By Gautam Chintamani
Jackie Shroff. Sunny Deol. Anil Kapoor. These names don’t carry the same weight as they did back in the 1980s. Unlike the 1990s batch, Aamir, Shah Rukh or Salman Khan, the class of 1980s seem to be relics in the new order of Bollywood. Age has always been relative in Hindi cinema. Scripts are never written for anyone besides the hero and heroes aren’t supposed to age. Anil Kapoor's turn as a middle-aged leading man in Lamhe back in 1991 was an exception. And the irony is that it is unlikely anyone would offer him that role now when he’s actually closer in age to the character. Conventionally Bollywood only looks at heroes who age as uncles or fathers -- and only after they have spent a few years in wilderness a la Amitabh Bachchan or Rishi Kapoor. Now in their mid-50s, the likes of Shroff, Kapoor and Deol are either too old to play young or too young to play old.
Where once his name would add gravitas to a project, Jackie Shroff is treated almost as a pariah in Bollywood today. Even a die-hard fan will find it difficult to recall the last decent role that Shroff played in a Hindi film. And yet if one were to rate the bravest performance in Indian cinema in recent memory, Shroff’s Singaperumal, in last year’s Tamil film Aranya Kaandam would win hands down. Several Tamil actors refused the role in fear of harming their image but Shroff happily chose to debut in Tamil cinema as an ageing don who seems to be impotent in more ways than one. He risks it all for the role and even parades in the buff before the climax.
Taking risks isn’t something new for Shroff -- who also played a tyrannical 19th century zamindaar in the Bengali movie Antarmahal (2005). He’s one of the few stars who never had a problem playing the second fiddle to humans- Anil Kapoor in films like (Andhar-Bahar, Yudh, Ram Lakhan and Parinda) or animals like a dog (Teri Meharbaniyan, 1985) and even a snake (Doodh Ka Karz, 1990). In Kaash (1987) he played a father at an early stage in his career and in Parinda (1989) he took on both Anil Kapoor and Nana Patekar with a restrained performance that got him Filmfare’s Best Actor nod.
In contrast, Anil Kapoor played the game by the rules. And yet he, too, was unconcerned about protecting his image as a star. He did roles that many wouldn’t touch with a barge pole (Woh Saat Din, Eeshwar, Lamhe), and never had a problem doing supporting roles that many actors turned down, as with Taal (1999). Often remaking Kamal Hassan’s Tamil originals, Kapoor modeled his career on the lines of the thespian but still found himself cast aside once the1990s ended. Sunny Deol, on the other hand, was a late bloomer, and enjoyed his peak box-office success in the 1990s even with the Khans around. Close on the heels of the arrival of new Bollywood with Dil Chata Hai (2001), that officially sealed the fate of everything that wasn’t cool, Deol stood his ground with a monstrous hit called Gaddar- Ek Prem Katha (2001). Over the course of his career, Sunny Deol went from being a non-actor to a two-time National Award winning artiste. Almost a one-man industry, his films like Ghayal, Damini, Ghatak, Jeet, Border and Ziddi defied easy categorization.
Despite their talent and a long record of risk-taking, these three actors have become almost irrelevant in the last decade. One reason is the tectonic shift in the age of the audience. Today, the average age of the movie going generation is 30 or less, and for them these actors are from a past generation. Young Indians view Amitabh Bachchan as a golden era thespian, Aamir, Shahrukh, Salman Khans, Ajay Devgn, Akshay Kumar as evergreen, and the younger ones like Ranbir Kapoor as their contemporaries. There's no room for here for a Deol or Shroff.
But does the blame lie entirely with Bollywood or the taste of its audience? Where Jackie Shroff has taken risks to carve a new path outside Bollywood, Kapoor and Deol have either not been given the same opportunities or refuse to take the ones that have come their way. The two have instead tried to cling on to the typical hero persona, and over the years, their viewers have run out of patience.
Bollywood may not have been kind enough to offer them suitable roles, but there is little to stop these men from shaping their own destinies. In spite of being producers themselves, none of the three have designed challenging or innovative projects for themselves. Kapoor produced Feroz Abbas Khan’s Gandhi, My Father (2007) and Aisha (2010) to showcase his daughter, Sonam Kapoor. When it comes to investing in himself, he put his money in standard B-wood flicks like Badhaai Ho Badhaai (2002) and No Problem (2010). Deol showed his astuteness in launching his cousin with Socha Na Tha (2005) but continues to be trigger-happy when it comes to promoting himself. The last we heard of him. Last heard, Deol was still trying to get a sequel to Ghayal off the ground.
The three ought to emulate the example of the other 80s club member, Sanjay Dutt, who has managed to survive the winds of change. With a little help from Munna Bhai series, Dutt is trying to stand apart from his older colleagues, and with films like Agneepath (2012) is trying to break new ground as a villain.
The other solution: create the Indian version of The Expendables, the Hollywood action flick that brought together Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li and Mickey Rourke. If the trade won’t allow them to change and if they want to continue dancing to the old tune, there is no better franchise that will allow them to relive their glory action hero days. This could very well be their own Munna Bhai and what’s more even Dutt could join the party as the bad guy.