Our Real ’Heroes’

Debarati Palit Singh
Saturday, 19 May 2018

Supporting actors are increasingly grabbing substantial roles in Bollywood. Debarati Palit Singh looks at the changing trend and how the audience is slowly beginning to accept it

Until just a few years ago, we would segregate our actors into categories — lead, supporting, comedians, extras, villains and other such. The industry loved stereotyping actors into these as the quintessential ‘hero’ would continue being the hero for decades and even romance heroines 20 years younger to him. The famed villain would continue being the bad guy for years while the comedian’s role would be restricted to bringing some light moments to films. The role of supporting actors was to be ‘that friend’ of the hero or heroine, play the sacrificial father/mother or other woman/man in love with the protagonist.

Blurring the line

The picture is gradually changing though. While A-list actors like Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar and a few others still carry ‘the hero’ tag, the rest prefer being called just actors. We also are doing away with the designated villains. Sometimes our established heroes play baddies — Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat or Saif Ali Khan in Omkara are among these.

Similarly, the traditional filmmaking methodology is undergoing changes. One interesting trend is the prominence that the so-called supporting actors are getting in films now. Earlier, they would get lost in the film and most movie-goers wouldn’t even know their real names. But filmmakers and the audiences alike are now accepting them as an integral part of a film. Why, even stories are being written around them.

Sanjay Mishra, who started off playing small roles, has played the protagonist in Rajat Kapoor’s Ankho Dekhi, Nila Madhav Panda’s Kadvi Hawa and recently released Angrezi Main Kehte Hai directed by Harish Vyas. Pankaj Tripathi last made an impact with Shanker Raman’s gritty thriller Gurgaon, Adil Hussain impressed everyone in Chandraprakash Dwivedi’s Zed Plus and last year in Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (Hotel Salvation). Among the females was Swara Bhaskar who made a mark with Ashwini Iyer’s Nil Battey Sannata and Anaarkali of Aarah directed by Avinash Das. Kunaal Roy Kapoor has successfully played both the supporting and protagonist roles in films like Delhi Belly, Nautanki Saala, 3 Dev. And the list continues.

New-age directors and producers are exploring newer subjects with these actors and telling interesting stories.

Sanjay says that it’s a huge responsibility playing such roles. “My intention is to carry forward the story in a balanced way because they have put the responsibility on my shoulders,” he says, adding, “I also take great pride in the fact that stories are being written keeping me in mind and filmmakers are interested in me. So I have to give something unique through my work.”

Kumud Mishra, another actor, believes that supporting actors have always got important parts to play in Hindi cinema. “They got immense prominence when the writing was weak or the lead actors failed to do their job. Having said that, it’s our job to bring the character alive.”

In an earlier interview given to ST, Kumud had said that one thing that has changed is that today, filmmakers go into detailing of these characters. He adds that even the stock characters like that of a mother or a police officer have something new to offer every time they appear on screen.

Gulshan Devaiah, known for playing the lead in films like Hunterrr, Shaitan and supporting roles in Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela, Junooniyat and others, believes that we still have a long way to go. “This is just the beginning and we have a long way to go before such actors get the title roles in films. Look at Rajkummar Rao, he is a fantastic actor and the leading man but until and unless his films make a certain amount of money at the box-office, he is not looked at as a commercial actor,” he says.

Adil Hussain has a rather strong take on the subject. He doesn’t understand the different terms used in the film industry. “If an actor is called the hero, it doesn’t mean he is the lead actor. A hero is someone who does heroic things on screen or in real life. But thanks to our uneducated way of looking at things, the protagonist is called the hero. We first need to understand the different terms we use,” he believes.

Independent films

Most industry experts believe that it’s only after the popularity of independent or small films that filmmakers have started showing the willingess to experiment with talented actors. When we say ‘independent’, we usually mean films made by first-time producers or producers who truly believe in the potential of the project. These films do not get any kind of backing from well-known production houses. In the last decade or so, the industry has witnessed many such critically-acclaimed independent films which have not only wooed audience in India but abroad too.

Gulshan says that a certain kind of film get categorised as a small film and does not get a wide viewership. “These films give actors like Pankaj and Sanjay an opportunity to front the film,” he says, adding, “These films have a controlled budget so that the returns are high but these films are few and far between and it will take some time for more like these to come.”

 “Some filmmakers are taking the bold step of writing these characters,” Sanjay says. And Adil believes that the changing mindset of young filmmakers is because of the access they get to world cinema. “So they are writing stories which require actors who can change their characteristics completely without bothering about their look, the way they talk or act,” he says, pointing to the fact that the trend of new-age directors wanting to make incredible realistic films in India is new but in Europe it has been existing for ages.

Trade analyst Atul Mohan says that directors are now ready to sign actors who can fit the characters as per as the demand of the script which is a good sign.

The changing audience

The change, believe actors and industry experts, is because of the audience who not only want to see the super-heroes on screen and would rather see protagonists with ‘human’ qualities. Because of them, filmmakers and writers are creating characters who are just like you and me.  

During a recent interaction with ST, Nawazuddin Siddiqui had said that the reason Bollywood heroes today have a mix of both positive and negative traits like Salman Khan (Dabangg), Shah Rukh Khan (Raees) or himself in Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is because it makes them relatable. “The audience connects with such characters. If we make a typical film where the hero romances a woman much younger to him and beats up 25 men at one go, it won’t work anymore. Earlier, the audience liked seeing their heroes being either completely positive or negative but they are realising that such people do not exist,” he said.

Gulshan, however, argues that a large section of the audience still wants to have a good time watching a film. “They want their hero and heroine to look beautiful,” he says, adding that the change will come when the films will make them think and not just entertain them.

Throwing light on the history of Indian cinema and theatre, Adil says that India, until the 5th century AD, did not have common people as characters. “There would be kings, queens and gods. But then Sudrak wrote a play — Mrichhakatika, which was later made into a film titled Utsav starring Rekha and Shekhar Suman. It was the first play in the history of dramatic literature in India which had common people as main characters. It had a prostitute and a thief. After that, there were many such stories,” he says.

The challenges

There are several challenges not just for the actors but also for makers. Most of these actors are easily typecast in the roles they are offered. Seema Pahwa, who has changed the way we look at our reel mothers, played two very diverse characters last year. During a recent interaction with Rajeev Masand, she had said that she was being offered roles of mothers who are concerned about their daughters’ wedding. She had said, “I just want to point out that women who are in their 50s don’t have just one problem. Do people realise that after crossing 50, women can actually have different kinds of problems — emotional, mental and physical? No one is concentrating on that.”

Just like Seema, many are facing similar challenges. Pankaj Tripathi, who received the National Award for his role in Newton and was seen in six films last year, says that he is now focusing on the fact that he doesn’t repeat the characters he played before. “I am working hard for that. I need something new and I have many new characters because I keep mingling with several people. I have had a very interesting journey where I have met lakhs of people. I have travelled in trains, lived by the river sides and gained a lot of knowledge,” says Pankaj.

The producers and directors too have their own share of challenges. Distribution and exhibition is a major test considering that the number of people watching such new-age films are limited.

Mohan says that though the times are changing for content-driven films, distribution and exhibition continue to be a big hindrance still. “Releasing these films can be an issue because we are known to give prominence to films with big stars that can draw the crowds. Content-driven films get limited screens,” he says.

Of course, these films do get a push if the content is really strong. “We have recently seen many small films which have done good business at the box-office after the viewers came out and supported the film on social media.”

An industry insider says that even the price of tickets can put off the audience and it’s time that multiplexes realised that they need to price the tickets according to the cast of the film to attract audience towards such movies. “We still spend Rs 300 to 500 per ticket if the film has big stars, great action and music and wait for a month for small independent movies to premiere on television,” he says, concluding that all stakeholders must come together to make independent movies more sustainable. This will also mean acknowledging all actors, irrespective of their star status.

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