The weird, wonderful and sometimes sad world of actors who make a living as lookalikes of Bollywood superstars is the subject of Geetika Narang Abbasi’s documentary “Urf,” world premiering in the Cinema Regained strand of the International Film Festival Rotterdam.
The actors are known by the names of the stars they portray, with the prefix Jr. – short for Junior. “Urf,” which translates as also known as or alias, follows several lookalikes, but mainly focuses on Kishore Bhanushali a.k.a. Jr. Dev Anand, Firoz Khan a.k.a. Jr. Amitabh Bachchan, and Prashant Walde, a.k.a. Jr. Shah Rukh Khan.
“I was very intrigued by the whole phenomenon of imitation, of assuming a star’s personality and being a ‘reflected’ star. Soon I realized how it is also unique to our films – there have been mainstream films with lookalikes in the lead and then, of course, they feature in comedy tracks of countless films,” Abbasi tells Variety. “Film stars are treated as demi gods in our country. So, a star lookalike gets the same awe-struck attention from the star’s fans. It is madness! But I wanted to explore what it is like to be at the receiving end of this madness.”
Dev Anand was a huge star of the 1950s and 1960s, Amitabh Bachchan dominated the 1970s and 1980s, and Shah Rukh Khan, along with his contemporaries Aamir Khan and Salman Khan (no relation), ruled the 1990s and 2000s.
Abbasi, who previously directed the acclaimed short “Good Night” (2008) and documentary “Much Ado About Knotting” (2012), is also an editor. She chose Bhanushali because of his popularity in films like “Dil” (1990) and “Ramgarh Ke Sholay” (1991), who – with his experience in the industry – could “bring in relevant stories and throw some light on the journey of lookalikes in Hindi films.” Khan was chosen in part because Abbasi realized that he didn’t look like Bachchan at all and she didn’t see a trace of Bachchan in him when she met him in person. As for Walde, Abbasi met his wife Heta who didn’t see any resemblance of the star in her husband, and that was a starting point for the filmmaker.
“The three artistes imitate stars of three different generations, they’re very different from each other, yet their journeys overlap,” says Abbasi. “What I found most interesting about all of them was their abiding love for cinema, something that I also shared with them and bonded over later. And how their eyes would sparkle when they’d talk about their dreams and aspirations they believe will come true someday. At the same time, they’re very realistic/pragmatic in their approach to their lives and careers, there can be phases of disenchantment as well.”
For Abbasi, it has been a long, self-funded journey with “Urf,” commencing in 2015, during which she was told to explain stardom in India or focus on the film stars that the characters imitate. During the process a theme of identity began to emerge.
“I found that it was not a battle of two selves within one person. The struggle is to get recognition in their own name, away from the image of the stars they imitate. Most of them set out as lookalikes and later realize they’re burdened with stereotypes that come along, and are unable to get rid of them. Essentially, they play the role of a star. Just like Daniel Craig is mostly identified as James Bond, the lookalikes are identified by specific stars. But because of the way they look and the labels attached to them, it’s much harder for them to break out of the typecast,” says Abbasi.
“Along the way, I also discovered that sometimes they’re unsure if they want to break out of it because of their continuous struggle of survival in a difficult industry. Survival, or financial constraints, is sometimes the biggest determining factor in how one may shape his/her identity,” Abbasi adds. “And it was this tussle that emerged as a theme during the journey of the film – the tussle between the mimic, the actor, the fan, the artiste, and the breadwinner, all of whom co-exist within them.”
Abbasi stayed true to the subject and the characters as she perceived them. “A selection in Rotterdam is a huge validation that the film is resonating with non-Indians too, and hope that it continues to, even with those unfamiliar with Hindi films or its stars,” says Abbasi, who plans to secure a sales agent and distributors during the film’s Rotterdam run.
The Rotterdam festival plays online Jan. 26-Feb. 6.