Urf (2022) is an Indian documentary that follows celebrity impersonators in a quest for self-awareness and individual identity. Director Geetika Narang Abbasi offers a glimpse into the lives of the subjects, all of whom play well-known Bollywood actors like Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan. Through a series of talking head interviews, Abbasi tells the impersonators’ stories with a controlled perspective that reflects the magnitude of their popularity and reservations. Urf places a strong emphasis on human interest tales, thus humanizing the subjects and giving them the freedom to speak honestly about their experiences and objectives.
Urf premiered at the prestigious Rotterdam International Film Festival and won the award for Best Long Documentary at the International Documentary & Short Film Festival of Kerala in 2022. In this interview, Abbasi speaks about the various artistic considerations employed to construct Urf.
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Dipankar Sarkar: How did you develop a keen interest towards filmmaking?
Geetika Narang Abbasi: Well, I don’t have a very interesting or out of the ordinary story to share on that. I believe there was always a creative bug in me, and Hindi films were always an important part of our household and my growing up. I could never freely or confidently say I wanted to be a filmmaker until I made my first short story, Good Night, in 2008. Until that point, I was only dabbling in the field of media. I didn’t go to a film school; I’m self-taught and still learning, but it wasn’t very easy for me to sustain self-belief; it still wavers sometimes. Luckily, that film won some awards and recognition. But now, when I look back, I think that deep down the passion for films was always there; it just seeped out slowly.
DS: You have years of experience as a professional editor. Did it help you nurture your ambitions to become a director?
GNA: I became a professional editor after I wrote Good Night. Some absconding editors on that film were partly responsible for teaching me how to maneuver my way on the editing machine. Besides, as a filmmaker, I have always found myself really comfortable at the editing table. I think it is a big plus for any director to have knowledge of one or several technical skills. It always makes the technical process smoother and collaboration with technicians easier. Also, it’s always a great aide in shaping the narrative of the story — in a way, an editor or a cinematographer is present through the entire thought process of building a story.
But more than nurturing my ambitions as a director, it probably helped nurture my ambitions as an independent filmmaker. Because I always had at least one department I could cut costs on — not a very advisable thing to do, but if this is what it takes to make a film, so be it!
DS: What motivated you to direct a documentary that explores the art of acting in the service of impersonation and aims to uncover the individual behind the veneer?
GNA: Films and actors have always fascinated me, and for a long time before I started this film, I had been thinking of doing something related to our cinema — its actors, directors, lyricists and technicians. I felt there was a need to archive and document our cinema. We don’t do it enough. But when I thought of this particular idea, initially, it was the quirkiness of it that attracted me. The wonder of constantly being mistaken for someone else becoming a star just because you look like one. I thought I’d make a short documentary on this phenomenon of our cinema, and more than anything, it’ll probably explore the idea of stardom in our country. Certainly, my view of these artists was very narrow, and I became aware of that as I started talking to each of them. That they are like any other normal individual with dreams and aspirations wasn’t a preconceived notion; it was something they revealed as they started sharing their stories. I was genuinely pulled into their world and was touched by the many layers of their stories and their conviction in themselves and cinema. This was not only fascinating but also very inspiring for me as an artist. That’s why the narrative is unravelled through the journeys of three individuals.
DS: What kind of research did you conduct before shooting Urf?
GNA: There’s not enough written material on the professional lookalikes, except for some stray news articles. So, we tried to sift through as much as we could find. We also watched a lot of content, from films to TV shows to ad films to social media videos (like TikTok) with lookalikes in them, and that part was a lot of fun too. But the most important part of the research was to speak to as many professional lookalikes as possible and know their stories. And I did most of it in Mumbai over the course of a few months by fixing personal meetings with as many of them as I could. This happened in their offices, houses or coffee shops, and sometimes I also followed them at shooting sets, auditions or events they’d perform at. I spoke to at least two dozen artists at length and met several more during the course of the research. Along with this, we were speaking with many of their families.
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DS: You and your team shot Urf over the span of a few years. So, did it help you think through the materials you shot before moving on to the next schedule, or did it simply cause an unanticipated delay in completion?
GNA: It was not a conscious decision to shoot the film over four years and gather so much material, which eventually made the edit process much longer than usual. But that was not the only cause for delay in completion — there were several other reasons for the delay. The biggest of them being that it was a self-funded film and working out all the logistics within limited resource was difficult and not very time-effective.
And having so much material and shooting over a few years eventually did work out for the film’s narrative. We are able to see a substantial shift in the careers and lives of some of the artistes in the film, and have a better sense of their journeys. And on the edit table, too, I was often spoiled for choices between shots and sequences. We had set out to make a short documentary — I’m happy with the scale and shape that it finally achieved.
DS: Since you also edited Urf, what were the challenges you faced while shaping the narrative?
GNA: As the film’s director and producer, as someone who has been on set and knows the characters well, it was difficult to maintain objectivity at times. And that was the biggest challenge for me while editing it. When I was viewing the footage and watching the interviews for the first time on the edit table, it wasn’t really the first time for me. I already had too many ideas in my head on how to play with the footage. So, I was not really seeing the footage as it was; I was looking at my own perceptions that I carried from the shoot. So, I couldn’t always view the material from a fresh perspective. As an editor, while it’s important to know your material well, some distance from the project is important.
DS: Midway through Urf, the emphasis momentarily switches from the three main characters — Kishore Bhanushali, Prashant Walde and Firoz Khan — to the impersonators of Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, who are starring in a film titled “Amir Salman Shahrukh.” What was the purpose behind introducing this parallel storyline?
GNA: That there have been mainstream Hindi films with lookalikes in lead roles is something unique to our cinema. And such films, like Ramgarh Ke Sholay (1991) and Five Rifles (1974), also saw commercial success. After we had decided on the three main characters for the documentary, we got to know about a film that was being made that not only had lookalikes as its main leads, but the subject of the film was also lookalikes. “Amir Salman Shahrukh,” as the name suggests, features lookalikes of the three Khans. The plot of the film is partially inspired by Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), so the juniors of the three Khans play brothers separated at birth. They grow up to look like the three Khans and are later re-united to play leads in a film where the three superstars share screen space for the first time, but only metaphorically.
I was so fascinated by it when I first heard about the concept and the story of the film. It was quirky, crazy and full of passion for films. I had to include it in my documentary. I could’ve just made a separate film on the making of this film had I known about it earlier. We found out about them only when they were almost done with their shooting. In fact, their last day of shooting was our first day of shooting for Urf.
DS: As Urf proceeds to its final moments, we come to understand that, like any other profession, the job of these impersonators also has a shelf life. In this case, the necessity to establish one’s own identity becomes the prime concern of their career. The documentary now turns into an examination of integrity and explores the attitudes of its subjects towards their line of work. How did you arrive at this structure?
GNA: The structure was inspired by their lives. It essentially represents the lifecycle of a professional lookalike — the start is very charming and exciting, full of interesting events and amusing stories. The profession comes with a lot of perks too, but the realization that you’ve gotten stuck in it and the need to get out of it occur when it’s a little too late. In a way, the film follows a simple and linear pattern of depicting the journeys of the three artists: how they started, where they are now and what they aspire to do. These facets overlap at times and are distinct at others. But the common crisis of one’s own identity and the need to establish it are palpable throughout the film. We don’t present this aspect in the film as some kind of revelation; I believe most of the audiences are aware of it before they come to watch the film, although it’s more pronounced in the latter part of the film. Because that’s when we hear the protagonists acknowledge the need for or desire for recognition of their own names. Structurally, this was a very natural flow.
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DS: However, throughout Urf, we don’t come across interviews of individuals from the film industry emphasizing the importance of these impersonators. In one of the scenes, we get a glimpse of how, at a dance reality show, Prashant Wadle is amusingly teased for being a “duplicate of Shah Rukh Khan” by a popular choreographer and director of Bollywood. Any particular reason behind this decision?
GNA: Yes, it might have been interesting to have interviews with individuals from the film industry. I considered it and was open to it for a long time, but the film was evolving into more intimate portraits of these artists. It became more important to see things through their eyes, as well as the eyes of their families. And frankly, I didn’t know how to accommodate so many voices in one film. We had interviewed a TV show director with whom Firoz has done a lot of work, but I couldn’t fit that anywhere in the film. Sometimes you have to make such choices because they simply don’t go with the overall flow of the film.
The dance reality show brings out one of the complexities that comes with being a star lookalike: the thin line between getting amused or derisive — laughing with or laughing at — when one encounters a lookalike. They get both kinds of reactions — not just within the industry but wherever they go. It’s difficult for me to say whether, in the dance show, the popular choreographer and director were actually teasing him or performing for the camera. While Prashant acknowledges being dismissed as a “duplicate” by some, he also talks about how Shah Rukh (and many others) have always been nice to him.
DS: By shooting the principal subjects at work and at home, you have methodically drawn out the opposing aspects of their characters. Their contemplative private lives and the theatrical features of their public lives are framed in such a way that they illustrate a harmonious relationship within the narrative. Could you talk about the visual style of Urf?
GNA: The decision to shoot them at work and at home was again very natural and organic. And I’m glad that they let us into their houses and private spaces; it was really important for the film. That was more of a narrative choice than a visual style. The idea for the visual style was primarily to shoot the material as is. We mostly shot without using any lights because the moment lights are placed, it changes the whole mood of the place and it starts feeling like a shooting set. We never really designed frames and placed the subjects in them; instead, we designed frames according to the subjects’ comfort and routine. Most of Firoz’s interviews take place on a couch in his living room, because that’s where he spends most of the day. He’s usually in his element at night, so we shot a lot with him at night, sometimes until four or five in the morning. We followed the same style with all of them. And on their shooting sets, too, the idea was to keep the camera very unobtrusive.
DS: Urf has been travelling to various national and international film festivals around the world since its premiere at Rotterdam. At the same time, recent documentaries like Writing with Fire (2021), A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) and All That Breathes (2022) have also earned recognition worldwide. So, will all of this critical acclaim raise awareness and interest in documentaries in our country?
GNA: Documentaries, or any other genre of film, must be easily accessible to viewers in order to heighten their interest. The last two years have been exceptional for Indian documentaries globally, and I believe they deserve it. Previously, at film festivals, fiction features were always the big crowd pullers; I believe that has changed a little now. The audience turnout at this year’s DIFF (Dharamshala International Film Festival), which played all the above-mentioned films, is a testament to that. But outside of the festival circuits, whether they’ll find enough platforms to reach out to viewers is yet to be seen — it might be difficult, particularly in the case of these three exceptional and important films, considering their political stance. However, in the past, there have been so many documentaries that got global recognition but were not widely distributed in the country. So, for all the critical appreciation, the awareness and interest that it does raise in documentaries will fizzle out if the films are not accessible to watch.
I think OTTs and online streaming platforms can play a big role in pushing documentaries and taking them to the masses. Some documentaries have created ripples in the past on such platforms, but there’s still a long way to go.
DS: Lastly, what are your current plans?
GNA: To move on from Urf. I hope it continues its festival run for some more time, but I’m eager to start working on the next film, fiction or non-fiction, and I’m currently pondering some ideas.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.