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How Urf, the documentary on Bollywood look-alikes that’s headed to IFFR 2022, got made

Filmmaker Geetika Narang Abbasi on being fascinated by the celebrity look-alikes in the Hindi film industry, the quest to finding them and making the film, which will be premiere in the Cinema Regained section

Written by Ektaa Malik |
Updated: January 4, 2022 12:58:26 pm
sunday eyeDirector Geetika Narang Abbasi (Photo: Yasir Abbasi)

One late night, while watching a Hindi thriller film Apartment: Rent at Your Own Risk (2010), which she says “very few people would have seen or heard of”, Geetika Narang Abbasi spotted actor Kishore Bhanushali — a Dev Anand look-alike — in the film. She recalled he was in the Aamir Khan-Madhuri Dixit-starrer Dil (1990).

“His presence in the film made me curious. Where is Kishore now? What is he doing? The idea took hold of me, and through Kishore, I also thought about the other look-alikes in Bollywood, and how the industry had always had them,” she says. This idea stuck, among the many she was toying with after wrapping up her documentary on Indian matchmaking, Much Ado About Knotting (2012).

Almost six years later, her quest has resulted in a 90-minute documentary, Urf, which will be premiering in the Cinema Regained section at the prestigious 2022 International Film Festival Rotterdam (January 26-February 6), the Netherlands.

sunday eye Firoz Khan/Junior Amitabh Bachchan in the film still.

Urf in Urdu translates to alias or aka in colloquial English. The film takes us into the world of Bollywood look-alikes. We meet Bhanushali urf Junior Dev Anand, 58, Firoz Khan urf Junior Amitabh Bachchan, 53, and Prashant Walde urf Junior Shah Rukh Khan, 44. Bollywood produces about 1,000 films a year, and yet there’s a dearth of films/ commentary on this subject. Urf takes us behind the scenes, into the lives of these actors, whose identities are defined by the brand of a larger-than-life celebrity.

“Look-alikes have played a huge role in the industry. We have had Ramgarh ke Sholay (1991), a mainstream film with look-alikes (and the “original” Amjad Khan). To me, how these actors made a career and life based on someone else’s identity… that whole thing was very fascinating. These actors are called by the names of the celebrities (they look like), and asked to perform their signature moves, on the streets,” says Narang Abbasi, 40, a Delhi University graduate.

sunday eye Kishore Bhanushali/Junior Dev Anand in the film’s still.

Bollywood has had a long tradition of the look-alikes. In the the 1930s-’40s, comedian “Noor Mohammed (Charlie) did an Indian version of Charlie Chaplin, sported the same moustache, etc. There was Sona, a popular look-alike of Madhubala. There was this whole theory that (gangster) Haji Mastan married her because he loved Madhubala. It was (actor-director-producer) IS Johar who made this subgenre popular. His (directed) films Nasbandi (1978) and 5 Rifles (1974) featured look-alikes of popular actors,” she says.

Urf speaks of how these doppelgängers thrive in the “reflected glory” of their “originals”. “There was a time when access to these stars was so difficult that people would line up to get a glimpse of these look-alikes. Today, the definition of stars has changed. For the aam janta who’ve never met Bachchan in real life, Firoz is good enough to perform at their weddings. These look-alikes, settled in their Mumbai flats, have enough work, often more work than upcoming actors,” says the Gurugram-based filmmaker.

She had to contend with how these “seasoned” actors were “too familiar with the camera”. “They’d start performing the minute we started rolling the camera. Firoz would only act out Bachchan, while we wanted to capture what he was like when talking to his wife and child. We’d just let them be, spent days just talking to them, and waited for them to ‘not perform’. They were confused about what the film was about.”

sunday eye Prashant Walde/ Junior Shah Rukh Khan in the film’s still

Bhanushali grew up in Mumbai, while Khan and Walde came from Budaun (Uttar Pradesh) and Nagpur, respectively. They were made aware of their “similarities” with big stars at an early age, years before they entered showbiz. “Their look-alike-ness gave them a leg up in the industry, and they had a ready body of work, but that’s their limitation, too. It’s a double-edged sword. They’ve been typecast, it’s difficult for them to do anything else even if they want to. This is their personal angst,” adds Narang Abbasi. The film shows Walde making poha for his family, Khan explaining how essentially he’s “an actor who’s acting like Amitabh Bachchan”, and Bhanushali introducing his screenwriter-actor son Karan Bhanushali.

Narang Abbasi picked up “life lessons” from Hindi cinema while growing up as well as during the filming of this documentary. “Firoz, Prashant and Kishore, they all believe in the innate goodness that Hindi films have purveyed. That’s why, I think, we were able to make this film,” she says.

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