Like the lead character in the film RK/RKAY, writer-director-actor Rajat Kapoor makes small, interesting films that win critical acclaim and do the festival rounds, but, as a snippy assistant points out in the film, are not successful.

Kapoor has gone the crowdfunding way before and does it again for this film. It’s part fantasy, past nostalgia and part lived-reality and makes do with wit and whimsy because a big budget was not at hand.

Indie filmmaker RK (Kapoor) has managed to find a producer, Goel (Manu Rishi Chadha), a genial, builder who is enamoured of the process of filmmaking. The film that RK wants to make is a tribute to the Urdu language, the kind of saga in which the coy heroine is named Gulabo (after Pyaasa’s kindly streetwalker) and the antagonist (Ranvir Shorey) is called KN Singh (a star villain of his time). Shorey’s Singh is dressed in the suit-hat costume of the Bolly-noir films Guru Dutt and Raj Khosla used to make.

RK has trouble finding an actor who can speak old-style dialogue in a simpering tone. After a hilarious audition sequence, he casts Neha (Mallika Sherawat), who claims to love the script but then unleashes her diva behaviour on the production. Goel too isn’t too happy with the Urdu setting or the plot, which he correctly surmises is dated.

The real crisis hits when the film’s hero Mehboob Alam (Kapoor) runs out of the film and into real life (like the hero of Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo). The film’s panicky editor edit calls to say that the hero has vanished from all the scenes.

Mehboob cannot believe that he does not exist outside of the film, and that he speaks lines written for him by RK. But he makes himself comfortable, cooking up delicious treats since he is a chef – a khansama, he insists, not a bawarchi. The connoisseur will know the difference.

Without getting pretentiously philosophical, RK/RKAY makes its points about life, cinema, free will, the classical romance that is never replicated in reality, the artistic process and also the vanity of the creator – all without dropping its quirky tone. Mehboob has come out of RK’s imagination, but when he is able to shake off those chains, he turns out to be a better man than the conceited and harried director. (It goes a bit like Susan Seidelman’s movie Making Mr Right.)

RK’s office has posters of The Invisible Man and La Dolce Vita, indications of his creative schizophrenia, the kind of films he probably dreams of making versus the film he gets to make, which even his protagonist wants to escape. Kapoor prevents his film from becoming a bitter satire by keeping the tone persistently cheerful. The film does get repetitive and a bit messy until it finds its feet again and moves to a satisfying climax.

In this RK vs RK duel, there is not much to do for the other actors (which includes Kubbra Sait as RK’s wife) except be a part of a spirited support system for the director. Look for Namit Das stealing his one scene as a rapping waiter. Mallika Sherawat tries to capture the spirit of the 1950s heroine, but cannot quite reach it.

Kapoor clearly enjoys playing Mehboob, called a “one-dimensional twit” at one point. He’s clearly in on the joke, since he wrote the character as a cardboard hero who breaks out of the carton.

RK/RKay (2021).