The Fakir of Venice has promise that it doesn’t deliver on, just like the hybrid Indian film type that it represents. Anand Surapur’s directorial debut, made in 2009 and released a whole decade later, brings up the tail of a series of movies made by Mumbai directors from the advertising and music video industries. These productions featured urbane characters, a clash of cultures and dialogue that meshed together English and Hindi. They spoke of the experiences of filmmakers who felt alienated from mainstream Hindi cinema as well as the Indian arthouse tradition, and for a moment, suggested that a new kind of independent cinema was emerging.
Farhan Akhtar, in what was actually his debut role, is perfectly cast as Indo-Anglian film production fixer and budding confidence trickster Adi Contractor. Adi is in the same mould as similar characters from such movies as In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones, English, August (1994), Hyderabad Blues (1998), Bombay Boys (1998) and Snip! (2000). Adi thinks and communicates in English, and, although his present address is Mumbai, India, he would rather be far away. In one of the few attempts in The Fakir of Venice to meaningfully address this schizoid state of belonging and unbelonging, Adi tells an Italian woman who says that she has always wanted to come to India that he has always wanted to leave.
Adi gets his chance when an Italian art gallery commissions him to recruit an Indian sage for an installation-based exhibition in Venice. Adi makes a fruitless trip to Varanasi, where he meets both fakers and genuine mystics. One of them tells him, why should I go anywhere when the universe is before me, but Adi misses the point.
Adi’s solution lies back home. Mumbai slum-dweller Sattar (Annu Kapoor) is no holy man, but has a lifetime of experience in burying himself in sand for longer than humanly possible. A parlour trick perfected to fill the belly suits both Adi and Sattar just fine, setting them on a con job that will take them to one of the most beautiful cities on the planet.
But the savage satire promised by the opening scenes is barely sustained once the story shifts to Venice. The city by the river is poorly shot, despite no shortage of stunning locations. The foreign adventure, restricted to a week by visa purposes in the film but also what appears to be budgetary constraints, barely develops Rajesh Devraj’s skeletal plot. The clumsy assembly of scenes and stop-start momentum yield only a few sharp moments of insight or humour across 98 minutes.
Farhan Akhtar appears too posh to be a man in desperate need to fill up his bank account, but his presence has just the right amount of self-serving shallowness. Annu Kapoor’s Sattar is too sentimental and supine to attract empathy, and his background sob story never evokes the poignance it is meant to.
A wasted character, who should have been along on the Venice adventure but isn’t, is Kamal Sidhu. The veejay and model – a fixture on television in the 1990s – has a brief role as Adi’s ex-girlfriend. The movie was made for the generation that has fond memories of Sidhu’s kinky curls and Canadian accent, but unlike her, it hasn’t aged well. The decade between its completion and its release shows in every frame. Mumbai and Venice are visibly less crowded than they now are and the actors are younger and more energetic, but the movie’s art world con made little sense then and even less sense in 2019.