The comic machinery of the hit French series Call My Agent! is so well-oiled that even when we don’t know the French actors who appear as themselves in the series—magnifying one aspect of themselves for the sake of dramatic tension and humour—we laugh uproariously. The in-jokes are not important to enjoy the comedy inherent to characters and situations in the screenplay. The writing is such that beyond the show’s focus, which is the crackling chemistry among the film agents working to save themselves and their company, we almost sympathise with their world, their jobs, their quirks, their risks and rewards.
The Indian remake, Call My Agent Bollywood, a six-part Netflix series which dropped on Friday, is directed by Shaad Ali and produced by Applause Entertainment. It stays almost entirely true to the original in terms of story, plot and characters. For writers Abbas Dalal and Hussain Dalal, the challenge then is to create a milieu and setting that resonate with Bollywood and the city itself—to create an inner-city provinciality, and then make it universal. That is often the hardest job for writers and directors. Call My Agent Bollywood, although delightfully satirical, is weighed down by platitudes and a certain unbelievability and undercooked quality that seem to be a direct result of the lack of rigour in details of setting and milieu. Do we like the characters and their journeys? To some extent. Do we sympathise and become involved in their journey? No.
The story, for those who are not familiar with the original: Soumyajit Dasgupta (Tinnu Anand) is an ageing talent agent in Mumbai who has created and nurtured many stars in his lifetime. His company ART has a team of agents. Monty Behl (Rajat Kapoor), the senior-most after Soumyajit, is a hustler whose embittered, insecure wife (Suchitra Pillai) doesn’t know that he has a daughter, Nia (Radhika Seth), from an undisclosed family in Goa. Amal Ahmed (Aahana Kumra) is a mercurial, volatile woman who has a colourful love life until she falls in love with the company’s new auditor Jasleen (Anuschka Sawhney). Mehershad (Ayush Mehra) is a nice, conscientious Parsi guy, a misfit in this dog-eat-dog world who is tenacious enough to get the goods even at the cost of many mishaps. Teresa (Soni Razdan) is a veteran whose life revolves around the company and a job that she has been doing for long enough to know the dirty linen of every old star and to be prophetic about the new, and her Pomeranian Pankaj. There’s the Northeastern secretary Nancy (Merenla Imsong) who wants to be a film actor, and host of actors who appear as themselves while ART negotiates deals with them.
The real-life actors, with long cameo roles, have the funniest, most inventive parts in the screenplay. Dia Mirza is an actor in her 40s who faces the tough choice of getting cosmetic surgery or losing a Hollywood role; Farah Khan wants to cast Sarika and her daughter Akshara in what the ART team and she think could be a casting coup in a mother-daughter drama; Tigmanshu Dhulia has to choose the template for a film about natural-born killers and cast either Lillete Dubey or Ila Arun, old rivals and seasoned tantrum-pickers; Nandita Das has to direct Jackie Shroff in a film that subverts the commercial action flick; Lara Dutta dreads to be in a “multiplex” film that requires her to be on set in the ravines of Chambal; and Ali Zafar and Richa Chadha are a bickering lead couple and husband-wife who jeopardise their shoot for a campy mythological drama with their real-life baggage.
All the actors have a warped sense of themselves, much like the original series. And here too, it’s a plus that some of us know the quirks and trajectories of these actors and directors who are playing exaggerated versions of themselves. They lend a certain whimsy and absurdity to the show—and some riotously humorous moments.
The actors each get a blueprint with distinctive traits to work with. Kumra, Razdan, Mehra and Seth are effective in channeling the one thing that sets each apart. Kapoor is sorely miscast as the master negotiator and powerhouse of the group—his body language and get-up are more of a confused and lost middle-aged man in need of some mojo. The chemistry between Meher and Aahana as buddies is more believable than the lesbian affair that Amal and Jasleen set in motion, which seems to exist just for some awkwardly gratuitous lesbian scenes. Meher, although the most believable in terms of characterisation, hardly passes off as a Parsi—he is more a generic Mumbaiyya always in search of solutions to fix things; his own inner impulses and personal history are hazy. As the auditor-seductress, Sawhney’s versatile personality—number-cruncher and oomphy sari maven—is far from convincing; she is a consummate caricature.
Overall, it just doesn’t feel like Bollywood’s inner chambers or Mumbai’s real arteries. The location of ART’s office, somewhere close to the VT Station (thanks to cinematographer Sunita Radia, VT Station is shot in every angle and every hue possible), is an anomaly because the film industry in Mumbai operates mostly out of the Western suburbs—sacrificing authenticity for making the city’s signature South Mumbai views the setting eventually seems futile because the city itself is hardly a character in the show.
At six episodes, the series still has enough grist to keep you engaged. Besides the nuts and bolts of the filmmaking enterprise, the wonderfully heartfelt thing about Call My Agent Bollywood is its satirical gaze on how the filmy universe of Mumbai works. The creators are being good sports—it’s ultimately themselves they are laughing at, which infuses the show with a huge dollop of exasperated fondness. We all know why Bollywood needs some love at this moment, and Call My Agent Bollywood has some of it to offer.