Luck by Chance: Through the Bollywood Looking-Glass

Luck by Chance, the debut film by writer-director Zoya Akhtar, is a behind-the-scenes look at the Hindi film industry, complete with divas of yesteryear, self-serving producers, reigning superstars, and struggling newcomers. The movie’s strength lies in its careful observations of these characters, which provide insights into their motivations and insecurities.

The film follows Vikram (Farhan Akhtar), a young man from Delhi hoping to break into the Mumbai film industry. It’s a virtually impossible task, since Bollywood runs on nepotism, a fact which Ms. Akhtar’s film affectionately skewers. Without making Vikram an outright “negative” character, the movie takes a clear-eyed look at his uncanny ability to say and do the right thing at the right time, his skillful use of flattery to advance his fledgling career, and his willingness to exploit and discard others along the way.  Opportunistic, or simply smartly ambitious? For the most part, the film lets us decide for ourselves.

The one person willing to point out Vikram’s unsettling tendencies is his girlfriend Sona, played with earthy authenticity by Konkona Sen Sharma. Sona is a struggling actress paying her dues in bit roles and B-movies in the hope of eventually making it big. What is remarkable to me is the film’s refreshingly non-judgmental depiction of Sona’s sexual relationships with her agent and with Vikram. Unusually for a Hindi film, here is a woman who has sex and isn’t “punished” by humiliation, childbirth, and/or death.

The scene that launches Luck by Chance onto the list of my all-time favorite films is one in which Vikram finally sees the error of his ways and apologizes to Sona for dumping her for his more famous co-star. He says all the right things (as usual) about how Sona is the only one with whom he can be himself, how she is his conscience and his support. This is usually the point in Hindi films where the heroine forgives and takes back the hero, leaving me annoyed that yet another self-absorbed man has managed to get the woman; somehow even his reformation is self-centered. So imagine my amazement when Sona actually verbalizes that frustration. She points out to Vikram that everything about his apology is still about him – how he needs her, how she serves a purpose in his life; he ignores Sona’s personhood and doesn’t really think about what may be best for her. So she decides for herself, choosing a life and career independent of him. Sona remains compassionate while calling Vikram out for his selfishness, telling him the truth not with acrimony, but with mature self-confidence and self-awareness.

The film itself is similarly compassionate and self-aware: it gently satirizes icons of the Hindi movie industry while affording them dignity and respect; it mocks Bollywood’s obsession with spectacle while creating its own stunning visual and musical spectacles. Ms. Akhtar herself simultaneously highlights the industry’s nepotism while drawing on her own connections (she is the daughter of writers Javed Akhtar and Honey Irani, and sister of director/actor Farhan Akhtar)  to enrich her accomplished debut feature.

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