THE BIG PICTURE

Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 20 April 2019

These are the times of the new age actors, who are not hero material, but are boys/men next door — real and believable. AMRITA PRASAD finds out what this means for the celluloid and digital entertainment space

One of the charms of being a part of the art world, even as an observer, is to see how it’s evolving, how art imitates life and vice versa, how new ideas are being tossed about and what the filmmakers, theatre practitioners, scriptwriters, musicians and actors are making of them. Coming to films, in the last one decade or so, we are celebrating the fact that we have strong women-centric films with meatier roles for heroines. Films like Pink, Piku, Highway, Queen, Kahaani, NH10, Lipstick Under My Burkha, and recent projects like Raazi, Mardani and Mom have changed the template of how a heroine is quintessentially perceived.

But this change, like all other social transformation that we are seeing around us, can be attributed to the yin and yang factor. To put it simply, we are now seeing our heroes in a different light, more human, more flawed and imperfect. And if the heroes are reassuringly normal and real, why should the heroines be plasticky and the ‘damsel in distress’ variety? All of this has resulted in the middle-of-the-road cinema which has the boy/man and girl/woman next door as our leads. 

We track the rise of these heroes and what they mean for the entertainment space —  celluloid and digital. 

REAL VS IDEAL
In the ’70s, ’80s and the ’90s, the male lead in commercial cinema would invariably be a macho man who protected women, beat up the bad guys, and was righteous. In short, an ideal guy. Compare this image with Kabir Mehra (Ranveer Singh) from Dil Dhadakne Do, Ved and Ayan (Ranbir Kapoor) in Tamasha and Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, Imran (Farhan Akhtar) in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Dan (Varun Dhawan) in October. All these characters are far from perfect. They are meek, fragile, flawed, vulnerable and unable to handle rejection. 

The stereotypes around the male characters are now slowly getting shattered. Anjum Rajabali, screenwriter for films like Drohkaal, Ghulam, Apaharan and Satyagraha says, “Acknowledging human complexities and vulnerability of male characters, especially the leads, makes them more identifiable, thus becoming more appealing to the viewer. A story’s richness comes from exploring the internal drama of characters, and bringing out their multi-dimensional inferiority. It is the conflict compounded with the circumstantial obstacles that actually makes for a more absorbing story experience.” 

When asked if this shift is giving writers more scope to go deeper into the characters, Rajabali, who is also the honorary head of Screenplay Writing at the Film and Television Institute of India, replies, “That is the intention of this shift, as you call it. Once you see your characters as human beings, with all the contradictions and unresolved issues in their personality, the story naturally invites the writer to look inwards. And, frankly, the really interesting discoveries lie there.”  

Swati Semwal, actor and screenwriter, supports Rajabali’s views. Semwal, who was seen in films like Bareilly Ki Barfi and Fanney Khan, says that she is glad to see this change.

“We are getting to see men as humans and not just as personifications of masculinity. As a result, the women characters too are not restricted to dancing and being a beauty and glamour quotient in films. They have a personality too. This brings in a lot of positive change that we need at this point in time,” she says. 

“These characters are presented in a certain personality type, which isn’t unidimensional. And that’s why you feel drawn to them. They aren’t the typical heroes coming out of the cookie-cutter mould, they have both good and bad in them, because they have been stripped down to their raw, honest, and relatable essence,” Semwal points out. 

But, Savitaraaj Hiremath, producer of award-winning films Khosla Ka Ghosla and Jhund, feels that this isn’t a recent trend. “The narrative around men isn’t new in films. Devdas was also portrayed as a delicate and emotional person. It’s just that in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, men were shown to be more dominating in films. In that same era, we had actors like Amol Palekar, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Shaikh, who changed the image of the Indian film hero. Let’s also not forget films like Dev D that offered us a path-breaking definition of the lead hero,” says Hiremath.  

THUMB’S UP FROM THE AUDIENCE
The Hindi film audience, who loved masala films with their heroes being the knight in the shining armour, have surprisingly showered love on their new human heroes too. Saqib Saleem, who has worked in films like Race 3, Dil Juunglee, Dishoom, thinks that cinema, as an entertaining medium has evolved and progressed a lot over the decades.

“The kind of stories and genres that filmmakers used to dabble in the past are not viable anymore. Society has changed and so has the way the layperson thinks. It’s great that filmmakers have adapted themselves to the changing times and created characters that seem more relatable and believable, case in point, the reformed graph of the male hero,” says Saqib, who will soon be seen in the upcoming film 83.

Besides films, one can see this trend in webseries too. Saqib, who is also playing a role in ZEE5’s webseries Rangbaaz, says, “I think my character, Shiv Prakash Shukla in Rangbaaz is bordering on the lines of the protagonist-antagonist. He is flawed, he mercilessly kills people but at the same time, you’ll realise that he is human. As an actor that gives us more meat to work on, it gives us space to show the different shades of a character.” 

Semwal, who has directed short films like Kirdaar, Blossom in Love, Abnormal 377, says that she liked Saif Ali Khan’s misfit police officer actor Sartaj Singh in Sacred Games. “He is imperfect, struggling to stick to his job after a failed relationship and that’s why the common man connected to his character. The audience is actually appreciating these kinds of characters, because they are also watching global cinema. Now, it’s difficult to woo the audience. Big films starring big stars are flopping and small films with small budgets and great character graphs and performances are crossing Rs 100 crore mark. This is evidence enough of the changing mindset of the audience,” says Semwal. 

Hiremath, who has co-founded the Tandav Films, feels that the audience connects with the characters who also have emotional upheavals, just like them. “If these characters face similar emotional issues, then the audience definitely feels the connection. When we tackle subjects like rape on celluloid, we should also the show the pressure that a man faces, the image of masculinity that they have to look up to. This will find resonance amongst people,” she points out.

The producer then goes on to talk about what makes an audience connect with a film — real and organic characters. “People enjoyed Khosla ka Ghosla because they could relate with each character. They could see their father or an elderly figure in their family in Mr Khosla. The reason why it became a mass cult film, is because, in the end, the people’s voice matched onscreen and off-screen,” she adds. 

Unnikrishnan Nair, founder and CEO, Begaana Pictures, attributes the change to a  new crop of filmmakers and producers. He says, “Filmmaker with fresh voices are willing to take risks and challenge the widely accepted notion of a ‘Bollywood hero’. A lot has changed as to how the hero conducts himself and reacts to difficult situations. It has moved closer to the real zone. While we have a long way to go, it is reassuring to see some incredible actors being given incredible roles that are rooted in reality.”

CRAFTING THE CHARACTERS
Kunal Kemmu stars in ZEE5’s Abhay and essays the role of SP Abhay Pratap Singh. He solves bone-chilling murder cases while dealing with his own personal demons. “Gone are the days, when an actor would fight off everyone, be good at everything and gain popularity. My character Abhay Pratap Singh is a strong cop, but also has layers of emotions beneath the veneer. Abhay is worried for his son; he is running away from his past and fighting his internal demons. Characters like these are more relatable and human and hence they are interesting to play and hopefully to watch as well,” quips Kunal, who has acted in zombie flick, Go Goa Gone and Golmaal Again. 

Actor Arjun Rampal too has chosen to portray a regular guy as his next role. Arjun, who is playing Captain Karan Sachdev in The Final Call on ZEE5, says that his character is not a flawless action hero but a normal man. “I am playing the role of a man who has lost the people he loved and he is guilty, depressed and desperate enough to punish himself for what has happened. It was good to play a role which was so close to being human and I have received lot of praise and feedback for it. This shows that people today are not looking for a hero figure but someone who is more closer to reality,” he explains. 

Rajabali says that a shift occurs in the approach of screenwriting when the writer identifies himself or herself as a member of contemporary society. “S/he is not speaking to the audience, but actually having a conversation with her/his own self. If his/her perspective has evolved, it is obviously because the audience’s perspective too has changed. After all, the writer is also a member of the audience. When you make your heroes complex and multi-dimensional, the audience finds them more credible,” says Rajabali, adding that he liked Ranbir’s character in Ae Dil.. and Farhan’s in Zindagi Na...  

Ask him if Bollywood actors are finally willing to change who they have been playing over the decades, Rajabali answers, “It seems quite obvious that they are willing to. Why won’t they? If they resist, they’re in danger of losing the audience.” 

Semwal says that as a writer, this transition opens up a space to bring more layers to a character. “It is no more black and white now, it can have a rainbow shade, a grey shade. My canvas has expanded it seems. Also, I feel more liberated since now I can write characters with flaws and experiment with them,” she adds. 

As a producer, Hiremath thinks that there was and there is a scope for experimentation with characters. “Hrishikesh Mukherjee experimented in this genre with Amol Palekar. His films were a big part of the middle class narrative and there was nothing stopping it even then. Even the success of films like Tumhari Sulu explained that it can work,” she says. 

Saqib, who is looking forward to essaying such roles in future, says, “The most important and challenging thing for an actor is to attempt different roles and genres and portray characters that would help him showcase his versatility. I think the audience likes watching real characters, that’s one of the most important reasons why content-driven films and real characters are working. They showcase real set up, authentic dialogues and convincing performances besides a brilliant narrative.”

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