With new-age platforms and scripts, the thrust today is on distinctive storytelling. This, in turn, is empowering unconventional actors, helping them gain a foothold in mainstream content
By Reya Mehrotra
There’s a scene in the 2004 movie Run where actor Vijay Raaz eats ‘biryani’ for just `5. Later, when he inquires about the contents of the said biryani, a young actor reveals that it had crow meat. That actor was Pankaj Tripathi. The movie might have flopped at the box office, but Raaz’s comic timing and this scene have made it live through the years. In fact, many remember the movie till date only because of this one scene. Cut to 14 years later, the duo would return on screen together for Stree (2018). However, this time, not in small roles, but as the heart and soul of the film, especially Pankaj Tripathi. Playing the role of librarian Rudra Bhaiya, the actor delivered a nuanced performance, which quickly became one of the highlights. Over the years, in fact, Tripathi has delivered many noteworthy performances, be it as Kaleen Bhaiya in Mirzapur or in films like Gunjan Saxena, Newton, Gangs of Wasseypur, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Masaan, among others.
Tripathi’s rise is indicative of a big change that’s taking place in the Indian entertainment industry. With new-age platforms and scripts, the stereotypical image of the ‘hero’ and ‘heroine’ is changing, and the thrust now is on fresh storytelling. This, in turn, is empowering unconventional actors like Tripathi, helping them gain a foothold in mainstream content. Today, one would happily watch a movie just because it stars Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Sayani Gupta, Rasika Dugal, Rajkummar Rao, Bhumi Pednekar and Ayushmann Khurrana — none of whom possess the qualities of the quintessential Bollywood hero or heroine (abs, toned bodies, beautiful faces), but are actors that embody an ordinary man or woman. The path, however, was paved by actors like Irrfan Khan who has left behind a legacy with stellar performances in films like Piku, Life of Pi, The Namesake, The Lunchbox, etc.
Today, the majority of content delves on unlearning the concepts that cinema has engrained in our minds for decades. Doors have also been opened for real conversations around sexuality, dark humour, marital rape, abuse, independence of women — all of which remained largely behind the curtains in the hero-saves-the-heroine story era.
This major breakthrough, believe the new actors and content creators, has been motivated by the digital shift. It is thanks to the newer platforms that creators from all parts of the country have emerged to tell a different story, helping actors of all hues get a platform.
The switch has also been made possible by the changing tastes of the audiences. Perhaps it was the long reign of the larger-than-life superstars, the angry young men and the ‘saviours’ — ranging from Dilip Kumar, Dev Anand, Rajesh Khanna to Sunny Deol, Sanjay Dutt, Shah Rukh, Salman and Aamir Khan — that made the audience crave something ordinary, closer to normal life. Or perhaps it was the unattainable beauty standards and damsel-in-distress image set by the likes of Meena Kumari, Madhubala and later the chiffon-wrapped female actors of the Yash Chopra era that made the audience crave imperfection. Whatever the reason might be, the audience today has made its choice very clear.
However, it was not always that the men in the movies were macho and the women delicate. There were occasional masterpieces that broke stereotypes. Shabana Azmi’s Arth (1982) showed the way for strong independent women, Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963) was about a housewife who unsettles her traditionalist family by getting a job and Tabu’s Astitva (2000) dealt with male chauvinism. Then, of course, actors like Deepti Naval, Om Puri and Farooq Shaikh are popular till today for their many roles in films that dealt with the trials and tribulations of the common man.
Shedding his image
It is not just the influx of ordinary-looking actors with great potential that has made the quintessential male hero shed his image, but also the will to experiment and the thirst for newer content. Undeniably, movies like Simmba, Dabangg, War and Baahubali continue to preserve the image of the macho hero, yet actors have come out of their safety shells to portray new characters. Salman Khan, for instance, played the ‘odd’ child Laxman Singh Bisht in Tubelight, Akshay Kumar stepped down from his action hero image to tell the story of Pad Man (social activist Arunachalam Muruganantham) and Hrithik Roshan’s Super 30 opened to rave reviews. Even Shah Rukh Khan, known as the ‘king of romance’, shed his romantic image to give rare but critically-acclaimed performances in films like My Name is Khan, Swades, Chak De India and Dear Zindagi.
Unconventional actors like Rajpal Yadav, too, have been cast as heroes in films like Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh. However, in the film, Yadav plays a man who feels inferior because of how he looks. And that’s where the difference lies today. An unconventional actor playing the lead role today need no longer feel inferior in any way. One doesn’t need a good-looking actor with a muscular body any more, but someone like Divyenndu, who has proven that he has the potential to hook the audience when it comes to romance (in Mirzapur’s second season, the actor — who plays Munna Tripathi, a goon with many shades — is seen romancing Isha Talwar).
Then, of course, there is Rajkummar Rao. The fact that Rao as a modestly-dressed hero with a small-town vibe, bleached hair and tight pants — far from the image of a Bollywood hero — in Roohi (2021) could win accolades for his performance reveals how the audience today loves performance more than looks. Another such actor is Nawazuddin Siddiqui. One would perhaps miss him being beaten up by a cop in Aamir Khan’s Sarfarosh (1999), but today he carries a film on his shoulders. Manoj Bajpayee, too, got lead roles (Satya, Zubeidaa and Pinjar) rarely, but has reinvented himself with the web series The Family Man, garnering a new fan following. Bollywood’s mega superstar Amitabh Bachchan, too, has taken to breaking stereotypes through films like Piku, Gulabo Sitabo and 102 Not Out, challenging his own yesteryear image of an angry young man.
Recently, actor Adarsh Gourav rose to international fame after he was nominated for his role in The White Tiger at the 2021 BAFTA Awards. The young unconventional actor played the lead in the film, which starred two established actors — Priyanka Chopra Jonas and Rajkummar Rao. “The age of superstars has gone and the internet has democratised everything,” says actor Rajesh Tailang.
Finding her voice
From being sexualised onscreen to talking about their sexuality, the change in how women are portrayed today is being felt and talked about. However, there is still a long way to go, as strong roles are few and far between. But it would be unfair to say that female actors are not being recognised. Actor Sobhita Dhulipala plays an ambitious woman who tricks her rich husband into marrying her, yet one sympathises with her in Made in Heaven. Shweta Tripathi, Rasika Dugal and Shriya Pilgaonkar were as much an important part of Mirzapur as the other members of the ensemble cast. There are stories like Bulbbul, Bombay Begums, Aarya that show women in a strong light.
The much needed break from chauvinism and misogyny has also been the result of emerging women filmmakers and conversations around equality picking up. Actor Maanvi Gagroo says that OTT platforms especially have helped new female actors get a fair chance. “At least I have not heard or been through anything of this sort (where a female actor was asked to compromise) after the #MeToo era and the rise of OTT platforms. Now, I think women feel more empowered. Getting into any industry for women is hard because there are other factors at play too. The industry is also made of people who come from the same society. So there are good and bad people,” she says, adding that she is looking forward to playing a sportsperson or dancer sometime soon.
OTTs may have opened up new doors for female actors, but many rue that the majority of content still revolves around male leads. Actor Aahana Kumra, who has acted in Betaal and Lipstick Under My Burkha, argues that a series like Paatal Lok could have been written with a female cop. “Women are still going to take longer than men to reach there because roles are written a lot more for men than women,” she says.
Even with the content being written for women, subjects tend to range from sexuality, domestic violence, etc (Bombay Begums, Lust Stories, Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare). While these topics are being discussed for the first time onscreen as women have finally found their voice, Kumra feels it is time we move on from the female sexuality genre and explore more roles for women in other diverse genre. “The way people reacted to Lipstick Under My Burkha was mad. For some people, these subjects are very absurd because they don’t understand why women are talking about sexuality. It’s an uncomfortable subject for them. It’s true that a lot of content on women is about sexuality, but it’s an important part of history. Women have been looked upon as a commodity, there’s so much misogyny. So when this becomes a normal part of our content, people will register it. But I do feel we have to go beyond this now. I might some day write stories for women myself,” she says.
The actor recently shared a few pictures on Instagram dressed up as Indian cricketer Jhulan Goswami. However, she was criticised for darkening her skin tone. Talking about it, she says, “I know Jhulan personally and did it to show respect to her. She loved the pictures. It was not meant to offend anyone. I am not even doing a film on her. My only effort through the photo was that women actors are ready to transform themselves. I have done prosthetics for Betaal, why didn’t anybody get upset about that? I am here to play a character and want to say that we women actors are ready to play transformative characters. We are ready to go the distance… are you ready to write for us?”
The OTT opportunity
While it may be true that OTT platforms have a long way to go when it comes to strong, female-centric content, one can’t deny the fact that the medium has been instrumental in making many careers. Ever since digital content started booming, there have been multiple opportunities for everyone. And this is something that Kumra agrees with. “In cinema, the last name, how you network comes a lot into play, but on OTT, they would hire me for my performance. Here, the producers call the shots. It’s a very collaborative space. We get the freedom to experiment,” she shares.
Actors also say that each character is well defined and the stories are well written because of the advantage of time that OTT gives. “Because of the length of stories on OTT platforms, writers and directors have more opportunity to portray the storyline and characters in a much more elaborate way… that liberty comes to actors also,” says Kumra, adding, “It’s good that now we have cinema, TV, OTT platforms coexisting, as there will be ample work for everybody. OTT has its own global reach, so that means any content will be viewed globally. That means healthy competition because one can see work from outside and compare one’s own work. It makes our vision better and provides space for experimentation.”
Tailang, who was part of the OTT shows Mirzapur and Delhi Crime, agrees: “One can watch a film from France or Europe or anywhere in the world… anyone can compare your art with the best in the world, so we have to compete with the whole world now. It was an island situation earlier where Indian content stayed in India, but now, it is available to a global audience. So naturally, there is comparison as one is exposed to good-quality cinema,” says Tailang, who was seen in his first comic role in the Netflix film Pagglait.
Even the audience today is curious about OTT content, he says. “In films that range from 1.5 to 2.5 hours, only the protagonist’s story is told. The content on OTT can be 8-10 hours long, divided into episodes where one can delve into each and every character’s life, plots and subplots. Even the audience is curious to know each and every character,” he says, adding, “Not just actors, OTT has given a platform to everyone, be it writers, directors, cameramen… every department… and this was motivated by the internet revolution.”
Gagroo, who has a long list of body-positive roles to her credit, says that thanks to the digital medium, a ‘variety’ of different actors, be it in terms of height, body weight or colour, are emerging and beauty standards are being challenged. “When it began, the commercial model of OTT was such that you didn’t need any of that… just the show to do well. Now, so many different kinds of stories and formats are being experimented with… the industry has opened up for writers, actors, directors, everyone,” she says.
Bollywood prefers established actors and big names as one has to recover money, but that’s not the case with OTT, Gagroo says. “Before OTT, we were exposed to a global thought process through the internet. There was a lot of mixing of thoughts, conversations happening. Then OTT came and inclusive content was welcomed… I think it’s a good thing that we are talking about never-talked-about things. We need to have a variety of stories because that’s what art and cinema are all about,” she says.
Enriching to have rainbow of emotions in a character: Jaideep Ahlawat
Actor Jaideep Ahlawat has got his due both in films and OTT. He has worked in Paatal Lok, which opened to rave reviews, and his performance was appreciated in films and shows like Raazi, Bard of Blood, Karan Johar’s Ajeeb Dastaans, to name a few. “In terms of recognition, I think Gangs of Wasseypur, Commando, Vishwaroopam, Raazi and recently Paatal Lok proved to be the turning points. It’s a good feeling when your work reaches out to people and they appreciate it,” says Ahlawat, adding that he wants to experiment with all kinds of work.
“An actor doesn’t want to bind himself in the limitations of any genre. Hathi Ram Chaudhary (from Paatal Lok) is one character where you can find all emotions from the story and, for an actor, it is enriching when there’s a rainbow of emotions in a character. I would love to try romance, comedy and action, too, in the near future.”
Ahlawat has a long list of dream roles to play. “I have so much on my plate to offer as an actor and I hope I get good stories and roles… Sometimes you don’t plan things, they just happen.”
I consider my character as the hero of his life: Rajesh Tailang
The year 2020 was an eventful one for Rajesh Tailang. His show Delhi Crime won an Emmy and his performance in Mirzapur’s second season was appreciated. The actor, who made his debut with the 1989 Doordarshan serial Dhai Akshar, has played a multitude of characters. “Whenever I play any character, whether the screen time is long or short, I always consider my character as the hero of his life… like every person is the hero of his own life,” shares Tailang, who was also noticed for playing a 65-year-old man at just 26 years of age in Hazaar Chaurasi ki Maa (1998).
Over the last few years, cinema has transformed and every character being written today is well defined and justified even if for a one-scene role, says the actor. “A character is no longer just a device to carry forward the story, but has a journey of his/her own with a beginning, middle and end… and not just echoing the hero’s or heroine’s emotions. The credit goes to the scripts being written,” says Tailang, adding that he has faced a lot of ups and downs professionally. “I see myself as an artist trying to better his art,” he says.
There is a need for trained people in the Indian film industry: Aahana Kumra
Like any other profession, there’s a need for trained people in the film industry, says actor Aahana Kumra, adding that for a long time, people didn’t understand what being in a film school meant. “Today, the industry is full of people from FTII and other film schools. I see so many of my juniors and classmates doing well in different sections of filmmaking. There is now a need for a well-read technician who can also be an actor. Actors like Rajkummar Rao are from film schools, so I don’t see why there should not be an education in this business,” she says.
Talking about her journey till now, Kumra says her becoming an actor was an organic process. “I was always involved with Prithvi Theatre. From selling tickets, working backstage, festival planning to programming, I was deeply involved. I saw a creative process unfold in front of me every day. When I graduated, my mother asked me if I wanted to do this full time… and that I would need to get trained, so I did.”
But she didn’t get work. The actor got rejected in at least 200 auditions for television soaps. “There was only films and television, nothing in between. Today, if you are a content creator, you will get a job,” she says.
Kumra then chanced upon the show Agent Raghav whose director she knew. “There was a time when I used to dress up every day and go to auditions, but didn’t get any TV serial… except Agent Raghav because someone walked out. Once Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) released, people started recognising me and my work,” says Kumra, adding that she has never said no to work. “People who come from non-filmy backgrounds have to grab everything that comes their way.”
Demand for physically real-looking actors today: Maanvi Gagroo
Think of actor Maanvi Gagroo and her body-positive performances come to mind—Four More Shots Please!, Ujda Chaman, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan. But before she tasted success, the actor went through her share of disappointments. The casting directors would
tell her that she neither fit into the quintessential size-zero ‘heroine’ role nor that of a ‘fat’ girl. “That’s when more realistic characters started getting written for OTT platforms. There was a demand for physically realistic-looking characters,” says the actor.
For Gagroo, things started looking up when she landed work for The Viral Fever (TVF) in 2015-16. “They were starting their first series—Permanent Roommates and then Pitchers simultaneously. So they asked me to come in for a test. I got it, Pitchers came out and garnered a lot of popularity… people loved my character,” says Gagroo, adding that she never planned to become an actor and, in fact, wanted to be a clinical psychologist and so pursued a degree in psychology. Her parents, she says, didn’t know much about her career as no one in her family belongs to the industry, but they supported her. “With all that you read in the tabloids, someone not familiar with the industry may have a dubious image of it. But they wanted me to try it out,” says the actor.
‘The audience is looking at different things now’: Jitendra Kumar, actor
Actor Jitendra Kumar is a product of the digital content boom. He was a part of the process when the digital shift was happening and made a mark with only a few performances in films and shows like Panchayat, Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, TVF Pitchers, Kota Factory, etc. The IITian, who finds inspiration from Dilip Kumar, Shammi Kapoor, Robert De Niro and contemporaries like Pankaj Tripathi and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, speaks with Reya Mehrotra about making it big in the city of dreams. Edited excerpts:
You came to Mumbai from Alwar with no connections and an IIT-Kharagpur background. How did you find your calling?
When you are new to the city and don’t know anyone, it is difficult. But when I started, digital content on YouTube was about to boom. I had made some friends at The Viral Fever (TVF) and we started working on TVF Pitchers and it got popular. There was some struggle, but there was always work. We had planned to make long-format series for the digital medium. There was a belief that there is an audience here and even films can be made on digital platforms. But we had to convince producers about this shift and its potential. I was not just an actor, but a part of the process of this shift to the digital medium. This way, we sorted a lot of things for newcomers.
So you can be called one of the flagbearers of the digital shift…
Yes, you can say that. When TVF had first started digital sketches, I was a part of it. It feels good to hear when people say they have been following me since then. We started when smartphones were still new, so in a way, it coincided with the digital content boom and that worked out. The shift has always happened from one medium to the other — from cinema to television and now web content.
Do you think OTT has revolutionised the way content is being produced?
Films are expensive, so there is little experimentation there. Someone does something and everyone follows the pattern for three-four years. But OTT has a lot of scope for experimentation. So it has brought a revolution in that sense. Experiments are happening now, but I feel a few years down the lane, the type of content being produced on OTT platforms, too, will follow trends like cinema.
Do you think the age of superstars has ended and unconventional actors have taken centrestage today?
The audience makes stars, but now, the audience is looking at different things. New actors are always followed and eventually become stars. I feel that even if not now, but this will happen with good actors on OTT, too, after some time. Currently, new creators are still emerging.
What kind of genres had you wanted to be a part of while starting out and what kind of work are you looking forward to now?
After Pitchers, things have been great and I have been doing the kind of content I wanted to, but I got my own audience only after Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan, as cinema has a huge family audience. My series Panchayat was released after the film and during the lockdown, it got good viewership. Creators started recognising me more. But I am greedy for good work and don’t feel I have given my best yet.
How have you evolved as an actor? You never attended film school or had any connections in the industry. How did you learn on the job?
Each story is a new process as situations off and on camera are different. In my experience of seven-eight years, I have realised that a lot of rehearsals, readings and listening to what the director is saying are key to a good performance. A character may show anger, but that would make you laugh, or in another situation, his anger would intimidate you—you learn to express one emotion in different ways when you listen to the director and with experience. Everyone feels these emotions, but an actor has to recreate them on camera. Initially, I didn’t know a lot of things. There were limitations in my initial performances that I feel I have overcome now.
Do you think it is easier for new actors to establish themselves with multiple sources of content creation today?
In the digital age, we have many platforms like YouTube, Instagram to show one’s talent. If one doesn’t find an opportunity, one can create it independently for one-two years and have alternate career options too. There is equipment like mics, camera available at affordable rates now… bas mehnat karni hai (you only have to work hard). If the audience likes you, you get noticed and there are reality checks, too, to improve yourself.
‘More women behind camera leading to change in way stories being told’: Swara Bhaskar, actor
Her portrayal as UP girl Payal in Tanu Weds Manu was as effortless as her performance in the critically-acclaimed Anarkali of Aarah. She didn’t say no to playing a sexually active woman in Rasbhari nor did she shy away from doing a female masturbation scene in Veere Di Wedding. In an interview, Swara Bhaskar tells Reya Mehrotra why every role is that of a protagonist’s for an actor and how the industry has evolved. Edited excerpts:
How do you define your journey as an actor — from Tanu Weds Manu to Anarkali of Aarah or Rasbhari?
I don’t see the transition from playing character parts to strong female-oriented parts as anything but a sign that one has become more successful in an industry that is built around stardom. A good competent actor acts and the efforts don’t differ according to the size of the role. In fact, some of the finest actors that our country has had like Johnny Walker, Pran saab or Amrish saab built careers from playing character roles. Every actor thinks of himself/herself as the protagonist. I have been very lucky as an outsider to get a break and feel very special that even my supporting roles are remembered and loved. The love I got for these roles made it possible for people to see the trailers of Nil Battey Sannata and Anarkali of Aarah.
How do you think the content is evolving for women?
I think both Indian screenwriters and the audience got more exposed to global content as the content market opened up. When a few films became hits, people got the confidence to be able to tell stories and market them right. A lot of women got behind the camera — be it Zoya Akhtar, Gauri Shinde, Ashwini Iyer, Juhi Chaturvedi, Alankrita Shrivastava, Nitya Mehra or Reema Kagti. More women behind the camera and in different departments also led to a change in the way stories are being told.
There have been accusations of power play and exploitation of newcomers, especially women, in the industry. Were you sceptical when starting out?
It’s very hard for an outsider. It is not impossible, but landing a break, negotiating a new city, an unfamiliar industry is very hard. What gave me confidence was my education. I come from an academic family. My parents said that you can do whatever you want, but first finish your education. So I finished my bachelor’s in literature from Miranda House and my post-graduation in sociology from JNU. So I was confident and articulate because of my education and that saved me. I was able to see a lot of power dynamics in the industry that perhaps other people would be intimidated by, but I was not because I understood it as a sociologist and then I was able to deal with it in a more clinical manner. And that really has helped me remain stable and sane in the industry. Otherwise, it is a place that does take a toll on you.
Do you think OTT has a huge contribution in bringing subjects onscreen that were never talked about and giving new talent a fair chance?
I think this is a great time to be an actor. I am blessed to have started work at a time where I have a balance of both films and OTT, commercial and critically-acclaimed work, supporting roles and leading roles. In that sense, I feel that I have already had a bird’s-eye view of the industry in this decade. The audiences are so aware of the performances that they won’t tolerate a bad performance, and that’s a great time to be a good competent actor in the industry.