March 21, 2015 1:00:23 am
Minutes before the Navdeep Singh-directed NH10 winds up, lead Anushka Sharma lights a cigarette. “Smoking Kills” flashes on the screen as she sits on a verandah in the heart of a deeply patriarchal Haryana village. Her gaze is fixed on one of her badly injured tormentors. Rings of smoke swirl around her face, which bears the signs of a harrowing experience — cuts, blood clots, a swollen left eye.
She looks tired but determined — a look that’s as convincing as a film of that genre can afford. A toast should be raised to this look as well as that moment in Hindi films — not because of the so-called de-glam appearance or badass act before she does away with the enemy. It is more to do with Sharma essaying a gritty role with aplomb, while using her financial muscle to shore up a non-mainstream slasher.
Varun Dhawan had his moment when Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur released last month. Driven by a vendetta, Dhawan turns into a manipulative and cold-blooded killer from being a loving, baby-faced husband and father. Sharma and Dhawan belong to the same kettle of fish. Almost. Both are in their 20s — Sharma is 26 and Varun 24. Until their latest films, they worked mostly with top-bracket mainstream filmmakers and acted in pure entertainers with impressive box-office collections.
At 20, Sharma made a dream debut opposite Shah Rukh Khan in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008). In the seven more movies that followed, she stuck to the bubbly and sassy persona that made her one of Hindi cinema’s favourite sunshine girls. On the other hand, Varun — son of David Dhawan, who ruled the Nineties with his comedies — was mentored by Karan Johar, who introduced him in Student of the Year (2012). With Main Tera Hero, a throwback to the Govinda brand of comedies, and the Johar-produced Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniya, Varun widened his teenage fanbase.
Yet, Sharma and Varun embraced these small-budget movies with off-beat and experimental content. At a time when most top-ranking stars are furiously clinging on to their existing moulds — wishing the wrinkles away and hoping for eternal mass appeal — it’s remarkable that these new-age heartthrobs stepped out of their comfort zones. Varun secluded himself for two months to prepare for the dark, brooding character. Sharma devoted three months to intensive workshops that preceded the shoot to meet the film’s physical and acting challenges. The actors also led the promotions of their respective films. Such involvement comes from a deep faith in their decisions and an urge to push the envelope.
Are these films going to be mere one-offs or will they inspire more young actors to take a break from tried-and-tested formulae, Rs 100- crore club be damned? Expecting a rush for such nuanced roles would be wishful thinking, for two reasons: lack of content and the stars’ apparent reluctance to find the right balance between commercial and alternate projects.
A star breaking the stereotype is not an aberration. Aamir Khan has subverted popular expectations with some unusual roles. However, his scale seems to have tilted in favour of popular ventures post Taare Zameen Par (2007). The good news is that for his next, Dangal, in which he portrays a wrestler, he has piled on the kilos, apart from playing grey-haired father to two grown-up daughters. Shah Rukh switched from golden-hearted boy to anti-hero to evergreen romantic hero with finesse. However, today, he seems to be trapped in the last avatar. Give us the scruffy hockey coach in Chak De! any day. So is the case with Hrithik Roshan, who after Mission Kashmir and
Lakshya, is preoccupied with playing superheroes.
There was Abhay Deol, who was celebrated as the poster boy of parallel cinema before he went missing from the scene. But then, he never made it to the big league of mainstream actors. Vidya Balan and Kangana Ranaut carried The Dirty Picture and Queen on their shoulders. To do this, they did not have to cross over from the world of mainstream cinema. These movies were an extension of the kind of work they already did.
The ideal situation, of course, would be to watch mainstream actors slip into their parts in alternative spaces with ease, the way Shahid Kapoor manages to once in a while or when Alia Bhatt, Varun’s SOTY co-star, appears in a small but soulful movie like Imtiaz Ali’s Highway . Irrfan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui have mastered the art of straddling both worlds. Irrfan grapples with Partition trauma in Qissa, as well as playing Gunday’s cop. Siddiqui does an over-the-top tongue-clicking villain act in Kick (2014) and follows that up with a nuanced performance in Badlapur. Shouldn’t more actors be taking a leaf out of their book?
This year’s bigges t surprise could be Ranbir Kapoor, the actor who has transformed himself into a Sixties’ street boxer in Bombay Velvet. After impressing the audience with his deaf-and-dumb role in Barfi!, he delivered two duds. But with that period look and curly locks, he might just land a powerful punch.
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