In Hardik Mehta’s Kaamyaab, Sudheer (Sanjay Mishra), a yesteryear actor, appears unaffected during an interview. He slouches, gives answers evading the camera, and acknowledges admiration with such detachment as if they are directed at someone else. Like some forgettable film, the plot of his life seemed more appealing on paper than the way it turned out to be. Things, however, change midway. His back stiffens and he eagerly looks at the person behind the camera to enquire if he is doing all right. The film is not over yet, it can still be salvaged. Sudheer’s waning interest is piqued when he is told of the films he had acted in. It is the number that arrests his attention: 499. By the end of the scene, the interview remains incomplete but he is infused with a purpose: to achieve the milestone of doing his 500th film.
A side actor, Sudheer’s awkward mugshot on a film poster — fated to be blotted by spit — faithfully relayed his presence in a film: on the fringes. In his long-spanning career, he was entrusted with the task of not taking the narrative forward but to sustain it. Flitting in and out of the film either as the evil rich father, the benevolent doctor or the loyal side-man to the goon, he supported even the supporting actors. His career did not end as much as it dwindled. Having missed the train to transition from a sidekick to character artists, his oeuvre has been reduced to the commonality of his face; the number of films he has acted in truncated to a trivia. A stray line uttered by him — “bas enjoying life, aur option kya hai” — had more longevity than his roles, acting as his reference point as well as his identity. The prospect of doing 500 films then provides him with the opportunity to not revive but elevate his career, to see himself placed respectably next to his kin: Lalita Pawar, Pran, Shakti Kapoor. It enables him to take reins of his vocation for once, even if it is for the last time.
For most of the film, Mehta traces Sudheer’s near-obsessive desire to reach this finishing line, tenderly documenting his little triumphs and failures: his renewed hope of doing something worthwhile after long and utter heartbreak when things fail to pan out accordingly. By choosing to tell a story about a person who evokes no remembrance but a sense of déjà vu and chronicling his dogged insistence to not retain his relevance but to be relevant, Sudheer’s story words a bittersweet commentary on the several nameless actors who were chosen by directors and not discovered by casting directors. They did not audition for roles but reprised characters. Indistinguishable in their ordinariness and riddled with similar crests and troughs, their lives played out as each other’s biographies. It is an affecting and necessary ode to all those artistes whose names rolled out in an empty theatre long after audiences left their seats; their craft appreciated but not recognised. These side actors, so indispensable to a film and yet treated with cruel indifference, have stuck around, year after year, film after film, owing to their enduring love for cinema long after the allure of stardom faded. If stars tested our obsession, our ability to recognise them quietly judged our loyalty. We never really went for them and yet they came back with us in the form of a cleverly uttered dialogue or a sleight of hand we spent days emulating.
Kaamyaab not just sheds light on actors who have been forever eluded by the blinding light of fame but digs deeper into their lives, presenting an intimate portrait of love and loss. It uses a professional to gently underline the personal and stresses on the irony of their fate: they might have had occupied small parts in films but films wholly occupied their lives. Staying in a quaint flat in Bombay, Sudheer is forgotten by the present time but he preserved the era he belonged to with the detail of an archivist and resistance of a sentimentalist. There is an old transistor of his late wife, his wig along with atypical flashy clothes placed in the cupboard away from the common gaze. His profession percolated in his personality until one could not be told from the other. Years of being a sidekick hindered him from becoming a ‘hero’ even in the story that is about him. Mehta hints at this by depicting the actor’s strained relationship with his daughter and presenting him as a father who was never there.
But the most spirited accomplishment of Kaamyaab remains in introducing a sense of awareness in Sudheer, in providing him with an understanding of his craft and ability to discern a better work from a lesser one, in presenting his talent as artistry. In a lovely scene, the actor confides his discomfort to his friend when he realises his entire body of work has been stored in the Internet for the world to see, “I wish I could remove some of them”. This curious sense of regret in Sudheer — telling in not how he failed to leave behind a legacy but that he had attempted to create one — elevates him at once from a character to an artiste, transforming his profession to passion, validating his struggle and hardships.
Ambition is often understood in terms of success and success in turn is identified in a currency that is inherently public. What Mehta does here is he detaches their co-dependence, dignifies an ambition which did not translate into a success we are conditioned to recognise and commend, and points to how the acknowledgement can be communal but the gratification is personal, that the world might decide the parameter of success but an individual reckons if they have succeeded. In the concluding scene in the film, Sudheer performs for a room full of impatient people waiting for someone else. He assumes different characters, mouthing dialogues not just his own but of others as well. He becomes the hero, the villain, the sidekick and the bemoaning mother. He holds the rapt attention of the audience, entreating them to finally know and remember his name. The spell is broken when the star arrives. Everybody looks away but for that brief moment the stage was his and the audience followed his every move. He might slip in the background again but he was at the forefront then and for that brief while he had succeeded – become kaamyaab.
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