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Blast from the cast
The dream of making it big in Bollywood is a tough one. When nothing else seems to be going right for the struggler, that dream is often fuelled by the stories of those who made it big. According to Bollywood legends, there are two trajectories to stardom: one is the talented, hungry commoner who had stars in his (it's usually a 'he' ) eyes and ran away from home, slept on the footpaths of Mumbai before being spotted, getting a break and making it big.
The less glamorous rise to stardom is that of the extra who worked her (this is usually a 'her' ) way up through sheer hard work and chutzpah. This applies to yesteryears' heroine Mumtaz who actually worked her way up and whose story has been appropriated by Ram Gopal Varma for Rangeela and more recently by Milan Luthria for The Dirty Picture.
Tellingly, there are no complimentary legends revolving around becoming a 'character actor'. These actors that populate our cinema are largely relegated to playing brothers and friend-of-hero or father-of-heroine or the plain Jane friendof-the-heroine. Their faces are familiar but their names are not. Their names never make it to film posters and you will never seem them stepping out of an airplane wearing shades in the evening in an attempt to remain incognito. Bob Biswas: The polite assassin Kahaani's Bob Biswas, played by Saswata Chatterjee, is therefore something of a novelty. Everyone including Chatterjee, (who says he never saw it coming) was taken by surprise the popularity of the meek, paunchy, balding assassin moonlighting as an insurance agent. Chatterjee embodied Bob Biswas so well that it now has a fake Twitter alter ego. There is also Bob Biswas fan art. A graphic novel is also slated to be out soon and there is even talk of a television serial. It means Biswas is now a culture meme and will be alive in popular consciousness much after Kahaani, the film he appeared in has exited theatres.
In Paan Singh Tomar, actor Brijendra Kala had a few moments as a journalist with a stammer interviewing the athleteturned-dacoit, but he made his mark in that scene. Kala earlier had an equally fleeting and memorable scene as the cab driver in Jab We Met. As Chatterjee and Kala are successfully demonstrating, the length of a role and its impact are not always directly correlated, and Bollywood may finally be giving the character actor the attention it deserves.
The A-List stars in Bollywood have many fears of alienating their carefully nurtured audience base. So coveted is the devotion of fans that not ruffling their feathers is often paramount. And so much of the energy is involved in producing, directing and marketing a film with stars that they often have a say in scripts. No such trappings bother the character actor. He doesn't care what his fan base would think of him getting beaten up. He doesn't have to triumph. And most liberating of all, he doesn't have to be liked. And while everyone has an opinion on which star can act and which not, the acting chops of a character actor are often taken for granted. Like a background music director or a costume person, their brief is to blend in and not stand out.
Sreenivasan: The opportunistic cop
It probably helps that some actors like Chatterjee and Mohanlal, who played Commissioner Sreenivasan in the 2002 film Company and won awards for it, are already well established in their regional pockets to try something new in other language films. Mohanlal also featured in the universally panned RGV Ki Sholay but even deciding to play an iconic Thakur was a risky move, which many actors in Bollywood balked at. Maybe regional fan bases (other than Rajinikanth's ) are more forgiving than ours.
At a more superficial level, neither Chatterjee nor Mohanlal look like heroes, and that mould has been very fixed for a long time. When Bollywood says 'unconventional looking', it stretches itself to cover an Emraan Hashmi and Ajay Devgn. Indeed, for Chatterjee to star in a movie would require some realigning of what the industry pre-requisites of a hero are: face, body and dancing skills.
Jimmy Singh: The earnest brother
But there is hope. Look at Ram Kapoor who turned in a wonderful performance as the Jimmy, the brother of Ronit Roy's abusive father in the 2010 film Udaan, but is more surprisingly, the most popular actor in television thanks to Ekta Kapoor's TV show Badey Acche Lagte Hai. A while ago, it would have been inconceivable for an actor of such girth to headline as one half of a couple, but Kapoor's talent was apparent to producer Ekta Kapoor who refused to make the show with anyone else.
If the fluidity with which Kapoor goes from playing lead on TV to ensemble casts in movies could be more widely imitated in Bollywood, it could open the doors to so much talent. But there is the fear of 'Once a character actor, never a hero' coming true. Remember Nawazuddin Siddiqui? He played the overbearing Intelligence Officer Khan in Kahaani, the local journalist in Peepli Live, one of the 'Patna Ke Presley' in Dev. D, and had one scene in the 1999 film Sarfarosh. It's taken him 14 years but this year he has five more films where he plays a range of characters and yes, also the lead. In an interview he said, "I am shy and have been told that I am not good looking and do not have the body builder-type physique - the typical Bollywood hero image. In the industry there are certain actors who will play the lead, some who will always play supporting roles and some, villains. I wonder why acting does not count. But I am glad that there are directors who are bringing a change. "
Indeed there are. In Hollywood, Alexander Payne shocked everyone when he turned down Goerge Clooney's offer to play the lead in Sideways, the film made Paul Giammatti famous. As Payne says, "It's my hope that we're getting into an era where the value of a film is based on its proximity to real life rather than its distance from it. To do that, you need actors - stars, who don't necessarily look like Ben Affleck. " Looks like Bollywood will follow suit soon.
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