An insider’s account of show business that isn’t about sex, scandal and sordidness? It’s possible and hugely entertaining too, as the series Call My Agent! proves.
Originally made for French television, Call My Agent! is being globally streamed by Netflix. As the title indicates, the show isn’t about actors – although each episode features some of French cinema’s biggest names – but the men and women who manage their careers, keep them out of trouble or sometimes get them into a soup.
The witty and insightful series revolves around the fictional ASK talent management agency in Paris. In the first episode, ASK’s founder dies, leaving behind debt and a bunch of squabbling associates.
In 24 episodes, creator Fanny Herrero and several directors and writers explore the biz in showbiz (the French title is Dix Pour Cent, or 10 Per Cent). Each episode is named after one of the actors managed by ASK’s four partners. There are two axes of drama: the sweet-natured tantrums, foibles and insecurities of the actors, and the messy professional and personal lives of the agents.
An Indian remake, revolving around the Hindi film industry, is in the works. Produced by Applause Entertainment and Banijay Asia, directed by Shaad Ali, and written by Abbas and Hussain Dalal, the Indian version’s cast includes Rajat Kapoor, Soni Razdan, Aahana Kumra and Ayush Mehra, according to reports.
The fourth and final season of Call My Agent! was recently released on Netflix. More mellow and sentimental in tone than previous seasons, the concluding chapter introduces a major new character, ties together loose ends, and bids a fond and moist-eyed farewell to its players. A plug for Netflix, which helped the series attain a global viewership, is folded into the final adventures of ASK’s fractious, neurotic and overwrought but also cinema-mad employees.
Two of the four agents are at loggerheads. Mathias (Thibault de Montalembert), a smooth operator with movie-star looks, gargantuan ambition and endless ruthlessness, wants to take over ASK after his boss’s death, but is frequently thwarted by his equally ambitious colleague Andrea (Camille Cottin). Mathias has a wife from whom he will soon be estranged, adoring secretary Noemie (Laura Calamy) and love child Camille (Fanny Sidney), who turns up unannounced to work at ASK.
Andrea too is busy balancing her impressive roster of clients and her complicated love life. Openly gay, flinty and hard-headed but devoted to her actors, Andrea falls for a tax auditor whom she had previously rejected on a dating site.
The shambolic Gabriel (Gregory Montel), who develops feelings for receptionist and aspiring actor Sophia (Stefi Celma), is another major character. Separate strands are woven around the assistants, which include Mathias’s daughter Camille and the permanently put-upon Herve (Nicolas Maury). Veteran ASK staffer Arlette (Liliane Rovere), who has a dog named after the French actor Jean Gabin, frequently steps in to play peacemaker or offer the wisdom gleaned from her experience.
The eminence of the cameos is as exclamation-worthy as the punctuation in the English title. The actors and filmmakers who sportingly play comic versions of themselves include Isabelle Huppert, Juliette Binoche, Jean Dujardin, Isabelle Adjani, Monica Bellucci, Gilles Lelouche, Christophe Lambert and Claude Lelouch. Huppert has to be in two films being shot at the same time; Dujardin takes method acting too seriously; Bellucci is lonely and wants to get into the dating game.
The series cleverly mines real-life connections and insider information for laughs and drama. Beatrice Dalle’s colourful past yields plot points for the episode in which she refuses to follow her director’s instructions. In the episode featuring Nathalie Baye and Laura Smet, the mother-daughter pair is cast in an intense Swedish arthouse film. They delegate the dirty job of exiting the project and handling the director to their representatives at ASK.
The fourth season features a delightful turn by Sigourney Weaver, speaking French and making a case for older women to be cast opposite younger men. Charlotte Gainsbourg plays the lead of a potential train wreck, while Jean Reno has a touching Daniel Day-Lewis moment.
Most of the excellent principal cast is drawn from French television, which makes the division between the agents and the talent they represent in the series easy to swallow. Casting will be crucial to increase the credibility of the Indian adaptation of Call My Agent!, as will be the ability of the makers to persuade Hindi movie stars to be gently taken down a few pegs.
Harder to accommodate will be the egalitarianism that is one of the cornerstones of the French republic, and which ensures parity between movie star and employee in the show. The relationships in Call My Agent! are marked by friendliness, warmth, professionalism and a relative lack of hierarchy. It’s possibly a very French thing, and will be challenging to adapt to an Indian setting, in which a chasm separates the names on the marquee and the ones on the ground who contribute to their elevation.
We also wonder what will happen to the openly gay characters – Herve, apart from Andrea – and the moralising-free depictions of flings, extra-marital affairs, and children born out of wedlock. What will replace the episode featuring a sexy threesome?
Also important to maintain will be the tone that characterises Call My Agent! Souffle-light when it needs to be, the series is also weighty enough in its examination of the consequences of questionable choices and personal cowardice. Never shrill and never too serious either, Call My Agent! proves that showbiz chronicles can be as entertaining as the movies themselves often are.
If done well, the Indian remake might offer a new way to look at the Mumbai film industry, which is frequently run down by its own people in fictional portrayals. Bollywood, with notable exceptions like Luck by Chance, is often reduced to a nasty place seething with sad strugglers, entitled dynasts, sexual degenerates, drug addicts and sinister schemers. The events of 2020 that followed the death by suicide of Sushant Singh Rajput only served to further tarnish the Hindi film industry’s image. The increasing instances of censorship, most recently seen in the vilification of the web series Tandav, threaten to take the joy out of self-reflexive entertainment.
And yet, numerous stories about the inner workings of the film industry remain untold. By obsessively focusing on the alleged antics of celebrities, creators have ignored other aspects of how – and why – movies are made. In several episodes of Call My Agent!, the characters question their own sanity but never their larger purpose: to protect the glory of cinema and ensure that actors either get the roles they deserve or are extricated from unworthy projects. We’re in the business of maintaining an image, not creating a hollow buzz, the sage Arlette says at one point.
Bollywood clearly needs a new narrative and a fresh view that moves beyond the sex-scandal-sordidness triad. Talent managers, who play a crucial and yet mostly invisible role behind the scenes, might finally get to be in the spotlight. Who better to talk about the stars than the star-makers?