Luck By Chance, frantic buzz of film sets, and Mumbai film industry in all its grimy glamour

Luck By Chance, frantic buzz of film sets, and Mumbai film industry in all its grimy glamour

Luck By Chance, frantic buzz of film sets, and Mumbai film industry in all its grimy glamour

Movies and shows, old and new, have helped us to live vicariously through them. They have allowed us to travel far and wide at a time borders are shut and people are restricted to homes. In our new column What's In A Setting, we explore the inseparable association of a story with its setting, how the location complements the narrative, and how these cultural windows to the world have helped broaden our imagination.

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My first experience of being on a film shoot involved Govinda and Sanjay Dutt dressed in matching pastel dungarees, a tape of Sudesh Bhosle and Sonu Nigam singing ‘I Love You Bol Daal’ blaring in the streets of Hiranandani Gardens, Powai, and Ganesh Acharya taking Karisma Kapoor through the dance steps one last time before David Dhawan called ‘Action.' The film was Haseena Maan Jaayegi.

I remember staring open-mouthed as lightmen wondered aloud, ‘Baby kahan hai’ (Where is the baby? Months later I learnt that they were talking about a light, and not an actual baby) and spot-boys (who were actually middle-aged men) holding up giant umbrellas to shade their respective stars from the harsh Mumbai ‘winter’ sun.

I was a cub reporter at a now-defunct film magazine, and a kind senior decided I needed to be educated on the ways of a film set over the next few months. She explained to me that the stars and director might be the most important people on a set, but the people I really needed to know as a journalist were the spot-boys, make-up technicians, and assistant directors. I also institutively learnt to avoid the thick wires that snake all over a studio floor and to sit close enough to a monitor screen without being in the way. There were other lessons that took a little longer, like knowing the catering services whose food was absolutely avoidable, and not being embarrassed to ask some of the most famous people in the world if I could use the restroom in their vanity vans. 

In the two decades since, being on a film set was as much a part of my work environment as being in a newsroom. Unlike an office though, film sets have no timings. In the early years of my career, I was happy to spend a whole day watching Tabu on location in Versova Fishing Village for Madhur Bhandarkar’s Chandni Bar or wait around midnight for Preity Zinta to finish her shot on the sets of Anil Sharma’s The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. And large parts of Mumbai, for me, became synonymous with Bollywood. Non-industry friends often laughed when I gave them directions based off Salman Khan’s Galaxy Apartments or Rani Mukerji’s old home on Yari Road.

I’ve been missing the frantic buzz of a film set so desperately that I turned to my favourite Hindi film about the world of Hindi films — Zoya Akhtar’s Luck By Chance (2009). We’ve had quite a few Bollywood films that revolve around the business of making movies. Ram Gopal Verma’s Rangeela (1995) told the story of a background dancer who dreamt of stardom. The protagonist in Gauri Shinde’s Dear Zindagi (2016) is a cinematographer who wants to make her own films. And then there is Om Shanti Om (2009), the Farah Khan blockbuster that parodied the industry.

But Luck By Chance is the only one that draws the curtains and offers an insider’s view into an industry like no other; the grime behind the glamour and the heartbreak behind the success.

The opening scene of Luck By Chance sets the mood for the two-and-half hours that follow. Sona Mishra (Konkona Sensharma) is a struggling actress in a meeting with a producer. Her face lights up as Satish Chaudhry (Ally Khan) assures her that she’d be one of the main leads in his next film. As the conversation progresses, joy slowly leeches out as Sona understands that Chaudhry is subtly but surely propositioning her. An artist has to be intimate with the filmmaker, he tells her. The casting couch is one of Bollywood’s oldest and best-known cliches. As the conversation peters out, the camera stays on Sona’s face. She is neither surprised nor disgusted by the sleazy proposition. She understands the price that she’d have to pay. Sona isn’t naïve.

Konkona Sensharma in Luck By Chance

On the surface, Luck By Chance revolves around Sona and fellow acting aspirant Vikram Jaisingh (Farhan Akhtar). But it is as much a story of superstar Zafar (Hrithik Roshan). Zafar weasels out of a film but when it becomes a success with Vikram in the lead, he is worried about having created a competitor. There’s Rommy Rolly (Rishi Kapoor) an old-school producer struggling to make sense of the changing film industry. And there’s Vikram’s friend Abhi (Arjun Mathur) who has been in the industry longer, and though he’s done two TV serials, and is a respected name in the theatre space, film stardom alludes him. These aren’t caricatures but full-blooded characters with dreams, insecurities, and eggshell egos.

Apart from that little piece of real estate that is in the ‘frame’ and the actors in front of the camera, there’s a whole ecosystem that keeps track of the nitty-gritty that go into make films. Depending on the size of a film, a film crew could have anything between 150 to 300 people. Luck By Chance isn’t just about the industry’s dark underbelly but also reflects its maker’s deep love and understanding of how the machinery works. You have dress dadas who keep track of and take care of every outfit worn; set designers who makes sure that the right photo frame is hung above the protagonist’s work desk; and a coordinator just to keep all the background actors in place. There are attendants for everything from vanity vans to cameras and assistants to assistants.

Still from opening credits of Luck By Chance

In what remains one of the best opening credits of a Hindi film, Zoya introduces us to the unseen people who make movie magic happen, like the projectionist who sits in a dark room all day, the painters of hoardings, the extras who dress up as cops and astronauts for a day, the quiet sound recordist, and the unnamed background singers. She acknowledges that if not for them, there would be no movies.

In another fleeting but impactful scene, the late actor Mac Mohan is invited as a chief guest at an acting school’s graduation ceremony, where he is asked to say his most famous dialogue – "Poore pachas hazar" from Sholay. He sighs deeply because his career spanning decades was reduced to three words, but he also understands that he has to give the audience its demands.

And then there’s 'Sapnon Se Bhare Naina,' an utterly delightful song that’s lifted to legendary status because of the scene it soundtracks. Vikram’s headshots ending up on a casting table, lead to him being called for his first audition. The visuals of his premature euphoria, followed by the confident strut into the audition room, are endearing, and capture the naïveté and optimism of thousands of industry hopefuls who make their way to the city every single day. Shabbily clad with scuffed shoes, Vikram is devastated when he walks in to see hundreds of others just like him waiting for their turn to audition. What seemed like his lucky break suddenly seemed another hundred miles away. It’s almost as if you see the supernovas in his eyes imploding and vanishing in an instant.

Still from 'Sapno Se Bhare Naina' in Luck By Chance

Last year, when the country and the world shut down, my connection to all things Bollywood — movie dates, gossip sessions with friends, and interviews with actors — became virtual. Yet, it felt like my connection to Bollywood was still strong because I lived in the heart of it in Mumbai. My neighbourhood in Andheri was dotted with homes of actors and strugglers, technicians, and producers. Even in the middle of the lockdown, it wasn’t uncommon to bump into a known face at the grocer or the chemist.

And then I moved out of Mumbai. Every day, as I learn the rhythms and language of the new city I now live in, I feel like my connection to all things Bollywood, and by extension Mumbai, as slowly being erased. That was only until I re-watched Luck By Chance recently. Every good film is like the Tardis, and can instantly transport you to a city on the other side of the country, or a gentler time. But the hallmark of a great film is its ability to connect on a personal level — this is what makes Luck By Chance an instant classic for most of us who have spent our lives in and around the industry.

For more from the What's In A Setting series, click here.