Who is India's best film actor?

Who is India's best film actor?

The issue of who India's best film actor is today is a matter that excites an enormous number of people. Everyone partial to the movies has his or her own opinion about who is best but theorising would be useful.

A good actor, I propose, is someone who fulfils the demands of the fiction in a film. He or she is someone who makes us forget we are watching a performance and gets us into the skin of a character. But all actors do not make us 'identify,' and a good creation could also be someone or a type of person we recognise from real life or who exhibits recognisable emotions, judged on the basis of body language, movement and/or intonation (in speech), although this could be stylised. A good actor also needs to portray a range of characters over several films, i.e.: demonstrate his or her versatility.

If we consider these aspects, we may surmise that stars cannot make great 'actors' since people like to see them as they are, and it is the persona of the star that draws people rather than his or her capacity to fulfil the demands of fiction. A good actor often gives his or her most impressive performances in small roles or the smaller films, which are more tightly written. Those recognized as India's best have often been most impressive in them; I would cite Om Puri in Aakrosh (1980), Irrfan Khan in Haasil (2003), Madhabi Mukherjee in Charulatha (1964), Manoj Bajpayee in Satya (1998) and Raghubir Yadav in Salaam Bombay (1988).

Since the quality of a performance depends on the demands of fiction being fulfilled, two things are essential. In the first place, the role must be well-defined or written and, secondly, the physiognomy of the actor (his or her facial features) must fit the role. If one were to look at the actors with the strongest presences in the past decade or so, those most widely appreciated have been Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui.

But if one considers Irrfan Khan's physiognomy, while he has a distinct suggestion of world weariness and cynicism, he has been usually cast in contrary roles (The Namesake, The Lunchbox) as if physiognomy did not matter; the actor's presence has been domesticated. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is also an actor with a strong presence but he is being constantly misused. Kahaani (2012) is still his best appearance. The contact lenses in Anurag Kashyap's Raman Raghav 2.0 (2016) were a bad choice since they tampered with his physiognomy. This leads us to wonder if having a strong presence is always such a good thing for an actor, although it is necessary for him or her to hold our attention.

It is here that I will mention Adil Hussain and Neeraj Kabi. While Adil Hussain (Lessons in Forgetting, 2012), who never fails to hold our attention, is still to get the right roles, Neeraj Kabi is an actor who does not attract much attention because his appearance is not striking (like Nawazuddin and Irrfan). But he is versatile, plays every role as it should be played without overstepping its requirements. The actor is the villain in Hichki in which Rani Mukherji has unfortunately drawn more attention.
Rani Mukherji has been praised but she strives too much for amiability and we do not get any sense of the emotional strain she is undergoing as she tries to work with belligerent slum children. Neeraj Kabi as Mr Wadia, who would rather encourage those at the top than work on those down below, does much better.

Kabi played Gandhi very well in Gurinder Chaddha's Viceroy's House, and his Jain monk in Anand Gandhi's Ship of Theseus (2013) perhaps his best role was memorable. He does not dominate a film but does just what the fiction demands, which makes him just the right kind of presence for cinema, and my candidate for India's best actor.

This brings us to the muted presence of female actors in India cinema, and why they are overshadowed by men. My sense is that the woman's role is never allowed an adequate degree of purposefulness; a woman as defined in Indian cinema is rarely given an external objective to attain (as the men are) and female
actors are habituated to such roles.

One has only to study Priyanka Chopra's performance as an FBI agent in Quantico to understand the fatal softness of the Indian woman actor. "A man's strength is about what he can do while a woman's is about what can't be done to her," writes John Berger. Only rarely does the issue of what a woman will not allow even feature in Indian cinema.

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