A Malayalam comedy about fandom’s peculiar relationship with stardom has taken a major gear shift in its Hindi remake. Raj Mehta’s Selfiee, a stripped-down version of Lal Jr’s Driving License (2019), reworks its source material to mount a defence of the Hindi film industry, which has been subjected to merciless criticism in recent years.

The satirical edge has been replaced by broad humour (some of which lands perfectly). The sly suggestion that fans are chumps, blinkered in their devotion and petulant when their entreaties are not rewarded, has made way for a one-way conversation about cancel culture, the vulnerability of movie stars to ad hominem attacks, and the harm caused by #BoycottBollywood and similar Twitter hashtags.

Akshay Kumar portrays the heavyweight who tussles with Emraan Hashmi’s conscientious motor vehicles inspector. Bhopal resident Om Prakash (Hashmi) is a die-hard fan of movie star Vijay (Kumar). Om Prakash leaps at the opportunity to issue Vijay a new driving licence, but on one condition: Vijay pose with him and his son for a selfie.

The photo op descends into chaos. All of Bhopal seemingly comes to a halt as Om Prakash gets on his high horse even as Vijay smoothly channels his ability to work the crowds. Vijay’s rival Suraj (Abhimanyu Singh) revels in Vijay’s fall from grace. Of course, the non-troversy dominates the TV news.

Akshay Kumar in Selfiee (2023). Courtesy Dharma Productions/Magic Frames/Prithviraj Productions/Cape of Good Films/Star Studios.

It’s an uneven contest, and not because of events organic to Rishab Sharma’s screenplay. Unlike in Driving License, Selfiee, possibly responding to the vilification of Hindi film actors, clearly takes sides, robbing itself of an opportunity to present a commentary on entitled stars and their equally entitled admirers.

The original movie, despite tilting in favour of its celebrity hero, retained a sense of irony. This necessary quality of meta-comedies about cinema is most glaringly absent in the moment when Vijay, prevented from driving his own car for a road test, simply buys the next available vehicle.

The storm in a teacup unfolds through slow-motion sequences that lengthen the runtime to 143 minutes and a deafening background score that adds to the general feeling of overkill. The movie is most attentive when attending to Vijay’s predicament.

Vijay’s preternatural calm evolves into something resembling smugness even as Om Prakash, now fully convinced of his “ordinary man” crusade, looks more and more foolish. Akshay Kumar’s rapport with Raj Mehta – evident in Mehta’s Good Newwz – results in a performance more enjoyable and committed than anything by the actor in a long time.

Emraan Hashmi, who is on his own crusade to move away from his rakish hero persona, is a strange casting choice as the man on the margins of a spectacle he cannot even begin to understand, let alone control. Hashmi tries his best to make Om Prakash rounded, but he cannot salvage a clueless character.

Even more miscast than Hashmi is Abhimanyu Singh, reduced to a buffoon whose endorsements for obscure brands is treated with snobbish disdain (if Amitabh Bachchan can model for hair oil and cement…). The cast includes Diana Penty, as Vijay’s wife, Nushrratt Bharuccha as Om Prakash’s spouse, and Mahesh Thakur as Vijay’s manager. Meghna Malik plays an obsequious local corporator whose love for selfies inspires Om Prakash on his own misguided mission.

Selfiee (2023).