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Day of the unusual suspects

The unconventional has a market in Bollywood today. And daring subjects are no longer being shunned. Actor Arif Zakaria writes on the slow-but-sure change in the Bollywood scenario.

entertainment Updated: Jan 15, 2009 20:18 IST

The unconventional has a market in Bollywood today. And daring subjects are no longer being shunned. In fact, portraying ‘real people’ — instead of the unreal Shahenshahs — is the big ticket for artistes today. Actor Arif Zakaria writes on the slow-but-sure change in the Bollywood scenario.

From all the images flashing on television and from newspapers of the Golden Globe Awards, the most gratifying one for me was a beaming Anil Kapoor partaking in the revelries of Slumdog Millionaire.

Two thoughts come to mind. What dye does he use on his well kept stubble to keep it shining black (joke) and more importantly a mainstream actor, a Bollywood hero, playing a supposed ‘character’ role in an
offbeat film is unabashedly enjoying himself?

We are moving in the right direction, it seems. The line between commercial opulence and supposed art house offerings is diminishing with each release. I fear this secretly. What will happen to genuine actors? What is the fate of scores of talented actors from theatre, television and films, traditionally referred to as character actors, if the heroes have a change of heart and dwarf their image.

No takers
Times were never like this before and I speak from personal experience. Actors and stars were scared to break the stereotype. They were straitjacketed in their mirror image. In 1997, I acted in an offbeat film Darmiyaan directed by the ebullient Kalpana Lajmi who spent several years in trying to find a regular hero to play the lead role of an eunuch.
She approached all the leading players — Shah Rukh Khan was interested but backed out. Every actor refused the offbeat role for fear of tarnishing his image, for fear of being associated with a daring bold subject.

I was hesitant but thrilled when the opportunity was given to me, for here was a role which satiated any actor’s hunger for performance with various nuances, a window to display his craft and cunning, and of course Tabu! I secretly wished the film was released now, maybe five or six years later when trends have changed, when awareness levels are high, when it is now a fashion to accept and appreciate and more importantly cast actors who show a little gumption.

I met scores of film producers who offered me one scene, or two scene roles of cops, lawyers, henchmen and sidekicks. They felt having done this film I was a good performer and hence a good performer serves as a pickle (achar) to the main dish (hero).

Dynamics evolve
Are we in a time when offbeat is now mainstream? The dynamics of movie making are constantly evolving. Actors with oodles of talent and self-belief who were cringing, standing behind the muscled leading man, have finally been asked to step out to display their histrionics, no matter how bad their skin is!

This is really the season of the coming out in the open of the average Bollywood producer. Now they seek character-driven films, they want a story premise with strong characters, more importantly real actors who deliver without too many retakes.

There are several reasons for this. Television gives people pancaked performers who stand in the arches of fake haveli’s spouting philosophies on family, honour and dignity.

Fake diamonds
They are frighteningly shot in close ups, they wear kitschy costumes and shimmer with fake diamonds. Now why would I want to see all this on film? And pay for it! So I now pay for my cinema ticket to see a slice of life, so see the ordinary look made extraordinary with sound, light, music and faces. Life has just become tough; all that the audience wants is to see earnestness on screen. Get me earnest performers, please.

Vishal Bharadwaj’s Maqbool thrust ‘Irrfan’ Khan, an unconventional, dark skinned TV actor into the title role, opening the eyes of filmmakers. With a little bit of daring, even sidebar players can be burdened with the responsibility of carrying a movie on their shoulders.

Side dish
Look at films nowadays. There are so many good roles written apart from the lead role, for which many talented performers are being beckoned. The side dish is suddenly the main fare!

Result: characters who were taboo earlier are the most sought after by actors. Now roles of eunuchs, poverty embellished farmers, homosexuals, pimps, corrupt politicians are on a priority list and are being performed with gusto by mainstream actors.

The fashion is to go against the image. In fact, go a step ahead and systematically smash the cultivated images.

I’m happy about this change. There are so many gifted actors who will get a chance to be right up there. Actors who have sharp skills to offer and nothing else. No cultivated media hyperbole, no Page 3 appearances, no buttering up the hero to acquire prized projects. No entourages! Just simple give and take.

You give me my due in lieu of a performance built on blood, tears, energy and earnestness. Period.

The list is long if I jog my memory, of actors whom I have worked with and whom I hope to see in the future. I have a message for them. Thanks for not getting frustrated and cynical, for keeping faith in your self and in your craft.
I know it must have been tough when you sat out in the open on locations while the hero slept in the comfort of the vanity van. But I hope this is your time in the sun. Success will come, but please do not get swayed by the glamour and fame.

Keep your head on your shoulders. And remember your lines. So what if Mr Amitabh Bachchan and Mr Anil Kapoor are clamouring for your parts nowadays!