Second to none: How artists like Pankaj Tripathi, Seema Pahwa elevated 'character actor' roles
‘Character’ actors like Seema Pahwa, Ratna Pathak Shah, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra and Brijendra Kala to name just a few, have delivered some of the most masterly performances of recent celluloid history
There is the young man in Chanderi who runs a business of ready-made clothes which would have taken off had it not been for his best friend’s tailoring genius. There is also the recent retiree from Kanpur who had once travelled to Mumbai with hopes of becoming a singer but had ended up spending the last 30 years of his life working as a railway announcer in the city. And then there is the middle-aged woman in Bareilly who frets about her daughter’s marital possibilities but also leaves those worries behind at home each day to teach at the local primary school.
These characters from recent films like Stree (2018), Love Per Square Foot (2018) and Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017) played second fiddle — friends, parents and neighbours — to the protagonists in the story. And yet, they stood out, even outshining their leads in some cases.
Now this was undoubtedly the result of the abundantly powerful and promising performances by ‘character’ actors like Seema Pahwa, Ratna Pathak Shah, Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra and Brijendra Kala to name just a few, who delivered these short yet masterly performances with immense aplomb and humour and were also much applauded for the same. At the same time they were equally the result of the wealth of detail woven into these roles by writers who bestowed each character with their own private worlds brimming with potential. They could have been leads in their own stories.
Just think of the parent figures in popular films from the ‘90s and early 2000s and compare them to, for instance, a character like Shubh Mangal Saavdhan’s mother who, sensing some early turbulence in her daughter’s romantic life, enters the latter’s room one evening, reading erotic poetry that she had written on her own wedding night years ago. Neither is she a prude nor a tedious upholder of morality who must worry about what the neighbours might say about the consummatory hurdles that have befallen her daughter. Instead she takes her prospective son-in-law’s erectile dysfunction in good humour (yet with the requisite seriousness) and does what she can to help the young couple unite swiftly.
That, even in 2017, screen mothers must still devote all their energies towards their daughters’ impending weddings, having apparently no other concerns in their 50-something lives is of course an entirely different question and one that was in fact raised by Seema Pahwa at the 2018 Breakouts Roundtable. But, the Indian screen parent’s single-mindedness notwithstanding, it is still worthwhile to rejoice over how mainstream Hindi cinema has of late unquestionably shifted its focus to more realistic, middle-class stories. Just as equations between leads have changed with issues like urban housing or modern notions of love and loving taking centre stage, family dynamics and relations with secondary characters like friends and neighbours too have evolved. These ‘supporting’ characters are nuanced and relatable, awkward and whimsical in the way you might find your own next-door neighbour to be – a far cry from the one-dimensional props they once were, present only for comic relief or to bolster up the main cast in their times of need.
I came out of a screening of Stree last week thinking of how it too, despite its other-worldly premise, was adding to what had seemed for a while like a not-necessarily related and yet emerging trend in Indian popular cinema. This was a trend of light-hearted and yet meaningful comedies with changing modifiers (romantic-/social-/ horror-), set in small Indian towns, raking in the charms offered by each location: from the languorous activities of a small sweetshop in Bareilly to the importing of big-city fashion by the local tailor in Chanderi, and with a slew of veteran actors often with extensive backgrounds in theatre. While articles were written earlier this year pointing out how mainstream films were leaving the exhausted metropolises behind in order to explore India’s cinematically untouched hinterland, that this may in fact have been a deliberate pattern with commercial interests riding on it as opposed to simply a case of the cinema evolving with the changing times, didn’t really strike me as a concrete thought till I read about Stree’s enormous financial success.
Stree crossed the Rs 100 crore mark at the box office – a fact that was both shared and received recently with a lot of enthusiasm. Newspapers reported it and Twitter as usual was abuzz with excited exchanges of other names that had similarly joined this purportedly elite club this year. Now this is not to say that the other films of this recent small-town middle-class comedy genre have not done well at the box office. They have consistently done so, ever since perhaps the sensitive and wonderfully-performed Dum Laga Ke Haisha kicked off the trend in 2015.
At the 2018 Breakouts Roundtable, Seema Pahwa spoke of the new projects that have come to her since her endearing turns in Bareilly and Shubh Mangal. “There is nothing for me to do in them,” she says, explaining how new ventures, instead of creating compelling characters and stories, are taking the easy route by attempting to cash in on the images of these actors that have emerged from the films. They are hoping then to replicate those films’ success by locking down on some apparent winning formula.
Mainstream cinema’s relationship with and indeed dependence on commerce is nothing new. But every time a film’s earnings come dangerously close to sounding a bit like a measure of not just its success but also inexplicably its excellence, a closer look is warranted. And Stree with its horror-interlaced comedy, predictable cast and somewhat progressive standpoint does indeed betray signs of conforming to a blueprint. But a certain half-baked quality in its plot and characterisation perhaps shows the drawbacks of such complying. Every time an idea has worked, the industry has immediately tried to capitalise on it by establishing an easy, ready-to-use format for quick imitation. True innovation in filmmaking however has happened only when creators and performers have managed to break out of those patterns.
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