The Backbenchers

They don’t have famous last names, and the film industry will give them only so many chances. They are the A-grade actors who will always be B-list stars.  

Certain indian families, home to profitable enterprises, insist that their scions receive and sprint ahead with the generational baton, furthering the family business. This line of reason, precariously hinged on trial and error, expects talent to follow inherited fortune. Similarly, most Bollywood families — firmly established in the film-making business — want to always stay relevant, remain in the news, live forever. This dash for immortality presents itself via their heirs: often, a reasonably handsome, 20-something man who wants to be an actor. His wish is the film industry’s demand; calls are made, scripts are written, a crew is put together, a film hits the floor and a star son is launched. Why does it sound so simple? Well, because it is. Over the last few decades, only three actors, with no connections to major film families, have held sway in Bollywood: Jackie Shroff, Shah Rukh Khan and Akshay Kumar. On the other hand, the number of star sons who have failed to make a substantial impact is fairly huge. Bollywood is not kind to failures, especially towards hopefuls vying to be heroes — many TV actors, models and theatre artists have been shown the door after a few unsuccessful attempts. The same rule, however, doesn’t apply to star sons, who are given ample chances to prove their acting prowess until the audience literally stops seeing their films. Fardeen Khan, Uday Chopra, Bobby Deol, Tusshar Kapoor and, to a certain extent, Abhishek Bachchan, have all acted in more than a dozen films, desperately trying to launch a career that came into being primarily because of their last names. But these remarkable failures have also opened up space for new talents — assured actors, outsiders to the industry, who are slowly forging distinct identities for themselves by choosing films that continuously demand them to reconfigure their comfort zones and by taking on roles that bristle with truth, complexities and ambiguities. However, these names are still under the radar, still unknown to a majority of our cinema-going audience, still not stars.

What is it that makes good actors stars? The answer to that cannot be found in weekly Friday releases or distilled in one defining line, because fame and relative obscurity, in the case of actors, are not smoothly linked with reason. Why is a star, often with limited acting skills, able to capture the imagination of a nation, while a much more capable and versatile actor continues to be in the margins? More importantly, should we even compare the two? Being a star and a good actor may not be mutually exclusive — both of them require separate skill sets, in which one isn’t necessarily better than the other. The debate, however, on the difference between a star and a gifted actor has been long-standing, because Bollywood film-makers haven’t looked beyond stars. That has, thankfully, begun to change in the last few years. Now, actors such as Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui are ‘stars’ in their own right, carrying films by themselves. This has opened new avenues for a slew of promising actors who are unafraid to take risks. We take a look at some who deserve to be seen more.

1. Neil Bhoopalam’s got a unique knack of disappearing into films he acts in. Be it 10 ml Love, No One Killed Jessica or Ungli — films in which Bhoopalam’s been a part of an ensemble cast — he melds seamlessly into the film’s world, scarcely does anything that calls attention to himself, doesn’t go out of his way to hog the limelight and, still, makes himself indispensable to the film by being a springboard that allows the rest of the cast to act through him. Some men are director’s actors; Bhoopalam is an actor’s actor. Few actors in Bollywood understand the ethos of group dynamics as well as he does — whether he’s playing a young lovelorn urbanite; a timid, guilt-riddled model; or, a hot-headed vigilante. He enters and exits the scene with swift agility. This is why his impressive turn in NH10, his first film as the lead, was notable because it not only exemplified his ability to carry a film on his own, but also showcased his diverse acting chops. He smoothly switched from an easy-going city slicker to a man so shaken that he would do anything to protect his wife and himself. Bhoopalam, an experienced theatre artist, has waited and waited for his turn. One hopes, for Bollywood’s own good, that his turn has finally come.

2. Rajkummar Rao marked his presence in Bollywood with a small role in Love Sex aur Dhokha, playing a supermarket supervisor, who can’t quite figure out an agreeable ground between his lust for greed and longing for genuine companionship. It’s a role that was, perhaps, meant for Rao, who has since excelled in playing characters trying their darnedest to not only navigate the morass of moral ambiguity but also emerge out of the trial unsullied. His portrayal of human rights lawyer Shahid Azmi in Hansal Mehta’s Shahid, which won him the National Award for Best Actor in 2014, seemed both uncomfortably real and richly layered. Rao’s Govind in Kai Po Che! was a character that Hindi cinema doesn’t see too often — a man so selfish, hungry and desperate for success that friendship becomes a small price to pay. He appeared in Gangs of Wasseypur — 2 as Shamshad Alam, a venal and ambitious businessman so blinded by avarice that he isn’t afraid to dupe one of the most dangerous men in town. Each one of Rao’s memorable roles — marked by confusion, pride, egotism, deception — underlines the tug of war a modern Indian endures, someone torn between who he wants to become and what’s expected of him.  If film-makers can keep coming up with roles that continuously challenge Rao, the bar of acting excellence in Bollywood will soon reach an astonishing high.

3. Earlier this year, Gulshan Devaiah appeared in Hunterrr, playing the role of a thirty something sex addict who eventually decides to get hitched. It was the kind of premise not many would have taken seriously, especially how most Bollywood films centered around sex turn out to be unfunny, tepid comedies, but Devaiah, who played the film’s lead with impressive conviction and mirth, made Hunterrr credible. Devaiah’s also quite adept at switching modes, comfortably melding dark humour with searing intensity — evident in his performances in such films as That Girl in Yellow BootsShaitan and Goliyon Ki Rasleela Ram-Leela — a quality that eludes many Bollywood actors. But Devaiah would have been, without doubt, a different actor today, had the 2012 film Peddlers — where he delivered a potential career-defining performance — released in theatres. Playing the role an impotent cop, who is ashamed of his physical inadequacies, Devaiah turned in a performance for the ages — someone who masks his deep-seated insecurities with ferocious anger, a man who’s simultaneously both scared of himself and, yet, appears intimidating to others. Devaiah’s performance ran like a quasi-mini movie by itself, asking discomfiting questions about the interplay between masculinity and power, and what happens when one fails to complement the other. Peddlers was more than three years ago, and although it was unfortunate that Devaiah’s performance couldn’t find a willing audience (barring a select few who, like me, watched it at a film festival), it seems unlikely that he won’t get his dues soon.

4. Saqib Saleem’s first two films, Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge and Mere Dad ki Maruti, didn’t particularly challenge him as an actor. Saleem, however, played them with enough comic flair and selfawareness, making sure his characters didn’t slip into stereotypes. But he came into his own with Karan Johar’s short in the portmanteau Bombay Talkies, playing a young and chirpy homosexual, who isn’t ashamed of his sexual orientation. Saleem bucked the insulting mannerisms such characters often adopt in Hindi films. He followed the Bombay Talkies short with another assured performance in Hawaa Hawaai, where he played the role of a compassionate mentor, helping a street kid fulfil his ambition. It was the kind of role that Bollywood actors in their mid-20s don’t often get to play, but Saleem looked at ease, infusing humour and hope into an uneven, self-serious film that could have done well to follow his cue.

WHY THE GAME IS DIFFERENT FOR ACTRESSES IN BOLLYWOOD

Actresses trying to make it in Bollywood without the backing of powerful film families, in sharp contrast to their male counterparts, have been typically better welcomed. Be it the current crop of A-listers — Vidya Balan, Deepika Padukone, Kangana Ranaut, Anushka Sharma — or some of the major names of the 1990s —Aishwarya Rai, Madhuri Dixit, Manisha Koirala — female outsiders have found impressive and frequent success in Bollywood. The reason for this cosmopolitan mix is clear: most Bollywood families discouraged their daughters from joining the movies. However, as the last decade or so has shown, that dictum’s fading away. Today, plenty of actresses belonging to film families, such as Sonkashi Sinha, Sonam Kapoor, Shraddha Kapoor and Alia Bhatt (fast emerging as one of the finest performers in the film industry today), have appeared as leading ladies in several films. Consequently, the path for the next batch of star daughters has gradually begun to be paved. But the last few years, which have seen a marked shift in the portrayal of female characters in the movies, signal that Bollywood continues to need an eclectic lot of heroines. Because, now, they are no longer just props — they drive the narrative.This evolution has given rise to actresses such as Richa Chadda, Huma Qureshi and Radhika Apte, who have adeptly complemented the vision of new, ambitious screenwriters and film-makers. The star daughters will progressively begin to fill the talent pool in the subsequent years, but one presumes Bollywood will always need the risk-takers, the ones with nothing to lose, the outsiders.

An edited version of this piece was published in Man’s World.

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