June 27, 2002
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Paresh Rawal
Will Paresh Rawal sing and dance?
Unconventional looks, loads of talent -- where do they take you in Bollywood?

Deepa Gahlot

Our industry tends to kowtow to lead stars and ignores more talented actors, dismissing them as "character" or "supporting" or "side."

When Paresh Rawal makes an insipid film like Awara Pagaal Deewana run, and Aankhen and Hera Pheri before it, that everyone starts thinking of films built around him.

But he is still not considered a 'hero'. At the awards functions next year, he will win Best Supporting Actor or Best Comedian Awards. If he were working anywhere else in the world, he would have been Best Actor.

His achievement is not a minor one since he has stolen the thunder from stars like Amitabh Bachchan (in Aankhen) and younger actors like Akshay Kumar and Aftab Shivdasani (in Awara Paagal Deewana).

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Everyone cites the examples of greats like Motilal, Balraj Sahni and Sanjeev Kumar. Even in recent years, there have been scene-stealing character actors like Amrish Puri and Anupam Kher, but they could never make a film work by themselves. Paresh Rawal's crowd-pulling ability has brought a new kind of respectability, stardom even, to the character actor.

In the Hindi film industry, there is an artificial divide between 'star' and 'actor'. Paresh has done a lot to bridge it. He has been able to do what many a star has failed to do in the recent past --- get an audience into the theatres. As a top distributor commented, "Take away Paresh and there is nothing left in Awara Paagal Deewana.

About time the industry started to appreciate the actors who are not necessarily glamorous stars. For instance, anywhere else in the world, an actor of Naseeruddin Shah's calibre would have been a major star. Here he either works in offbeat films, or gets roles completely unworthy of his talent in films like Mujhe Meri Biwi Se Bachao. In India, because of the notion that a good actor cannot be a star and vice versa, a whole lot of brilliant talents have not got their due.

Tabu Then there is the art-commerce divide-- if an actor (and the word includes actresses as well) does an 'art' film, the commercial filmwaalas will think he/she is no longer interested in the naach gaana of popular cinema, and that is the end of their career in mainstream films --- as Tabu must have found out after Maachis, Astitva and Chandni Bar.

After Bandit Queen, the industry found no place for Seema Biswas except in mother roles, and Nirmal Pandey was forced to play caricature villains. Ashish Vidyarthi just gets to play very routine negative roles, and Manoj Bajpai failed when he insisted on playing the romantic lead.

You cringe at the sight of Mita Vashisht playing that awful witchy role in Kuch Khatti Kuch Meethi. An actress like her ought not to be forced to scrape the bottom of the barrel like this.

In Hollywood, guys who look like Joe Pesci and Danny DeVito are stars. Here a Rajpal Yadav will end up playing silly comic roles, and Raghuvir Yadav will get typecast as the village idiot.

Om Puri's worth was recognised when he looked West and got challenging roles in films like My Son The Fanatic and East Is East. In Mumbai, the best he can do is play evil politician in Kurukshetra or a conventional character part here and there --- nothing particularly satisfying for an actor like him. But one can see him in roles which Robert de Niro or Morgan Freeman essay, if only they made films like that in here.

Of course, even in the US, it is difficult for women who are not conventionally beautiful to get lead parts. A Janeane Garofalo, Holly Hunter or Francis McDormand do have to struggle to be seen. In India, no leading lady can be ordinary looking. No matter how talented, she has to have a great figure and sex appeal.

Shabana Azmi Shabana Azmi with her formidable talent was a lesser star than her contemporaries like Rekha and Zeenat Aman. Anywhere else, where talent is valued, she would have been at the top.

Unconventional looks would work where there is scope for a variety of subjects. Heroes and heroines have to look and act a certain way. They simply cannot break the mould. Besides they are not even called upon to use a great range of emotions, use their intelligence, vary their appearance and voice or dig deep into experience or do detailed research.

So a non actor like Fardeen Khan keeps getting films, and if a sexy actress like Urmila Matondkar does one scene well in a film, she gets a best actress nomination.

Stars today are selling themselves, not their talent. That is why the frenzy to be in the news, to keep delivering success. Naturally, in a situation like this, no star would risk his position by playing a role which would endanger his market value or image. They make a big show of shaving their moustache, growing their hair, gaining or losing weight for a role --- but they know they are playing themselves whether they do a period film (like Shah Rukh Khan with Asoka) or a family drama (like Anil Kapoor in Badhaai Ho Badhaai).

Amitabh Bachchan and Nandita Das Tabu is easily the best actress we have today, but she does not fit into the mainstream any more. No hero wants to take a chance with her opposite him. She has slowly been edged out to do films offbeat films or work in regional language films where she gets good roles. Ditto Nandita Das --- the best she could get in mainstream cinema was to play a much older Amitabh Bachchan's wife in Aks or Sanjay Dutt's insignificant other in Pitaah.

Since top actresses like Karisma Kapoor and Raveena Tandon are now willing to experiment with roles (admittedly when their opportunities in commercial cinema have reduced due to the advent of newer faces), even parallel cinema makers do not want cast less known but more talented actors.

But Paresh Rawal's unexpected triumph must have thrown them all into a tizzy. Soon Paresh might be getting top billing and a song or two with the leading lady, as everyone scrambles to get comedies written for him, while multi-crore stars twiddle their thumbs watching their films bomb.

E-mail Deepa Gahlot


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