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The return of the character actor

The character artistes lent credibility to a film's story, they filled the screen and what is more, helped break the monotony of the lead pair dominating the screen.

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The character artistes lent credibility to a film’s story, they filled the screen and, what is more, helped break the monotony of the lead pair dominating the screen. All that because these characters were woven into the script. Whatever the draw, popularity or fan following of a star, he or she alone could not carry a film through.

Some of these artistes who propped up a film were versatile, but a lot of the character actors in our earlier films were typecast and chosen when required for a particular character for which they were loved by their audience. In fact, some of these were so popular, roles were written especially to cast them in a film.

Some specialised in negative characters, some as backup comedians (just about every film had a leading comic actor). People never got tired of these actors playing the same role again and again. In fact, that is what was expected of them!

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A film’s hero could not deliver it all. The character artistes made a film wholesome and held it together.

There were some great character actors such as Balraj Sahni, Jayant, Iftekhar, Rehman, Sapru, Kanhaiyalal and Jeevan, whose very names in the credit titles added to a film’s value.

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Balraj Sahni and Jayant enjoyed a towering personality besides being great talents. Iftikhar, while also doing varied roles, made a strong presence playing a no-nonsense top cop. Sapru was gifted with a royal presence and fitted all roles of a ‘khandani’ wealthy man. Om Prakash was in a class of his own. Kanhaiyalal and Jeevan were both scheming, deceptive manipulators each in their own inimitable style.

And, then there was Jagdish Raj, who was typecast throughout his acting career to play a police inspector, so much so he acted a cop in as many as 144 movies and this has been recognised by the Guinness Book of World Records.

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Can you imagine Manoj Kumar’s ‘Shaheed’ or, later, ‘Upkar’ without Pran, or Irrfan’s ‘Hindi Medium’ without Deepak Dobriyal, or ‘Chupke Chupke’ without Om Prakash? There are many such films.

Comic characters have been a part of our myths and stories of great kingdoms among other tales. Narad in our myths is the ultimate example. The film stories continued this tradition.

Be it a family drama, a thriller or action movie, a comedian in the cast was a must and his/her appearance on the screen was looked forward to like clowns in a circus. It is no wonder that some comic actors such as Rajendra Nath, Johnny Walker, Mehmood and Deven Verma went on to become legends.

They were a must in a film’s cast and often a script was altered to accommodate a comedian. A comedian was a stress reliever and, what they called, relief!

There came a time when Mehmood was the draw for a film and not the film’s hero! Legend has it that he was paid more than a film’s lead actor! Mehmood’s success never went to his head, but it started eating into others’ heads. Stars nursed bigger egos than their success could afford them. Despite knowing that Mehmood was a factor in the success of their films, they did not want him in their films anymore.

The other cause of the fall of many character actors was their ambition to make their own films. Mehmood managed it quite well for a time. but others, such as Deven Verma, Asrani, Mohan Choti, from among the few sought-after in those days, took to making their own films only to play the lead role and, in the process, stopped getting assignments from other makers.

Johnny Lever was a highly sought-after comic star, the best since Mehmood. His name in the cast brought people to cinema theatres. Filmmakers are prospect hunters. One well-known producer got this bright idea to cast Johnny in the lead and print some quick money!

Tempting though it would have sounded initially, Johnny sat over the offer for two months and decided he was better off doing what he was doing, playing a comic sidekick, and continue to make the Rs 15-20 lakh (considered very high in those days) he was making per film, instead of falling for a lead role and losing it all.

Then followed an era when the character artistes were out of favour almost totally. There were no writers who could pen a script involving many characters. No writer to script a near-three-hour film. On their part, the lead actors started doing it all. The hero filled in for all, negative, comic, buffoon, whatever.

Amitabh Bachchan films accommodated many character actors but there came a time when just about every other character was woven into his and the films suffered. The same happened with other film heroes till Hindi filmmakers started remaking South Indian hits.

South Indian films and their remakes filled the screen with dozens of actors. Half-a-dozen comic villains such as Kader Khan, Shakti Kapoor, Ranjeet, Tej Sapru, Asrani, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Amjad Khan, Anupam Kher, and so on.

Then came a phase when the lead heroes of yore staged a retune in character roles. Rishi Kapoor, Randhir Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty, Dharmendra, and then Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff were some.

But now, real character actors have staged a comeback. Not through the big bill commercial potboilers, but through small films by makers who chose closer-to-life stories. The films told stories a viewer could relate with. Their films, as a rule, were low- or moderate-budget productions, such as ‘Fukrey’, ‘Vicky Donor’, ‘Piku’, ‘Kahaani’, ‘English Vinglish’, ‘Paan Singh Tomar’.

There are some character artistes who have carved a niche for themselves. Certain films are identified with them, rather than the other way round!

There are actors such as Pankaj Tripathi, Sanjay Mishra, Imraan, Rajesh Sharma, Deepak Dobriyal, Nawazudddin Siddiqui, Pitobash Tripathy, Atul Kulkarni, Manish Chaudhary, Ranveer Shorey, Brijendra Kala, Adil Hussain, Pawan Malhotra, Ali Fazal, Jimmy Shergill, Vipin Sharma, Annu Kapoor, Atul Kulkarni, Yashpal Sharma, Kay Kay Menon, Manoj Joshi, Ashutosh Rana, Arshad Warsi, Ronit Roy, Varun Sharma. The list can go on.

Sadly, most of these talents do not get their due in mainstream cinema. The story is the same. Our writers don’t think of creating characters, besides the hero and villain (the heroine being mandatory). But, now, the popularity of some of the actors on OTT is compelling filmmakers to cast them.

Take for example Pratik Gandhi. An unknown stage actor till the other day, he is now doing about half-a-dozen films. Imagine, Pankaj Tripathi is now seen in as many, if not more, television commercials as any top hero!

–By Vinod Mirani

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