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Saibal Chatterjee: Are Bollywood stars changing their stripes?
July 11, 2013
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The Mumbai movie industry usually revolves around the clout of its crowd-pulling superstars. However, in recent years, a new crop of directors has pursued a completely different path, steering clear of the likes of Salman Khan, Shahrukh Khan and Akshay Kumar. They have chosen to cast “pure actors” in their films and have achieved substantial commercial success.

But the tide may be turning. The man who has been spearheading Mumbai’s “independent” cinema, Anurag Kashyap, is increasingly gravitating towards the established box office stars. Not only will his next film, Bombay Velvet, feature Ranbir Kapoor in the lead, the maverick director has also roped in Amitabh Bachchan for a television fiction show.

On the face of it, this trend is probably a win-win for everybody. The presence of megastars is likely to allow independent-spirited directors to attempted more ambitious projects while offering mainstream Mumbai movie actors an opportunity to explore fresh avenues.

Kashyap, on his part, believes that this trend, more than anything else, reflects the fact that the Bollywood superstars are now willing more than ever before to take risks and essay characters that do not conform to their established screen personas.

When the maker of out-of-the-box films like Dev D, Gulaal and Gangs of Wasseypur plans a project such as Bombay Velvet, which, besides Ranbir, will see Anushka Sharma and producer-director Karan Johar play pivotal onscreen roles, there is bound to be a certain buzz in the industry.

Tigmanshu Dhulia, the feted director of Paan Singh Tomar, is wrapping up a new gangster flick, Bullett Raja, starring Saif Ali Khan and Sonakshi Sinha. Clearly, the gap between Bollywood’s independent moviemaking space and Mumbai’s mainstream cinema is closing, slowly but surely. Shoojit Sircar, the man behind one of the biggest sleeper hits of last year, Vicky Donor, has also moved on to bigger things. His next film, Madras Café, features John Abraham and Nagris Fakhri, and is due for release in the last week of August.

The convergence of the two dominant streams of Hindi films is being driven by the changing dynamics of the business. In recent times, many small, starless films have made money at the box office, highlighting the primacy of the screenplay.

Titles like Kai Po Che, Fukrey and Raanjhanaa are certified box office hits and their commercial success has been made possible solely by the strength inherent in their unusual storylines.

The desire to play more rounded and sharply etched characters is propelling mainstream actors to not-so-mainstream projects. Who would have ever imagined that Ranveer Singh, who began his career with Band Baaja Baaraat and followed that up with Ladies vs Ricky Bahl, could be cast as a suave conman in a period romance like Lootera?

The rules of the game have indeed changed. A director like Vikramaditya Motwane, who burst on the scene with the critically acclaimed and commercially successful Udaan, can today mount a big canvas film like Lootera without having to compromise with his vision.

Lootera is a remarkable film in many ways. Especially noteworthy is the manner in which the director has used Sonakshi Sinha, whose career had thus far hinged solely on decorative roles in megastar vehicles like Dabangg, Rowdy Rathore and Son of Sardar.

In Motwane’s beautifully crafted film, Sonakshi plays a believable character and makes a strong impression. Her spirited performance proves that even actors who have built their careers around run-of-the-mill commercial films can make the transition to more meaningful cinematic tales when they are given the right break.

One actor who has straddled both worlds with success is Ajay Devgn, who has over the years been a regular in the politically-inflected films of Prakash Jha. The veteran director is one of the early non-mainstream filmmakers to woo stars of commercial Hindi cinema into his kind of stories.

Besides Devgn, Jha has worked with actors like Amitabh Bachchan, Saif Ali Khan, Arjun Rampal and Katrina Kaif. In fact, the cast of his upcoming release, Satyagraha, is led by the Big B and includes Kareena Kapoor.

The phenomenon of “independent” Mumbai directors working with the top Bollywood stars of the day is certainly not a nascent one. Govind Nihalani, director of iconic classics like Ardh Satya and Aakrosh, had Devgn as the lead actor in Takshak in the late 1990s. In 2004, he cast Amitabh Bachchan and Kareena Kapoor in Dev alongside Om Puri.

So where does this leave the likes of Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the most visible faces of realistic entertainers? Actors like them will always be in demand in medium budget films that call for acting of the highest calibre. But when filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap and Tigmanshu Dhulia seek to move into the big budget bracket, the presence of somebody like Ranbir Kapoor in the cast would become inevitable.

Fortunately, Ranbir isn’t a typically Bollywood superstar. He has already provided ample proof of his versatility. So his collaboration with Kashyap could be expected to yield something worth waiting for.

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