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A telling story


THE REAL MCCOY: A single-minded focus on acting ensured that Abhay Deol credibly transformed into Krishnan, the bureaucrat, in 'Shanghai'

For actors across the world, the works of Shakespeare remain the holy grail of roles. On screen and on stage, not many have been able to resist the lure of Hamlet or Othello. Al Pacino played Shylock, Laurence Olivier was a memorable Hamlet and Leonardo DiCaprio attempted Romeo in Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet and last year, Ralph Fiennes played Coriolanus.

In 2006, Vishal Bhardwaj made the risky decision to adapt Othello and set it in UP, as Omkara. The obvious risk was that he was adapting Shakespeare in Bollywood, which he had done previously in Maqbool, and because Omkara featured an A-List star cast of Ajay Devgn, Kareena Kapoor and Saif Ali Khan.

But it was risky also because Kareena Kapoor playing Dolly Mishra, had last read Othello in school a decade before she acted in the film. In an interview before the film's release she said: "I had read Othello when I was in school. I felt Vishalji has taken the film ten steps ahead of the actual story. When Vishalji narrated the script to me, I liked it a lot. I would have been a fool not to take the role. I did not need to do any research for the role. Vishalji is a worldclass director. "

Vishal Bhardwaj is indeed a wonderful director and Kapoor's performance as the innocent Dolly Mishra won critical plaudits (" luminescently innocent" proclaimed Shobhaa De) but is there any other film industry where reading the original text on which your character is based can be so easily bypassed with such levity?

If Bollywood were high school, our stars would be the 'jocks', looking down on all forms of textual input as nerdy. The only superstar who admits to intensively researching his character motivations and role is Aamir Khan and the fact that his exacting nature leads to periodic fallouts with almost every director he works with, clearly makes him something of an anomaly.

But for our stars, poring through pages of script to decide if a film is worthy seems superfluous. What is needed to pique their interest in a project is a director who can tell them the film version of a bedtime story, which is called a script narration. That is ultimately how most films move from the zygotic stage inside a director's head to the embryonic one that has a star attached. Sometimes, even the narration is circumvented. Akshay Kumar admitted that he committed to Chandni Chowk to China because the studio pitched him the poster of the film, which he thought had potential.

Scriptwriter, author and playwright Farrukh Dhondy summed it up best, when recounting his experience of sitting through months of 'script discussion' with Subhash Ghai on his film Kisna. He said: "If Hollywood cinema thrives on observation, Bollywood is exactly the opposite. It is, instead, about imagination. " Maybe that imagination encompasses a thing called 'bound script' which even though a fairly recent occurrence, has become a fig leaf to hide chaos.

In India, epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana have been passed down for centuries with no written record, but surely Bollywood is not fighting to keep our oral story tradition alive. Neither are any of our stars lazy. They work backbreaking 16-hour shifts on back-to-back projects, and mostly live in their gyms. And yet when it comes to taking a leap with their craft, they remain content as long as three digits are followed by the word crore.

Across the board, almost all stars like to claim that they don't research their roles and always play it on instinct. It is as if they believe that craft and talent are mutually exclusive and having one means the diminishing of the other. Or they want us to buy into the mythology of stardom, whereby some alchemy, the director yells 'action' and the actor turns on his or her talent switch, magically enchanting all with their style and charisma.

Acting is a craft, as is filmmaking. It comes with techniques that amplify natural talent. It is strange that actors are the only block that is stuck in a time-warp. From screenplay writing to costumes to makeup to music, every major department that rolls along on the credits when a film ends has witnessed a silent revolution. People like Aki Narula and Niharika Khan are taking costume designing to a new level with their work in Rockstar and The Dirty Picture. In the music department, Sneha Khanwalkar is literally tripping on sound and going to far-flung places to get authentic sound that matches her film. People like Alan Amin are making sure that our stunt design is up to par.

There are some filmmakers who are pushing the acting bar. Before making Shanghai, Dibakar Banerjee put his whole cast through a series of intensive acting workshops with Atul Mongia and the results were there for all to see. Stars like Abhay Deol and Emraan Hashmi completely transformed into their characters Krishnan and Jogi Parmar.

But largely, the only transformation our stars are okay with is the physical kind. They can subsist on protein and bulk up to Hulk-ian proportions like John Abraham in Force or Ajay Devgn in Singham. They can whittle themselves down like Kareena Kapoor in Tashan. This physical exertion is considered acceptable because cinema is a visual medium. It is also a cerebral one, and no amount of abdominal muscles will convince me that John Abraham is a cop if he can't act.

It is worth pondering why this mindset is particular to our current reigning stars (not actors). Our finest actors, from Naseeruddin Shah to Amitabh Bachchan to Pankaj Kapur, Irrfan Khan, Nawazzudin Siddique have all studied acting or cinema at either FTII or NSD (National School of Drama). A middle ground between the so-called "serious actors" and stars must exist, even if Amitabh Bachchan is the only superstar to have navigated it successfully.

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