10 Years of Luck By Chance: The Finest, Most Self-Aware Movie About the Movies Ever Made

Bollywood

10 Years of Luck By Chance: The Finest, Most Self-Aware Movie About the Movies Ever Made

Illustration: Arati Gujar

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etween late January and the end of February, Bollywood has geared up for more innovation than we’ll end up seeing all year. Leading from the front is the insane hype around Gully Boy, Zoya Akhtar’s latest film that explores the seething underbelly of Mumbai’s grassroots rap scene. It’s a film that doesn’t inhabit the upper-class, slightly dysfunctional world her previous films have, but in many ways this story of ambition and self-esteem might be very close to her first film – which completes a decade today.

For many of us, Luck By Chance was Akhtar’s finest work, a subtle drama exploring the meaning of ambition and happiness in the film industry, before she internalised the need for conventional happy endings and (at least) a small degree of formulaic storytelling. Ten years ago, as now, Luck By Chance remains path-breaking, but in a quiet, understated way. Its popularity has only grown, mostly through word of mouth – first, on Torrents (remember those?) and then on online streaming platforms.  

Today, Luck By Chance enjoys a cult status and gets better with every viewing, because it is rare to find a film this self-aware about the film industry. It looks inward like no film ever has before, and examines what makes the industry tick – from its film families and producers, to the underpaid crew members, to the thousands of struggling actors with no connections whose headshots often languish at the bottom of a pile somewhere, forgotten.

luck by chance

While both the leads deliver fine performances, the film belongs as much to them as to the rest of the large ensemble cast.

The film traces the diverging journeys of two such “strugglers” Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) and Sona (Konkona Sen Sharma). Vikram comes from a wealthy family that can afford to sponsor his pursuit of passion as he waits for his “big break”. Sona is more comfortable with Hindi than English, can’t afford a new fridge, and does small parts in large films to keep paying the bills. Is it any surprise that even now, the “outsiders” we see in the industry are often clones of the insiders – wealthy youngsters with English educations and urban accents, who have at least a few connections and the staying power to wait for their launches?

While both the leads deliver fine performances, the film belongs as much to them as to the rest of the large ensemble cast. Apart from the many cameos from prominent Bollywood faces, Rishi Kapoor is especially unforgettable as the film producer who alternates between upbeat and harried as he caves to the demands of his hero, heroine, heroine’s mother, wife, and pandit. Dimple Kapadia’s character might be the strongest of the lot – a tiger mom battling her own demons as she tries to give her daughter the life she never had.

Zoya and Farhan are both from a prominent film family, as are many of the actors in the film – yet thankfully, the film doesn’t try to excuse or justify it, merely presenting facts as facts.

One of the things that stands out for me, is the humour with which the film views the constant seeking of self-interest by everyone in the industry. It sees hypocrisy and vanity through an indulgent lens, rather than judgment. It smiles when a film shoot is moved to Ooty from Europe when the big-budget star is replaced by a “new face”, as Rishi Kapoor declares him a “vulcano of talent” over and over to a befuddled reporter even though he wasn’t his choice. Vikram personifies this pursuit of ruthless self-interest, a part of his character that ensures both his professional success and personal failures.

Well before Kangana Ranaut put it under the spotlight, nepotism was already a recurrent theme in the film. Zoya and Farhan are both from a prominent film family, as are many of the actors in the film – yet thankfully, the film doesn’t try to excuse or justify it, merely presenting facts as facts. Isha Sharvani’s opening scene (where she narrates how she was offered a massive break because the producer called her mother) is eerily close to Jahnvi Kapoor’s narration last year of how she was picked for Dhadak. And Sona’s annoyance at this narration – which she watches while eating Maggi in a one-room house with a broken fridge – is palpable. Luck By Chance looks at nepotism as a fact of the industry – as normal as junior artistes getting no attention whatsoever, as common as sexual harassment, as routine as the stuntmen who die on set.

And it isn’t going away anytime soon either, the film says; a new face might get a break because the star dropped out (as Karan Johar expounds), but usually when a producer goes looking to cast a new hero, he speaks to a Bachchan, a Kapoor, a Khanna, an Oberoi.

luck by chance

One of the things that stand out is the humour with which the film views the constant seeking of self-interest by everyone in the industry.

And yet the contrast to newcomers is stark – and quietly brutal: Whether it’s Sona being strung along by a director for years with the promise of her big break (only to be dropped quickly over the course of a meeting), Vikram’s desperation to be as present and as “charming” to every person he comes across, Dimple Kapadia’s revelation of how she was pushed into the industry, every choreographer and technician looking to be the next big thing. It’s no coincidence that Honey Irani (who is also Zoya’s aunt) revealed in 2016 that she was sexually abused as a child artist, a fact that her family already knew of – the parallels to Kapadia’s story, in hindsight, couldn’t be clearer.

The Indian film industry (let’s not call it ‘Bollywood’ – that offends Ninaji) had its #MeToo moment in 2018 but the road is long and many predators remain hidden. The system that enables producers, directors and actors to prey on outsiders, especially women, is far from dead. The fundamental power imbalance that causes it has been around for decades and continues to exist: Much of Kapadia’s character is explained by a crucial scene at the end where she describes her own rise to stardom; much of Sona’s makes sense when she explains at the end how she came to Mumbai.

As the movie closes, comparing Vikram and Sona’s journeys into acting, it underscores how much of what a newcomer can achieve, depends on a combination of the flexibility of their morals, the circumstances they come from, their attitude toward success and toward challenges, and finally just dumb luck: being “at the right time… in the right place,” as Saurabh Shukla’s character says at the beginning. Luck by chance is a cruel mistress.    

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