Pankaj Tripathi, Seema Pahwa are fan favourites but pay gap between character actors, stars remains
Character actors in Bollywood have started to find bigger audiences but many believe their talent isn't being valued.
Films this year has brought recognition to a different set of actors. In Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Savdhan, Jolly LLB 2, Newton and Hindi Medium, character actors who played key roles stood out in memorable scenes. They also became significant influencers in the film’s plot, beyond being background décor. As the typical story line (often, a non-story) begins to fade out, and homegrown Indian stories find bigger audiences and business, the ‘character’ actor might yet have his or her day in the sun.
Ask Pankaj Tripathi, who was appreciated for his performances in Bareilly Ki Barfi and Newton. For his successful year which has brought just fruits of labor to this National School of Drama alumnus, he gives credit to the new lot of younger filmmakers. “Today, the young filmmaker gives you freedom to interpret and play a character. When I worked with Ashwini (Iyer Tiwari, director of Bareilly Ki Barfi), she told me that I have complete freedom to play the father’s role in a manner that would feel authentic. The character also has a subtle social message, beyond a cliche. With Aatma Singh, who wore villainous shades, I convinced Amit (V Masurkar, director of Newton) that he would be more credible with shades of grey, and some humour. This generation’s filmmakers understand that a story needs characters beyond the protagonist, and that has brought about a positive change.” Tripathi is currently reading dozens of scripts, and scratching his head over what to pick and what to leave behind. For actors who have struggled to find good work despite being talented, a phase like this is very rewarding. “I think with actors, publicity and hype have a role to play in determining remuneration within the film industry. Otherwise, you connect with the audience and that’s a big win. One doesn’t need to be in the papers to be remembered for what one managed to achieve with a quality performance,” he concludes.
A performance that equals the star in quality, and compliments — or sometimes supersedes — all others is not a new phenomenon. As writing for mainstream films has become nuanced, the actor has also grown in stature and presence. Some remain etched in the filmgoers' memory. Some performances by Annu Kapoor, Dolly Ahluwalia, Brijendra Kala, Boman Irani, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Manav Kaul and Sanjai Mishra have stood out in mainstream films with brilliant scenes in scripts that gave them the space to breathe. “In the Jolly LLB films and in Barfi!, my work was appreciated. What’s happening now is that we are experimenting more with characters. Rather than bracketing actors as stars and characters actors separately, stars too are playing characters. Audiences prefer films that feature multiple characters in a story. This trend of multiple characters has been emerging for some time, now it has become the norm. While writers always craved to do this, producers and directors are also focusing on giving a film more characters,” said Saurabh Shukla, who has been at the forefront of the non-typical Hindi film since the beginning with his breakout performance of Kallu Mama in Satya. He believes that in mainstream discourse too, terms like ‘character’, ‘actor’ and ‘star’ need to merge. “The moment you say ‘character actor’, it kind of excludes the stars from tackling a character. What would you say to Brad Pitt working in Babel or Inglorious Basterds? In the West, there has been a trend that stars also take up shorter but significant roles. So we need to stop demarcating on this basis. The difference today, is that a character actor gets paid less than a star, but in the film, both tend to drive the plot.”
While Shukla raises a valid point of stars playing characters, he also points the needle towards the moot issue — that of remuneration. For even as audiences cheer and applaud a character actor’s performance, and critics line up to doff their hats, their importance and clout in the Bollywood system remains diminished. Seema Pahwa (also credited as Seema Bhargava in some films), has been a great success in this space. She made a lasting impression with the beautiful gem Dum Laga Ke Haisha as Sandhya’s fretting mother, and has cemented her place as mommie dearest with Bareilly Ki Barfi and Shubh Mangal Savdhan. An acting coach and theatre star of repute, Seema’s second innings might have earned accolades but little else has changed for her. “I will give all credit to writers and directors of this generation. They have begun to recognize that really talented actors have been underused and deserve to get better roles, as audiences also connect with them easily. While this has been a rewarding year for me, the remuneration bit remains static. We are expected to sign up bulk dates (ranging from 30 to 40 days) at a pittance, often not even ten percent of the leading lady’s cost,” she rues. “While we give our time and commitment, the stars, on whom a film rides, give limited dates. Yet our talent isn’t valued in a just manner, and asking for a hike could mean losing a role. I wonder how much longer will actors need to wait for this aspect to improve!”
Even as contemporary TV in the West has reduced stars to flawed and fine characters, Hindi cinema would benefit from looking beyond a ‘safe’ cocoon of the star first. Valuing an actor for their brilliance, experience and credibility makes a film feel real and easy to connect with; and if writing character-driven stories continue despite conventional practice, the character actor might just become the star in a film someday in future.
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