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Rise of the cameo kings
Abhay Deol speaks believable Tamil, unlike Shah Rukh Khan in Ra. One, and Emraan Hashmi has bad teeth and a paunch. In the alternative universe of Dibaker Banerjee, this is possible. Shanghai, a tilt-headed look at what is commonly considered 'development', is hitting theatres next week. And also bursting into theatres is the gamchha-sporting, coal mafia revenge saga, Gangs of Wasseypur, with a cast high on acclaim and low on recognition. (Only one name, Manoj Bajpai, is likely to ring a bell).
Hanging within reach, on top of both these films is the possibility of Bollywood's hide-andseek with the ensemble cast, finally turning into a full-fledged chase. Both films seem to suggest the presence of multiple, fully developed characters sharing somewhat equal time. And yet they are not multi-starrers in the conventional sense.
For Bollywood, a multi-starrer has always been a safe bet, given that only about five per cent of all films produced make any profit. The multi-starrer math is additive: more stars mean an adding up of fan bases and, and odds are it won't flop. Films spawned by this logic include Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham, Welcome, All The Best, Dhamaal, the Golmaal trilogy and Housefull. "Pehle star, baad main kalakaar, " is an unsaid but well understood riff in the Hindi film industry. In an industry that is so image led, is there hope for the ensemble movie?
In the last few years we have had great examples of ensemble hits: Delhi Belly, Rajneeti, Peepli Live, Dhobi Ghat, Shor In The City and going back some more, Rang De Basanti. Four of those had A-list stars whose share of the spotlight was equitably dispersed.
Ensemble casting has also allowed lesser known but hugely talented actors space to grow in Bollywood. Who knew of Pitobash Tripathy till he played the mercurial Mandook in Shor in the City and everyone asked: who is this guy? Nawazuddin Siddiqui struggled for around eight years before Paan Singh Tomar and Kahaani showcased his brilliance. Today he is a part of every indie moviemaker's dream cast. The same goes for other bright sparks such as Sanjay Mishra, Gulshan Devaiah, Manu Rishi and Deepak Dobriyal.
The joy of an ensemble cast is something far more transformative than the endorphin rush of multi-starrers, and it only happens when a filmmaker allows you to forget that you are, in fact, watching a star. There is a simple test that separates the multi-starrers from the ensemble cast that also happen to feature stars in Bollywood. Just ask the question: is the audience for the film largely the same as the star's core fan base? If there is a big difference between the two, the movie's ensemble quotient will seep through.
The screaming, pubescent girls who wait in lines outside Ranbir Kapoor and Imran Khan's Bandra houses are unlikely to pick Rajneeti or Delhi Belly as their favorite movie with the stars in it. But it took a Delhi Belly to dent Imran Khan's wooden wholesomeness. And Rajneeti marked Ranbir Kapoor as a young actor willing to take on roles that did not require him to drop a towel or a shirt.
It is also the sad truth in Bollywood that stars are more receptive to ensemble casts either at the beginning of their careers, or after the sun has set on their stardom. The popularity contest dynamics of the industry won't let them do these movies very often but maybe that will change now.
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