‘Character actors’ are the new heroes of Bollywood
Not many actors can boast of four consecutive hits in one year. But playing markedly different characters in Gurgaon, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Newton and Anaarkali of Aarah, Pankaj Tripathi won the critics’ nod and box office numbers.
Nor can one expect a three-film old ‘supporting actor’ to hog the limelight in a film boasting three of Bollywood’s top stars. Sanja Leela Bhansali’s Padmavaat had Ranveer Singh, Shahid Kapoor, and Deepika Padukone; but the next best thing to Ranveer’s powerhouse Khilji was Jim Sarbh’s brilliant portrayal of as homosexual slave-general and Khilji’s paramour, Malik Kafur.
Last year, Vikrant Massey, the quintessential ‘hero’s best friend’ got a sudden upgrade with Shutu, the unlikely hero of Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death in the Gunj. And then Manav Kaul, possibly the most suave Bollywood villain after Vinod Khanna, suddenly turned all cute and lovable as he played the hero-husband to Vidya Balan in one of last year’s biggest hits, Tumhari Sulu.
Can it be that Bollywood is finally shifting the spotlight from ‘hero’ to ‘actor’? The fantastic four discuss this topic at an adda at Prithvi Theatre’s Prithvi Cafe for our benefit.
What has changed…
“Earlier the vegetable vendor in my neighbourhood would look down upon me, and now even he suggests that I wear better clothes and comb my hair as I am a film star. So he finally knows what I do,” chuckles Pankaj.
Seriously, though, after last year’s successes, Pankaj finally has the breathing room to actually choose his roles, rather than accept anything that comes his way. “I would seldom read scripts before signing; now I insist on a script. The audience has put so much trust in me, I can’t fail them,” he says.
For Vikrant, who started off as a television actor, the last year was huge. “I had not expected things to change so much and so fast,” he says. “But I am not delusional. I know I am not yet in a position to pick and choose.”
For Jim, 2017 was less remarkable. He had a small role in Death in the Gunj and Raabta was a disaster. “I hope Padmavat has changed my career,” he says. “I only got villain roles, and now I am really hoping I will get more interesting roles. If not, I am willing to wait.” However, he has already wrapped up one international project and is shooting for another.
For Manav, Tumhari Sulu was the kind of film Jim is waiting for. “I was trying to not do yet another negative role,” he says. “I didn’t want to get boxed in. So I was sitting at home for almost 18 months. Then I got the audition for Tumhari Sulu, and now I am getting all sorts of roles.”
Bye, bye hero?
Despite the astounding successes of character actors last year, Jim does not believe Bollywood has changed. “Even now a Baaghi 2 does more business than a Mukkabaaz,” he rues. “We can’t deny that the beauty bias is still a huge thing in India. People are still not willing to invest in a character that is not immaculate. I think we need to catch up with the world there. Look at international shows. In The Sopranos, for instance, none of the actors are particularly good looking. But the characters they play are so well written that they pique the interest of the audience.”
But there is hope, says Pankaj. Scriptwriters today are creating more well-rounded characters other than the hero. “It is very simple. In the Ramayana, Ram is the hero. But Lakshman can also become the hero if the scriptwriter so wants,” he says. “The writing is changing.”
Manav agrees with Pankaj, but adds that greater internet penetration in India means that even audiences in small towns are more exposed to international standards of filmmaking.
For Vikrant, this is just part of a cycle. While he believes it’s too premature to say that characters are the new heroes, he points out that Hindi films never had a dearth of good character actors. “There was always a Pran or a Balraj Sahni, or an Om Puri or a Naseer saab. They paved the way for us,” says Vikrant. “In between there was a period when the quality of our cinema had hit rock bottom. And today we have started to make good films again. But due to digital platforms, perhaps today we are getting more visibility than ever.”
On the flipside, points out Pankaj, if your content is not good enough, the audience will switch to something else. Adds Manav: “There is no option but to be good at your craft. You can’t bullshit the audience or take them for granted.”
All hail the script…
“Today you have writers coming from smaller cities like Lucknow, Allahabad, Bareilly, and their stories talk of that India,” says Manav. “Most of the films that that are doing well these days are dominated by the script. And a good script requires a good actor to pull it off. We are in the right place at the right time.”
It helps that producers investing in smaller film want a good return on their investment and so look for actors rather than stars, muses Pankaj. “At the end of the day, filmmaking is a business and nobody wants to lose money. Actors will do justice to the roles and are also pocket friendly,” he explains.
But is money flowing like honey?
Filmmakers doing small films are getting comparatively better budgets than before, says Vikrant. But having said that, adds Manav, actors are paid what they’re worth. “If they really need me for a role, they will give the money I demand, but I need to create that need,” he says. “I love the brutality of this industry. What I am offering determines my price. Look where Nawaz was and where he is now. People are giving him whatever he asks because he has proved his worth in every movie.”
Jim laughs. “You can squeeze them for more money, but only if you are worth it,” he says. “You have to smell out how important you are to this person.”
And of course, everyone always wants more grins Pankaj. “A person who is getting Rs 2 crore will always want to be the one getting Rs 4 crore. If you are chasing money, you will be troubled. We are actors. I love to act and I am getting good roles. What else can I want?”
Bullish at the box office…
Masala movies will never lose their charm, the four actors agree. And films need to make money so more films can be made.
“For the majority of the audience, movies should ultimately provide an escape from the mundane realities of life. We need to acknowledge the common man, and for the common man cinema is entertainment,” muses Vikrant. But Jim points out that there need be no contradiction between good cinema and entertaining cinema. “If you look at Hollywood most of their mainstream commercial films are content driven,” he says.
Manav agrees. “Look at Dangal. It is an out-and-out commercial film, but what storytelling,” he says. “Aamir Khan has cracked that formula. Make a Rs 100 crore film, but keep the heart and mind in the right place. At the same time, I loved Death in the Gunj. It was a small-budget ‘content driven’ film but also immensely entertaining.”
Commercial Hindi films keep single-screen theatres running. “Or else they would have become banquet halls,” says Pankaj. “Commercial cinema should not be looked down upon. We all want to do mainstream commercial cinema, but it should have an interesting story and script. Films are not supposed to be lullabies. Filmmakers don’t want the audience to doze off while watching their films.”
Follow @ananya1281 on Twitter
From HT Brunch, May 20, 2018
Follow us on twitter.com/HTBrunch
Connect with us on facebook.com/hindustantimesbrunch