A character overtaken by time

Long before A.K. Hangal died,the end of formula and changing social structures had left no room for ‘Ramu kaka’ in Hindi films

Written by Priyanka Sinha Jha | Published: September 5, 2012 2:52 am

A.K. Hangal,a name synonymous with genteel character roles that stood for old world values — grace,compassion,loyalty — passed away on August 26,but the character he made famous had left our movies long ago. Arguably amongst the finest character actors — Rahim chacha in Sholay who believes in the power of forgiveness,or trade union leader Bipinlal Pandey in Namak Haraam,who stands up for the rights and dignity of workers that he represents — Hangal brought to his characters a special kind of decency. On most occasions he played someone who is loyal,yet never servile. Someone who would never overstep boundaries,no matter what the provocation.

In today’s Hindi films,however,an altered narrative,brought on by the death of formula films,as also the rapidly changing social structure,leaves little scope for the loyal family retainer,or “Ramu kaka”,as made immortal by Hangal. In the fast paced postmodern zamana with nuclear families sans havelis and live-in domestic staff,there is no room for the loyal conscience keeper of the family. And with Hindi films getting Hollywoodised,a loyal,long-standing family retainer in a contemporary flick would be as much of an escapist fantasy as lip synced song sequences. Or perhaps even more of one.

In fact,today,when it comes to character actors,Hangal’s longevity in cinema is not something too many can boast of. Between then and now,the plot has changed. With 100+ films being churned out every year in Hindi alone,the requirement for fresh faces,particularly for character actors,makes an enduring celluloid innings almost impossible. At a recently concluded edition of the Screen Big Picture debate on character actors,the panelists concurred that today’s character actors,despite sterling performances,remain unsung heroes,the convenient “that guy” who everyone recognises but whose name nobody can remember.

Interestingly,with young,neo-stylist filmmakers embracing stories based in the Hindi heartland,there are rare occasions on which the “family loyalist” does make an appearance. A recent rendition was Piyush Mishra’s Nasir in Gangs of Wasseypur,protecting and nurturing Sardar Khan and his progeny. A few years ago there was Eklavya: The Royal Guard,a period film by Vidhu Vinod Chopra with Amitabh Bachchan in the titular role. But such appearances,if any,are few and far between and usually introduce the character in a much altered avatar customised for new age cinema.

Art,they say,imitates life. And Hindi cinema,with its ever-changing themes and characterisation,is doing just that. The cinematic palette flashes colours of contemporary India,the rapidly transforming rural and urban landscapes mutating into milieus beyond recognition,with a completely new power hierarchy in place. Travelling between Rome to the Ramlila ground in Delhi,our stories,inhabited by tycoons and industrialists,international spies,mofussil town bahubalis or metropolitan mafia lords,can just about accomodate the loyal henchman as a suitable replacement for Ramu kaka.

Ambitions are no longer only for the rich,powerful or brave. Piyush Mishra’s Nasir in Gangs dares to go where no self-respecting family retainer in the past would have — his boss’s wife. Filmmakers,particularly those like Anurag Kashyap,Vishal Bhardwaj and Tigmanshu Dhulia,who have been chronicling the rough and tumble of reality,have been quick to capture the changing mood of the nation. Bhardwaj’s Maqbool and Omkara,loosely based on Shakespearean tragedies Macbeth and Othello,twisted the master-vassal power structure beyond recognition. Dhulia’s Sahib Biwi Aur Gangster projected a similar subversion of the power structure. In a straight departure from Guru Dutt’s original classic where an invisible Lakshmanrekha forbids the besotted Bhootnath from expressing his feelings for Choti bahu,Dhulia’s protagonists exercise no such restraint. Babloo,the nouveau ghulam is as infatuated with Choti bahu’s position of privilege as he is with her. It is as much the danger involved in his impertinent act of overstepping class boundaries that thrills his imagination.

The trajectory of power determined by class,caste and capital has altered its course. In doing so it has changed every strata’s perception of itself — in reality and by extension in the movies. The docile,subdued,restrained Ramu kaka,symbolic of feudal subjugation,has ceased to exist in our minds and in our films. And it is with this blurring of boundaries that the family retainer,somewhere down the line,died a quiet death. RIP Ramu kaka. They don’t make them like you any more.

Priyanka Sinha Jha is editor of ‘Screen’

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