Dual roles have become to Shah Rukh Khan what masks were to Tom Cruise in that millennial moment that gave the world Eyes Wide Shut, Mission: Impossible II and Vanilla Sky: a way of parsing his own colossal celebrity, while circumnavigating the limitations of an established star persona. Just as the only way we couldn't notice Cruise on screen would be if the actor were to disguise himself (cf. Tropic Thunder), so too the only way we might buy that a character played by Khan could be bested would be if his nemesis were played by Khan himself. To a growing rollcall of cops and robbers, masterminds and naifs, and other yin-yangs, Khan's latest vehicle Fan adds two further mirror images: the one a very loosely fictionalised version of himself, the other the kind of movie-mad ingenu he might have ended up as had the mantle of fame not been placed upon his shoulders at a very early age.
The star's 25 years of screen credits, public appearances and award-ceremony acceptance speeches make it very easy for director Maneesh Sharma to establish the immense popularity of Khan's Bollywood megastar Aryan Khanna: an opening montage deploys some frankly jawdropping TV news footage of the superfans swelling outside Khan's own Mumbai abode in the hope of getting a glimpse of their idol. It might, however, have been considerably harder work getting the 50-year-old SRK to convince as the type of hayseed who might at this point look up to a figure such as he - and here Sharma makes a fine choice in turning to the detailed physical effects work of Hollywood's Greg Cannom (Benjamin Button), who has resculpted the star's features with a latex carapace that leaves him looking fresher of face than he has done on screen for several years. (It is, in its own way, a mask.)
Our sympathies may initially go out to Gaurav, an Aryan superfan and part-time impersonator: he's conceived, after all, as one of us, sitting in the cheap seats, dreaming of meeting his hero and emulating his fame and wealth. Yet beneath the film's bright and peppy toplayer, Sharma and the writer Habib Faisal are busy sowing seeds of doubt. The shrine Gaurav maintains to Aryan can't help but remind British viewers of Alan Partridge's infamous stalker; he threatens to throw himself off a speeding train if he's not permitted safe passage to his idol's hometown. By the time this oddball has shown up brandishing duct tape on the doorstep of an acting rival who has dissed Aryan publicly, what began as a journey - in the heavily hashtagged, post-Cowell sense of that word - has started to look ominously like an act of stalking.
This pilgrim's progress entails a degree of tonal fluctuation. What we're watching is essentially the 15- or 18-rated business of a psychothriller like 1996's The Fan (baseball ace Wesley Snipes stalked by Robert De Niro), pulped into a family-friendly multiplex entertainment, which means some of the violence and creepiness has had to be pantomimed. It's also not short on the kind of implausibilities the average American thriller on this theme hopes to usher us swiftly past. What hooks us, though, is Sharma and Faisal's awareness of the cruel symmetry underpinning this tale: that, just as a star without fans is nothing (a point elegantly made when a touring Aryan walks out to the deathly silence of an empty auditorium), so too a fan without a star to gaze upon can quickly lose their bearings. When the action relocates to Europe after the intermission, a humiliated Gaurav stages a one-man campaign to smear Aryan's good name, molesting a waxwork at Madame Tussaud's before groping a young woman at a VIP event. Where the Yewtree-era Fan differs most from the 20th century The Fan is in its recognition that a star's physical self has become far less vulnerable than their public image; nowadays, you go for the brand, not the throat.
Khan's own brand has declined somewhat over recent times: in the Bollywood sweepstakes, he's now possibly placed third behind his namesakes Aamir and (somewhat unthinkably) the resurgent Salman, a fact Fan appears to acknowledge by having Aryan called out on social media by emergent young hunks. Yet far more than his indulgent Christmas vehicle Dilwale, this is a very decent showcase for Khan the performer: at one point in the hall-of-mirrors finale, he's required to play Aryan playing Gaurav impersonating Aryan - a tricky technical challenge he meets with style - and it's an appreciable wrinkle that the closer Gaurav and we get to Aryan, the more we see what a pampered jerk the latter is, an empty vessel who has to read all his speeches off idiot boards because he has no sincere sentiments left in his heart to give. It does feel as though Khan is using his status as an elder statesman to address the excesses of celebrity as much as he is to denounce those of fandom: all similarities here are presumably entirely intentional.
There have been signs over the past year that the Indian cinema's commercial sector is smartening up and becoming a little less gauche, a little more self-aware - a tricky process that has so far given us the fitful Shamitabh (nice idea, poorly developed) and Tamasha (Bollywood Resnais, and as jolting as that sounds). As befits Khan's status, Fan is a slicker endeavour, making exciting action-movie currency from the sight of the star effectively chasing his own tail around the continent, and quite possibly referencing Strangers on a Train in the funfairs that bookend this particular face-off. Yet equally it doesn't lack for resonant, suggestive undercurrents. How many real-life transgressions and trespasses found their way into this screenplay? Enough, one would speculate, for Fan to initiate at least a half-dozen theses on stardom in the modern age, enough to make even a Friday or Saturday night crowd ponder just how terrified their favourite performers are of losing control. Cruise, for one, hasn't ventured anything this candidly autobiographical in years.
Fan is now playing in cinemas nationwide.