In Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha, a thief who has been recruited to impersonate an ailing feudal lord is reminded that he is a mere imitation of the original: “The shadow of a man can never stand up and walk on its own.”

This putdown has also been used for actors who imitate Hindi movie stars for a living. They are called duplicates, mimicry artists or carbon copies. Their screen identities echo the names of the men and women whose voices, acting styles and mannerisms they replicate. But their place in the pecking order is firmly established: Junior Dev Anand, Junior Amitabh Bachchan, Junior Salman Khan.

However, the certified copies are actors too, with their own attitudes and aspirations, reveals Geetika Narang Abbasi’s documentary Urf (which means “aka” or “also known as”). Urf delves into the satellite system of lookalikes spawned by Hindi film industry’s star orbit. Alongside exploring the outsized cultural impact of Hindi cinema, Narang Abbasi provides an empathetic view of showbiz from the margins.

“Most of the lookalikes also love cinema and the stars they impersonate,” Narang Abbasi told from her home in Gurgaon. “They survive on the hopes and dreams that Bollywood instils in all of us.”

The 40-year-old filmmaker builds her observations through intimate interviews with three performers. Kishore Bhanushali’s uncanny resemblance to Dev Anand has led to a host of lookalike parts. Prashant Walde is a stand-in for Shah Rukh Khan in films and television commercials. Firoz Khan has Amitabh Bachchan’s insouciance and baritone down pat.

Dev Anand lookalike Kishore Bhanushali in Urf (2022). Courtesy Also Ran Films.

Urf includes the making of a 2019 film featuring lookalikes, titled Amir Salman Shahrukh. The self-funded documentary will be premiered at the Rotterdam Film Festival (January 26-February 6).

Narang Abbasi has previously co-directed the 2012 documentary Much Ado About Knotting, about the matchmaking industry. “That film explored the underbelly of the arranged marriage market,” she said. “I had always wanted to make something about the underbelly of Hindi cinema – to understand more about character artists and technicians.”

One night, she was watching the Hindi movie Apartment on television with her husband, cinematographer and writer Yasir Abbasi (he has also shot Urf). “The sight of Kishore Bhanushali in it was refreshing,” she recalled. Bhanushali’s imitation of Dev Anand became popular after the Hindi movie Dil in 1990. “We wondered where he had vanished,” Narang Abbasi said. She also recalled the lookalikes featured in the television show Lehren. There was a film waiting to be made, and she got down to it.

She met a host of lookalikes before zeroing in on the men who feature prominently in Urf. “They represent stars of three different generations and complete the life cycle of a lookalike,” she explained.

Prashant Walde in Urf (2022). Courtesy Also Ran Films.

The shoot began in 2015 and continued over the next few years, whenever the actors were free and Narang Abbasi could take time off from her other projects. In between, Rashma Alam’s documentary with a similar theme, Hubahu, was produced by Public Service Broadcasting Trust.

Narang Abbasi was keen on avoiding the melancholic strain that is usually found in narratives about lookalikes. Her conversations with Kishore Bhanushali, Prashant Walde and Firoz Khan reveal their deep connections with their idols as well as their individual personalities. Each of them is highly self-aware of their standing and wise to the vagaries of showbiz.

“I initially had some preconceived ideas of how they would be,” Narang Abbasi said. “I felt that the identity crisis would be huge. I realised that it wasn’t about switching from the stars to the real selves. It was about coming out from under the shadows of the stars and doing something on their own. It was a challenge for me to rid myself of my ideas.”

She was particularly keen to avoid even the slightest suggestion that the lookalikes were objects of parody or pity for their career choices. She recalled a conversation with a lookalike performer who insisted that she meet him at a five-star hotel rather than a coffee shop because he was worried about being mobbed.

Her distance from Mumbai, the home of the Hindi film industry and the destination of countless aspirants, gave her much-needed perspective. “There was this idea I had that Hindi cinema was very comforting, and I didn’t want to break that idea,” Narang Abbasi said. “I would sit at coffee shops to work and sometimes, it would make me cringe. There was a film being made at every table. When passion goes beyond a level, it becomes a hustle. I don’t know how many people are willing to accept that they won’t make it. But my film couldn’t be about delusion or delusional people. Some might say it’s a shortcoming, but I couldn’t get into that storytelling. I didn’t want the audience to laugh at the subjects.”

Geetika Narang Abbasi.

To sidestep the performativeness that comes naturally to actors and is heightened in mimics, Narang Abbasi met her subjects in their domestic spaces and with their wives.

There, amidst helping out in the kitchen or relaxing between shoots, Bhanushali, Walde and Khan provide insights into the intricacies of their craft and roll out the anecdotes. They also signal their readiness to reinvent themselves and branch out into character roles that don’t involve impersonation.

“It was important for them to welcome me into their personal spaces, which they did,” she said. “I wanted to find the normalcy. I was also curious about what it was like to live with a Jr Shah Rukh or a Jr Amitabh. Firoz loves the star he impersonates. Kishore is in love with cinema itself. Prashant and his wife personify the romance that Shah Rukh Khan represents.”

It has been argued that stardom is being redefined in the age of the streaming platform. The larger-than-life Hindi movie star has been shrunk to fit into a streaming device. Web series similarly challenge the idea of conventional heroism.

Movie stars are shedding the enigma and distance attached to their personas and making themselves available for television appearances and Instagram feeds. Lookalikes, who have their own fan following, must also adapt and move with the times, the film suggests.

A promotional event for the film Amir Salman Shahrukh, which features lookalikes. Courtesy Also Ran Films.

The trio who feature in Urf has front-row seats to this seismic shift in who we now count as movie stars. After Hrithik Roshan, who, Firoz Khan asks rhetorically.

The dignified treatment of actors dismissed as cheap copies yields a wider understanding of the skill that goes into impersonation. Khan points out that although he doesn’t actually resemble Amitabh Bachchan – he is shorter than the actor, for one thing – he has worked hard on his body language and voice to make the resemblance convincing. I act like him, I don’t only imitate him, Khan says in the film, adding, “I am not only a fan, I have done research.”

Bhanushali, a warm and self-deprecating presence, recalls the occasion when he met Dev Anand and was told by the veteran, I will now have to copy you – a textbook example of imitation being the sincerest form of flattery.

Urf (2022).