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Help! I’m seeing double: The Way We Were by Poonam Saxena

Updated on Jul 09, 2022 01:54 PM IST

Actors playing two roles, three roles, even as many as nine: An ode to a trope that harks back to the days of old Bollywood.

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Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) had not one but two double roles. Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) was a tale of very different twins. Sanjeev Kumar played nine characters in Naya Din Nai Raat (1974).

Fifty years ago, a film was released that captured one of Bollywood’s most beloved tropes: the double role. The staple double role is that of identical twins separated at birth and usually dramatically different (good / evil; cop / robber). But sometimes a double role means that the same actor plays different characters, like a father and son or mother and daughter. In such a scenario, the double role also lends itself beautifully to comedy.

Here’s the thing about double roles: all actors want to attempt one at some point because it gives them a chance to showcase their talent. It’s also an assertion of star power, since they will dominate the film completely.

Double roles continue to crop up; they’ve always been an audience favourite. But the newer films are up against such a formidable legacy that few stand out in comparison. Double roles are also more effective when combined with rousing dialogue, catchy songs, and good old-fashioned confrontation / conflict scenes, none of which is sadly in vogue now.

The 50-year-old film in question was Ramesh Sippy’s Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), with Hema Malini playing twins separated at birth. There was the meek, terrified Seeta and her polar opposite, the tough, bold Geeta. The hit film was inspired by the very successful Dilip Kumar starrer Ram Aur Shyam (1967). It was the great Dilip Kumar’s first double role. His performance as the timid Ram was a delightfully tongue-in-cheek take on his earlier “suffering” roles (think, Dil Diya Dard Liya).

For the same actor playing different, contrasting roles, my vote goes to Amitabh Bachchan in Don (1978), where he played the ruthless underworld don and the simple, paan-chewing street singer. In his book The Making of Don, author Krishna Gopalan reveals how the latter was modelled on one of the nine characters that Sanjeev Kumar played in the 1974 film Naya Din Nai Raat, that of a stage artist named Phool Kunwar. No other Hindi film has had one actor in nine roles, though actors have done triple roles, as Bachchan did in the 1983 film Mahaan (where he played an embattled businessman and his two sons).

It’s interesting to think that Naya Din Nai Raat was first offered to Dilip Kumar, who declined (he’d already done Ram Aur Shyam and was working on a triple role in Bairaag). It was he who suggested Sanjeev Kumar. The film has no real story: Jaya Bhaduri has run away from home; as she careens all over the countryside, she encounters a range of odd characters, from an elderly doctor to a killer, all played by Sanjeev Kumar in an assortment of wigs and makeup.

Naya Din Nai Raat, based on the Tamil film Navarathri (1964), was basically a vehicle for Sanjeev Kumar to show off his acting chops. Not everyone was impressed. In their biography of Sanjeev Kumar, Hanif Zaveri and Sumant Batra tell of how actor Shabana Azmi watched the film and criticised the performance on a few points. Sanjeev Kumar heard her out, but after she left, remarked, “Today she taught me how to act. Perhaps tomorrow she will teach Dilip Kumar too.”

Sanjeev Kumar was memorable though, even in a simple double role. Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) had not one but two double roles, the other played by Deven Verma. Two pairs of twins cause a host of hilarious mix-ups, and what with the two men’s pitch-perfect performances, the film remains a comedic classic.

For my money, probably the best recent example of a double role is Fan (2016), where Shah Rukh Khan plays both the obsessed fan and the enigmatic superstar. But even today, the image that immediately springs to mind on hearing the words “double role” is that of identical twins separated at birth, a trope harking back to the delectable charms of old Bollywood.

Fifty years ago, a film was released that captured one of Bollywood’s most beloved tropes: the double role. The staple double role is that of identical twins separated at birth and usually dramatically different (good / evil; cop / robber). But sometimes a double role means that the same actor plays different characters, like a father and son or mother and daughter. In such a scenario, the double role also lends itself beautifully to comedy.

Here’s the thing about double roles: all actors want to attempt one at some point because it gives them a chance to showcase their talent. It’s also an assertion of star power, since they will dominate the film completely.

Double roles continue to crop up; they’ve always been an audience favourite. But the newer films are up against such a formidable legacy that few stand out in comparison. Double roles are also more effective when combined with rousing dialogue, catchy songs, and good old-fashioned confrontation / conflict scenes, none of which is sadly in vogue now.

The 50-year-old film in question was Ramesh Sippy’s Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), with Hema Malini playing twins separated at birth. There was the meek, terrified Seeta and her polar opposite, the tough, bold Geeta. The hit film was inspired by the very successful Dilip Kumar starrer Ram Aur Shyam (1967). It was the great Dilip Kumar’s first double role. His performance as the timid Ram was a delightfully tongue-in-cheek take on his earlier “suffering” roles (think, Dil Diya Dard Liya).

For the same actor playing different, contrasting roles, my vote goes to Amitabh Bachchan in Don (1978), where he played the ruthless underworld don and the simple, paan-chewing street singer. In his book The Making of Don, author Krishna Gopalan reveals how the latter was modelled on one of the nine characters that Sanjeev Kumar played in the 1974 film Naya Din Nai Raat, that of a stage artist named Phool Kunwar. No other Hindi film has had one actor in nine roles, though actors have done triple roles, as Bachchan did in the 1983 film Mahaan (where he played an embattled businessman and his two sons).

It’s interesting to think that Naya Din Nai Raat was first offered to Dilip Kumar, who declined (he’d already done Ram Aur Shyam and was working on a triple role in Bairaag). It was he who suggested Sanjeev Kumar. The film has no real story: Jaya Bhaduri has run away from home; as she careens all over the countryside, she encounters a range of odd characters, from an elderly doctor to a killer, all played by Sanjeev Kumar in an assortment of wigs and makeup.

Naya Din Nai Raat, based on the Tamil film Navarathri (1964), was basically a vehicle for Sanjeev Kumar to show off his acting chops. Not everyone was impressed. In their biography of Sanjeev Kumar, Hanif Zaveri and Sumant Batra tell of how actor Shabana Azmi watched the film and criticised the performance on a few points. Sanjeev Kumar heard her out, but after she left, remarked, “Today she taught me how to act. Perhaps tomorrow she will teach Dilip Kumar too.”

Sanjeev Kumar was memorable though, even in a simple double role. Gulzar’s Angoor (1982) had not one but two double roles, the other played by Deven Verma. Two pairs of twins cause a host of hilarious mix-ups, and what with the two men’s pitch-perfect performances, the film remains a comedic classic.

For my money, probably the best recent example of a double role is Fan (2016), where Shah Rukh Khan plays both the obsessed fan and the enigmatic superstar. But even today, the image that immediately springs to mind on hearing the words “double role” is that of identical twins separated at birth, a trope harking back to the delectable charms of old Bollywood.

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