Heroes with a difference
Bollywood has its quintessential heroes, handsome, super-rich, and the darling of the heroine and fans. Today it is throwing up another breed of heroes, versatile and ready to experiment. Shoma A. Chatterji reports

Boman Irani and Anupam Kher in Khosla Ka Ghosla
Boman Irani and Anupam Kher in Khosla Ka Ghosla

Arshad Warsi
Arshad Warsi and (below) Irfan Khan are two of the better actors
Irfan Khan

Thanks to the brilliant comeback of a mellowed and bearded Amitabh Bachchan, the term ‘character actor’ now has a new definition. The dividing lines among the hero, the villain and the character actor are a thing of the past. Thus, there is no such thing as the lover-boy hero who is firmly slotted into a no-exit ghetto he cannot get out of. He can be a villain in one, a hero in another, while in both roles, he gets the solid support of a doctor or lawyer or friend or extortionist, in the name and style of some of the best actors to have hit mainstream Hindi cinema. Take your pick and you have ample to choose from. Paresh Rawal, Boman Irani, Anupam Kher, Irfan Khan, Arshad Warsi, Atul Kulkarni, Rajat Kapoor, K.K. Menon, Rishi Kapoor.

Paresh Rawal, who has shifted from arch villain to any shade—from an impresario taking goggle-eyed kids on a US jaunt (Yun Hota To Kya Hota) to the tongue-in-cheek lawyer in Aitraaz to the apparently bumbling busybee in umpteen comic flicks—has reportedly hiked his price to Rs 3 crore per film. And no one blinked in surprise. Irfan Khan is proving himself again and yet again since he made a mark in Maqbool. Arshad Warsi is identified now as Circuit but that does not take away attention from his talent. Rajat Kapoor who graduated in direction and made a couple of very good films is now a successful character actor.

These actors have tremendous range, even within a single character in a single film. Atul Kulkarni, for instance, changes from the smooth-talking, sympathetic boyfriend and mentor of the oppressed Raveena Tandon, to diabolic and ambitious go-getter and cold-blooded killer in Madhur Bhandarkar’s Satta. In Bhandarkar’s Page 3, he is the honest and committed journalist who offers a role model to the confused Konkona Sen Sharma but contrary to audience expectations, they do not fall in love; in Rang De Basanti, he is the fundamentalist Hindu who slowly opens up and holds the hand of the young Muslim he hated in the beginning. In Chandni Bar, his portrayal of the small-time goonda killed midway through the script is memorable for the subtle nuances he invests the character with. Indeed, the National Award for Best Supporting Actor for his debut performance in Kamal Hasan’s Hari Om, was no splash in the pan.

As for the Big B, he said in a recent interview, "I never had the chance to portray such a wide variety of roles with shades ranging from solid black to pure white when I donned the hero’s make-up." And look what he has gained in the process. A committed bodyguard-to-avenging angel in Ek Ajnabee; the patient father trying to seek legal redress for his son’s murder failing which, he pulls the trigger himself in Mahesh Manjrekar’s Viruddh; in Baghbaan, he is the loving father who is shocked at his sons’ attitude and then turns his back on them forever; in Paheli, he is simply a metaphor, a belief, a concept who could be an illusion or could be the Almighty himself; in Sarkar, he is a quiet don who rules the underworld with an iron hand but has a philanthropic bent of mind; in Kabhie Alvida Na Kehna, he is Sexy Sam who cannot keep his roaming hands away from young damsels in skimpy clothes; last, but never the least, in Black, he gives one of the most power-packed performances of his career, a failed teacher of the handicapped who drowns his sorrow in the bottle but perks up when faced with a challenge like the severely handicapped little girl he is called upon to train to lead a semblance of a normal life. And then, when he senses that the growing girl is awakening to her sexuality, he disappears from her life completely, only to surface as a tragic patient of Alzheimer’s.

Boman Irani stepped into films from the English stage. He got noticed as the very stern, bald principal in Munnabhai MBBS. If we felt he would do father’s roles only, we were in for a shock when we saw him stumble and fall at every step, again as the principal of another college in Main Hoon Naa. In Home Delivery, he does the hilarious role of a delivery boy in red uniform and cap and wins the heart of the audience. In Being Cyrus, he is the unsuspecting husband of his two-timing, young wife, killed before he can say John Robinson. In the new version of Don, Boman takes the entire kudos home as the police officer, putting Shahrukh Khan almost in the shade. In Khosla Ka Ghosla, he is the biggest conman in land and house promotion in the country, as it were. His heavy build, bass voice and mobile face allow him to carry any role on his shoulders effortlessly.

Kay Kay Menon made his strong presence felt on the small screen, sometimes as hero, sometimes as villain and often in character roles. He came into his own as a fine actor who offers solid histrionic and character-centric backing to the rest of the stellar cast in any given film. His role of the two-timing, coward and greedy older son of Amitabh Bachchan in Sarkar is a case in point. He is simply brilliant even in the face of a master performer like Bachchan. In Corporate, he is in control in a low-key performance yet manages to convey the basic honesty of the character he portrays.

Jahnu Barua’s first Hindi film Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara has an absent hero in the name and style of Mahatma Gandhi. But the character of the retired professor of Hindi who is slowly getting consumed by dementia is one of the most brilliant performances of recent times. Anupam Kher produced the film because he says it was the role of a lifetime for him. "For this film, Jahnu and I discussed everything about how I ought to look – whether I should have a beard, whether I should not have a beard, how I should look, everything. Jahnu had written a brilliant script. I read up a lot on Alzheimer’s, talked to psychoanalysts, went to mental homes to meet patients. There was one man who thought he was a postman. Another imagined that his wife was his sister. A third would suddenly get up from his seat and begin to walk very fast. Based on this, we began to add some distinguishing physical features to the character – such as my twitching my hair when I was getting into the amnesiac mode. All this led to tremendous emotional drainage," says Anupam. One question that keeps cropping up is – where have all the ladies gone? Or the other heroines? — TWF