The Fakir of Venice -- Film Review

Benjamin Walker
Jason Kempin/Getty Images

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 13:  Actor Benjamin Walker attends the "Bloody Bloody Jackson" opening night after party at Brasserie 8 1/2 on October 13, 2010 in New York City.

In the wake of the overwhelming success of "Slumdog Millionaire," the global movie market is ripe for Indian content -- as it was following the considerable success of "Monsoon Wedding" -- but a problem remains: Indian producers still do not think globally when they conceive projects.

Indian films might go out day-for-date in India and around the world, but these are aimed almost exclusively at Indian moviegoers. This market sufficiently has rewarded producers that few are willing to challenge the formulas of rote characters and situations or slavish imitations of Hollywood fare bordering on theft of intellectual property.

"The Fakir of Venice," which opened the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, offers a hint of how creative Indian filmmakers might widen their audience. The film does not look or act like a typical Indian film, whether it be mainstream masala movies or regional art house films. And it's not because the setting is mostly non-Indian; it's because the characters, whether Indian or Italian, are fresh and original, and the challenges they face are universal.

Put it this way: A con artist is a con artist whatever his ethnicity. There's more to it than that, of course, but writer Rajesh Devraj and director Anand Surapur have taken what apparently is a true story and developed and embellished it so that it plays to anyone.

Surapur, whose Phat Phish company is making things happen in Indian music, film and advertising, did admit after its international premiere that the film could stand to be trimmed by 20 minutes to reach an international audience. He's not wrong.

"Fakir" is one of those rare, rare instances where a third act is superior to the second. All the repetition of action and introduction of sundry characters suddenly pay off for a highly emotional ending. Thus much of those 20 minutes could come out of that second act without seriously damaging the third.

The story is about an art installation at the famous Venice Biennale, a major contemporary art exhibition that takes place once every two years. An Indian Mr. Fix-it, little more than a hustler really, who executes challenging assignments for film companies, is hired to find a fakir -- a holy man who can perform feats of endurance -- to be completely buried in sand by an Italian "artist."

Adi (Farhan Akhtar) finds instead a poor laborer, Sattar (Annu Kapoor), who has performed this act in the past to earn coins from tourists. So the two con men fly to Venice to perform this installation by a man who is little more than a con man himself.

The impact this foreign city has on the two visitors varies in the extreme. Adi sees the whole experience as a way to advance in the Western world and to sharpen what are really his skills as a hustler and a louse. Sattar takes to drinking even more heavily than is his norm as he feels lost and confused in all the foreignness. He is an object of curiosity but, unable to speak English or Italian, grows homesick and isolated. It also is soon clear he is very ill.

Each man in his own way is confronted with choices about what purpose any of this serves beyond promised money. These choices range across a broad spectrum of artistic, spiritual, political and cultural ramifications. And the characters they encounter -- the entire film is brilliantly cast, by the way -- deeply impact those choices.

Akhtar, a producer, director and writer making his film debut here as an actor, is talented and handsome enough -- and with looks that could translate into any number of ethnicities -- to have a huge career ahead of him. Kapoor is a veteran actor who delivers a brilliant performance as a humble but determined man whose motives remain secret until the climax.

Surapur's directorial hand is steady and assured throughout. While being overly fond of the fisheye lens, which gives wide-angle distortion to too many shots, he can be forgiven this one affectation because of the control he exerts over the rising emotions and the interplay of characters who sometimes cannot even understand each other.

Screened: Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles
Production: Phat Phish Motion Pictures
Cast: Farhan Akhtar, Annu Kapoor, Kamal Sidhu, Mathieu Carriere, Valentina Carnelutti
Director-editor: Anand Surapur
Screenwriter: Rajesh Devraj
Producer: Dave Katragadda
Executive producer: Junaid Yusuf
Director of photography: Deepti Gupta
Production designer: Susanna Codognato
Music: Michael Galasso
Costume designers: Isha Ahluwalia, Darshan Jalan
No rating, 126 minutes