Editor’s note: With Shah Rukh Khan’s Fan and Salman Khan’s Tubelight not quite hitting the mark in terms of box office success, there are some crucial question we found ourselves thinking about. Is Bollywood’s male movie-star bound by his ‘image’? What happens when stars experiment, and give their fans something ‘new’? What happens when their experiments fail and how do the stars themselves react to this failure? This is part two of a three part analysis on this very idea — what is bigger, the star or the image of the star?
In the just-released Jagga Jasoos, Ranbir Kapoor plays a Tintin-esque detective. The film itself is cast in the mould of a Broadway musical, not seen before in Bollywood, and includes 21 songs.
Ranbir’s played varied roles before — be it the coming-of-age Wake Up Sid or the everyman in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year, and even Tamasha. Still, Jagga Jasoos is an ‘experiment’ for the actor.
What’s interesting that this ‘experimentation’ is being engaged in by actors across the spectrum in the Hindi film industry. Just a few weeks ago, we had Salman Khan playing a man with developmental difficulties in Tubelight. While that film flickered out at the box office, it was an attempt on Salman’s part to do a role different from his usual larger-than-life onscreen image. Meanwhile, his contemporary Shah Rukh Khan is also trying something different with Aanand L Rai’s next, in which he plays a dwarf; while Aamir Khan has — yet again — transformed himself entirely for his role in Thugs of Hindostan. Images of Aamir sporting long hair and a nosepin are already doing the rounds on social media.
A mere four years in the industry, and a Varun Dhawan can pull off a Badlapur, while a Sidharth Malhotra an work on an experimental thriller like Ittefaq.
Meanwhile, Ranveer Singh can charm viewers in an offbeat Lootera and play a rapper from the streets in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boys. And an ‘outsider’ like Sushant Singh rajput can break into the Bollywood big league with unconventional films like Kai Po Che, Shuddh Desi Romance and Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!
Forty years ago, this would have been unimaginable. One could hardly conceive of an Amitabh Bachchan or Dharmendra — at the height of their superstardom — playing differently-abled characters in a film that had no romantic angle. There would always be a song-and-dance routine with a Rekha in Ghazab, or the metamorphosis of dim-witted Kallu into dashing Kaalia. They would, undoubtedly, give the greatest of performances, but in conventional vehicles like Deewar, Pratigyaa and Chupke Chupke.
But playing a differently-abled character in a realistic drama… well, that kind of experimentation was best left to a Sanjeev Kumar, as in the 1970 release Khilona. It was up to a Balraj Sahni to play a landless labourer in a stark drama like Do Bigha Zameen, while a Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor — as great as they were — displayed their histrionics in larger-than-life films like Mughal-E-Azam and Awara. Or Naseeruddin Shah, who played a visually impaired man in Sparsh, while Vinod Khanna or Jeetendra bashed up baddies and romanced heroines in their films. But today, if Randeep Hooda or Nawazuddin Siddiqui are experimenting with their roles, so are the big stars like Salman, Shah Rukh.
It is not at all a coincidence that Aamir’s Lagaan, a film where a major Bollywood star experimented with both form as well as content, came within a decade of economic liberalisation, exposure to satellite television and invasion of the internet, followed by the multiplex revolution. The audience was changing and the stars were quick to realise it. Aamir tried to follow the same experimental route with Mangal Pandey — and though it proved less successful, he continued down that route.
Shah Rukh made the attempt with Swades, although it was Chak De India that proved to be his first major ‘experimental’ success. He continued walking off the beaten path with Karan Johar’s My Name is Khan and more recently, Yash Raj Films’ Fan. Salman may have started late, but he seems to be making up for lost time with Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Sultan and Tubelight. And if an Ajay Devgn has a Drishyam in his kitty, then Bollywood’s ultimate khiladi, Akshay Kumar has made it a point to pick unique subjects with films like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, Padman and Gold.
These are definitely good times to be a Bollywood (film) viewer. We are fortunate to watch our favourite actors in unusual and experimental roles in an image-obsessed industry. As horizons have expanded, and tastes have evolved, it’s no longer a stretch for viewers to see their favourite stars go from playing the typical romantic/action hero to ageing wrestlers — or dwarves.