Directors turn actors: Which ones fit in, and which don’t?
Anurag Kashyap’s turn as a corrupt cop in Akira is sending chills down the spine, but he is not the only director to have wowed the audience with their performance in front of the camerabrunch Updated: Sep 18, 2016 01:34 IST
If it hadn’t been for Naseeruddin Shah, director Sudhir Mishra might have been known as actor Sudhir Mishra instead. Not that Mishra doesn’t act. His Haji Bhaijaan in Madhur Bhandarkar’s 2007 film Traffic Signal still sends chills down the spine. And he does bit roles every now and then. “If a good friend asks me to do a role, I take it up simply because I love hanging around on the sets. If you are directing you are burdened with responsibilities, so you can’t enjoy filmmaking that much,” he says.
Mishra actually considered being an actor, having acted in several plays, but Shah got in the way. “We were doing Khamosh,” he says. “I was working as an assistant director and also had a bit role. Seeing Naseer act up close, I realised I can never be as good as him. So I chose something I thought I was good at instead. Naseer single-handedly put me off acting. Either you should be as good as him or not act at all.”
The big swap
It may seem odd that directors, much of whose job involves instructing actors how to act, are seldom seen on screen themselves.
Surely, there have been exceptions. In Hollywood, directors like Orson Welles, Charles Chaplin, Quentin Tarantino and Woody Allen have often cast themselves in starring roles and blown their audience’s minds with their acting prowess. Back home, Raj Kapoor and Guru Dutt had achieved similar feats. But those instances were rare and far between.
However, in the last few years, with Bollywood becoming bolder, experimenting with exciting content and out-of-the-box characters, this seems to be changing.
Most recently, Anurag Kashyap has moved from behind the camera to in front of it, playing a corrupt police inspector in AR Murugadoss’s Sonakshi Sinha-starrer, Akira (2016). Although it is a heroine-centric film, Kashyap has been fielding compliments ever since the release of the film.
According to Murugadoss, because Akira has a very powerful female protagonist, the character of the police inspector pitted against her needed to be a strong one.
“It is unlike anything you have seen in Bollywood. Hence we needed a new face. It is a challenging role and I wanted someone with a strong personality to do justice to it,” says Murugadoss, who went on an auditioning spree to find an actor who’d be the right fit. And then, while watching an interview of Kashyap, the casting director had a brainwave. “The way he spoke and owned the show, both my casting director and I thought he would be just perfect for the role,” says Murugadoss. So Kashyap was approached for the role and, after carefully reading the script, he agreed to come on board.
“After seeing the final outcome, I am sure no one else could have pulled this off this so convincingly. Kashyap’s talent as a director is well-known but I will take the credit of bringing out the actor in him,” laughs Murugadoss.
The director’s actor
Long before he became Anurag Kashyap the director, Kashyap had spent 20 years on stage in theatre and proved his acting prowess. “But I gave up the thought of acting in films the day I saw myself on screen the first time. I hated myself,” says Kashyap adding: “I keep getting offers but so far, on the few occasions where I have said ‘yes’, it was mostly for some emotional reason or if it was an interesting but small role. I prefer theatre to movies when it comes to acting.” Kashyap was last seen on stage a decade back as Fanidhar in Makrand Deshpaande’s acclaimed Hindi play Sir Sir Sarla.
Although, this poster boy of independent cinema claims that the last thing he wants to do is act in movies he eventually agreed to turn villain in a full-blown commercial Bollywood movie. And according to Kashyap, it was Murugadoss’s “infectious, childlike enthusiasm” that convinced him to take up the role.
Handing over control on the set to his director was very easy, says Kashyap. “Being a director myself, I know very well that the only person who knows what’s going on a set is the director. And this was Murugadoss’s film, not mine. I was there as an actor and my job was to follow the director’s instructions,” he says.
Earlier, in 2011, we had seen Kashyap on screen, playing gangster Bunty Bhaiya in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Shagird. Dhulia, returning the favour, acted in Kashyap’s two-part epic, Gangs of Wasseypur.
“What worked for us, be it he directing me or vice-versa, is that we both took instructions well. And that is always crucial,” says Dhulia, whose portrayal of Ramadhir Singh, the corrupt politician and ‘coal king’ of Dhanbad, is still etched in the minds of the audience. But that, claims Dhulia, was an ‘unplanned’ event. “Though Anurag had given me the script, I didn’t bother to read it. I didn’t even know what character I was supposed to play, or how big or important the role was, or what would be required of me,” he admits. It was only when the prosthetics guys arrived at his office to take a mould of his face that it crossed Dhulia’s mind that maybe it was not a blink-and-miss-role, and maybe he was to play an old man.
But, more than his inner director, it was his inner writer who helped him portray the character, says Dhulia. “The director knows as he looks through the lens what will look good on screen. But every good actor should have a little bit of a writer in him. That helps in improvising,” he says.
It might come as a surprise for many, but Dhulia’s area of specialisation at the National School of Drama (NSD) was not direction, but acting. “After NSD, I never really ventured into acting. And that is because, while doing the course, I realised that I was quite bad as an actor,” laughs Dhulia. But he adds that he was never really bit by the acting but. “While growing up I was confused. I joined NSD because I wanted to get out of Allahabad and I had heard about the open and free atmosphere of a drama school,” he says.
Getting into the skin of the character
Director Prakash Jha has no such qualms about himself as an actor – provided the role is perfect. Perhaps that’s why it took him 40 years to make his on-screen debut, which he did in his own film, Jai Gangaajal (2016), playing corrupt police inspector Bhola Nath Singh to great acclaim.
“I knew the nuances of the character more than anyone else and even while scripting, I could see myself in that role,” says Jha. “Me as a director and me as an actor are completely different entities and both were confident about me playing BN Singh. If not, as a director, I would not have cast myself in the role, and as an actor, I would not have taken it up.”
After four decades working as a director, writer and film curator, Jha was already contemplating finding newer forms of expression. “Acting just happened to be one of the avenues I wanted to tap,” he says. “I was always an actor. In fact, all human beings are actors! But to be able to act on command is something that requires certain technique, which I knew.”
He had no first-day jitters when he switched to the front of the camera. “Unlike in theatre, here you are not acting in front of people. You are acting in front of the camera, and imagining the people. I have been with the camera all my life. Why should I be scared to perform in front of it?”
But even a man as confident as Jha had one concern. “As an actor and as a director, the only thing that you have no control over is whether you as a person will be accepted as the character, whether you would believable. There are actors who are dashing, handsome who fail being the character. That is what is important to achieve. I knew the character in my mind, but would I be able to play it with my body? That was the question,” he says.
From HT Brunch, September 18, 2016
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch