Being in character

Class apart

Being in character

Character artistes are a breed apart. Although under-rated, these talented actors can mould themselves into any role and get under the skin of any character. Rajiv Vijayakar traces the origins of character artistes who have redefined Hindi cinema...

One of the biggest changes in Hindi cinema in the last decade has been in the sphere of character artistes — those supporting actors and actresses who garnish a film with able performances in positive or negative roles. In effect, this includes categories like the so-called ‘supporting’ actors, actors in ‘comic’ roles and actors in ‘negative’ roles, each category peculiar to Indian cinema, whereas in world cinema it is only, and rightly, about lead and supporting artistes.

A brief history

This multiplicity of acting categories in award ceremonies is the direct result of traditional stereotypical casting peculiar to our cinema, including Hindi films. Over decades, actors were so well slotted as to be hardly interchangeable, barring specific exceptions, like an Om Prakash who could be the drawling comic or the victimised old man, a villain like Madan Puri, who could occasionally be a good soul, Aruna Irani, who in her youth could be comedienne, moll or sister, or comics Mehmood and I S Johar, who could occasionally essay lead roles. At the other extreme, Iftekhar was a cop oftener than not, Manorama a shrew, and Keshto Mukherjee a drunkard!

There were cases where a gradual transition was seen, like Pran after his sympathetic role in Upkar, or Lalita Pawar who moved from evil ma and ma-in-law to benevolent old lady in the ‘70s. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, the actors who came in tried to fight images, even if a dominant one remained, and so we had Anupam Kher, Amrish Puri, Kader Khan, Gulshan Grover and Shakti Kapoor, and among the women Reema Lagoo, Sushma Seth, Dina Pathak and others who experimented with variety right away, especially after one bold effort that paid off, like ‘villain’ Rawal’s milestone comic act in Hera Pheri.

So it was in these same decade really that the change began. Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Sunil Dutt, Raaj Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar among many others began doing multiple films as character artistes, as did Nutan, Tanuja, Sharmila Tagore, Waheeda Rehman, Raakhee and more. Trade analysts then coined a name for them:

Heavyweights! Depending on projects, current coin stars and upcoming, struggling or fresh actors played the conventional romantic leads and were usually billed after them.And then Amitabh Bachchan changed it all, with Mohabbatein, followed rapidly by Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham…, after which came a slew of roles written with him as a protagonist among other younger stars — Aankhen, Kaante, Waqt — The Race Against Time, Baghban and more. At that point of time, no other older star was considered to have a pull at the box-office, though most of Bachchan’s films needed the padding of young names like Salman Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Akshay Kumar and others.

From there to the current scenario where almost all significant supporting roles are played by stars has been a gradual but fascinating journey. Yes, the saleability quotient is still important, as is one fact we must accept: that even past character artistes like Ashok Kumar, Durga Khote, Kamini Kaushal, Nirupa Roy and Balraj Sahni had seen high stardom in the ‘30s to ‘50s eras. Ashok Kumar, and earlier Prithviraj Kapoor, would even get top billing over stars like Dharmendra, Rajesh Khanna or Shammi Kapoor then in the credit titles. 

Actors, not stars

As Rishi Kapoor put it succinctly, “Actors do survive, those who are only stars do not!” The 60-plus club, to coin a term, has now swelled. But the biggest difference between Ashok Kumar, Shammi Kapoor and Sunil Dutt then and the current 60-plus actors lies in the fees they are paid. Even today, Bachchan commands a hefty 4.5 to 6 crore per project, a fee in multiples of what he would get as the Numero Uno hero in the ‘70s and ‘80s, though young stars are also cast with him (Satyagraha et al). 

Thanks also to the inflation in star-prices (where Salman Khan leads with a reported fee of 50 crore plus profits!), these actors have never had it so good. As Randhir Kapoor laughingly told us, “The fees I was paid for Housefull, Action Replayy and Housefull 2 were an amount no hero could dream of in the ‘70s and ‘80s. And that too for just a few days’ work in exotic locations.” 

And Kapoor is not even top of the heap. His younger brother Rishi Kapoor, at 60-plus, commands Rs 2 crore-plus. Rishi’s character role phase began alongside Bachchan in Raju Chacha (2000), but was a slow, upward climb, despite his consistent histrionic graph, come Hum Tum (2004), Namastey London (2007), Love Aaj Kal (2009) and more. The good times really began in 2012, when Rishi became the only star apart from Salman to have multiple releases but no flops, including a cameo in Jab Tak Hai Jaan and key roles in Housefull 2 (a pompous tycoon), Student Of The Year (a gay college principal) and Agneepath (a ruthless gangster), all amazingly varied characters. 

Mithun Chakraborty, who is now paid between Rs 60 lakh and a crore, was doing smaller roles earlier (as in Guru and Lucky – No Time For Love). He really took off only after Golmaal 3 and since then has been a key asset to several films like OMG – Oh My God! and Khiladi 786. Vinod Khanna moved to character roles with Deewanapan (2001) et al, but was noticed only after the Salman Khan trilogy of Wanted (2009), Dabangg (2010) and Dabangg 2.

Raj Babbar, Naseeruddin Shah, Jackie Shroff and Sanjay Dutt among the males and Poonam Dhillon, Rekha, Dimple Kapadia, Amrita Singh, Rati Agnihotri, Neetu Singh and others among the females are also active now to varying degrees, with many others like Hema Malini, Zeenat Aman and others making sporadic appearances. Dharmendra (except for home productions), Jeetendra and Shatrughan Sinha choose to stay away.

And the best thing about this is that none of these actors are being typecast. Take even Jackie Shroff playing a don in Aurangzeb and a magician-cum-circus owner in Dhoom 3. Neetu Singh played a money-crazy cop in Besharam and a simple hausfrau in Do Dooni Chaar. Aurangzeb, interestingly, featured Rishi Kapoor, Amrita Singh and Jackie Shroff, each dominating the scene and effortlessly stealing the thunder completely from the hero (Arjun Kapoor) in a dual role. Dimple Kapadia was the USP and projected star-draw of what turned out to be a celluloid calamity, What The Fish. Farooque Sheikh and Sarika stole the show in Club 60. Vinod Khanna, Randhir Kapoor and Poonam Dhillon did Ramaiya Vastavaiya. 

But today, character artistes are not just about oldies being summoned back to face the camera. In a historic case, the recent Jai Ho features, apart from Tabu as Salman Khan’s sister, a bevy of names that are also-rans, has-beens and wannabes: upcoming hero Pulkit Samrat (Bittoo Boss, Fukrey), starlet Bruna ‘Grand Masti’ Abdalah, Ashmit ‘Murder’ Patel, Vikas Bhalla, Nauheed Cyrusi, Genelia Deshmukh (nee D’Souza), Mohnish Bahl, Aditya Pancholi, Vatsal Sheth and Tulip Joshi, all playing supporting roles or cameos.

Clearly, Hindi cinema is changing both character and character artistes!

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