholic ways seem to have taken a toll on his personal life. RK’s wife Seema (played by Kubbra Sait) and their son Vivan (played by Abishek Sharrma), who’s about 7 years old, were on the film set to visit RK on his birthday and were also at the on-set birthday party that the film crew had for RK.
The family members seemed to have a good time at the party. But on the ride back home that night, Seema and Vivan are emotionally distant from RK. Vivan tells RK that he doesn’t want to ever want to come back to the film set. RK accepts that decision. And later, when RK and Seema are getting ready to bed, she makes it clear that RK won’t be getting an intimate love for his birthday.
“Be nice,” RKAY says, “It’s my birthday.” Seema coldly replies, since it’s after midnight, “Your birthday’s over now. Why do you want to make this film?” RK responds, “I don’t know.” Seema than says with not much emotion, “Happy birthday.”
The iciness between RK and Seema seems to thaw somewhat when they have lunch together at a cafe, but RK has to cut the lunch short when he gets an emergency call from production assistant Namit (played Chandrachoor Rai), who is in a panic. All of the filmed footage with Mahboob is now missing. RK rushes to the editing room to find out what happened.
When he gets to the editing room, the film editor (played by Anhjeeet Deshpande) and producer Goel both confirm that the footage is missing. And members of the film crew also report something bizarre: Mahboob was seen as a real person leaving the film set. The movie shows that Mahboob hailed a taxi to go to a train station.
When Mahboob got to the train station, he couldn’t board it because the ticket he has is fake, because it was a ticket invented by RK. A dejected Mahboob stays at the train station until Namit tracks him down. It’s here that Mahboob reveals why he came to life and wanted to run away: Mahboob objects to being killed off in the movie, and he won’t come back to the film set until RK agrees to reshoot the film so that Mahboob can live.
The rest of the movie shows how Mahboob infiltrates RK’s life as a way to protest being killed off in the movie. Mahboob shows up at RK’s home and quickly endears himself to Mahboob’s wife Seema, son Vivan and daughter Rabia (played by Grace Girdhar), who’s about 9 years old. Mahboob cooks meals for the family, and predictably, RK starts to feel like an outsider.
Meanwhile, Mahboob charms producer Goel and other members of the film crew. It doesn’t take long for Mahboob to convince people to be on his side. And so, people involved in making the film try to persuade RK not to kill off the Mahboob character. Mahboob becomes more popular than RK with RK’s family and co-workers. And naturally, this doesn’t sit too well with RK, who feels very disrespected.
One day, when Mahboob is at RK’s house, RK tries to exert some of the power that he feels slipping away. RK shouts at Mahboob: “I gave birth to you!” Mahboob replies in a bid for sympathy: “I;m your child!” Soon after, RK mutters to Seema about himself: “What a failure you must be if even the characters you write don’t listen to you.”
Further complicating matters, in RK’s movie, Mahboob owed money to a crime lord named KN Singh (played by Ranvir Shorey), who is the movie’s chief villain. Shorey also has the role of the actor named Ranvir, who plays KN Singh in RK’s thriller movie. Because Mahboob has gone “missing” from the movie, KN Singh comes to life and goes on a manhunt to find Mahboob in the real world. “RK/RKAY” gets a little messy at this point, but RK has a devious motive for wanting Mahboob killed in the real world: RK doesn’t want to change the ending of his movie.
Will Mahboob die or survive? Will RK get the ending he wants? That question is answered in the movie, where the last 10 seconds of the film will reveal what really happened to conclude this story. It’s a plot twist that’s an example of how viewers need to see an entire movie in order to make a fully informed judgment about it.
Because “RK/RKAY” revolves around the RK and Mahboob characters played by Kapoor, much of the movie’s appeal has to do with his knack for making these two look-alike characters very distinct from each other. The other cast members are perfectly adequate in their roles, but Shorey’s performance as the villain KN Singh is a little too hammy and might annoy some viewers.
“RK/RKAY” is not a perfect movie. One of its biggest flaws is how underdevloped the female characters are There are only two women with significant speaking roles (both supporting roles), and they’re both sidelined as love interests who show only three types of emotions: angry, worried or loving. The aforementioned Sait, who portrays RK’s wife Seema, is one of the supporting female characters.
Mallika Sherawat has two roles: She plays Mahboob’s love interest Gulabo and the temperamental actress Neha, who plays Gulabo in RK’s movie. Gulabo is meek and passive and is mostly seen pining over Mahboob while she’s alone in her bedroom. It’s a very uninteresting, stereotypical role.
Neha has an opposite personality: She’s bossy and ill-tempered, but also presented in a shallow way. When Neha is on the set, and production assistant Namit reads her lines, she yells at him: “What’s wrong with you, asshole? You can’t even read from the script?”
Later, after the film shoot ends for the day, and Neha is ready to leave, she sees Namit and some other film crew members outside and says she’s sorry for the rude way that she talked earlier. Before she gets into her chauffeur-driven car, she tells the crew members that she’ll star their movie if they ever get the chance to make their own film. After Neha leaves, Namit jokes that the movie would be called “Death of a Witch.”
The scene with Neha acting like a diva from hell takes place near the beginning of “RK/RKAY.” But then, the character of Neha is never really given any significant screen time as herself again. (Her screen time playing lovesick Gulabo doesn’t count.) It will just make viewers wonder if other scenes with Neha were cut out of the film, because a character arc seems to have been introduced for Neha, but then is inexplicably left hanging.
“RK/RKAY” is definitely a movie where the men get the best dialogue and the most character development. As a comedy, it’s got some pacing and editing problems, with some parts of the film very manic, while others parts of the film repeating Mahboob’s presence in RK’s home until it becomes a bit monotonous. “RK/RKAY” is very much like being on a merry-go-round of meta filmmaking. Some people will want to get off of the ride, while others will want to stay and get as much enjoyment out of it as possible.
Outsider Pictures released “RK/RKAY” in select U.S. cinemas on May 14, 2021.