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The Gujarati male is not good hero material for Hindi films. We are not as tall as the Punjabis, who dominate Bollywood. We tend to be short and also overweight. There’s too much ghee and potatoes in our meatless diet. The last successful Gujarati hero on the big screen was Sanjeev Kumar from Surat. Real name: Haribhai Jariwala. That was four decades ago. In the more recent past, Jackie Shroff, surprisingly macho for a Gujju. But he hovered near the major league. His son, Tiger, is making his film debut in a lead role this week. There is still hope for us.
As for the women, we gave you ‘Maa’ Nirupa Roy. Also Asha Parekh, Dimple Kapadia and Parveen Babi, all gorgeous, but their place in the sun was before some of you were born. Today we have Kashmira Shah. Never heard of her? Not to worry. You aren’t alone. She looks great in skimpy clothes, but there is not much there in the acting department. South Indian women do better than our women. More buxom. The front benches prefer it that way.
While Gujaratis don’t get the lead, they make terrific sidekicks in films. Television serials depend heavily on these ‘character’ actors, who can do comedy as well as play suffering bahus and harsh mother-in-laws. On the big screen too, a good proportion of the smaller roles, especially comic ones, are played by Gujarati actors. It helps that we speak Hindi as well as English with a funny accent. (Why did the Gujju go to the Vatican? Answer: Because he wanted to hear Pope music! You get the drift?)
There is a good reason why a lot of ‘character’ roles go to Gujarati actors. Many of them are trained in theatre. Of all regional theatre, Gujarati theatre among the most vibrant and successful, especially in Mumbai, where it overshadows even Marathi theatre in popularity. Gujarat has a long tradition of folk theatre, particularly bhavai, which goes back to the 14th century. However, the plays staged today are mostly melodramas or broad comedies. While they don’t win any prizes in national competitions, they provide perfect training ground for work in Bollywood. The halls in the city’s Gujarati ghettos—Vile Parle, Ghatkopar, even south Mumbai—are packed on weekends. Cable television has dented the enthusiasm somewhat, but it is still a tradition in certain families to take in a play and eat out on Sundays.
The late Dina Pathak, her two daughters, Ratna and Supriya, Paresh Rawal, Tiku Talsania, Aruna Irani, Bindu, Satish Shah and many more ‘character’ actors, whose names may not be familiar to audiences, have their background in Gujarati theatre. Amisha Patel is among the few exceptions and it shows in her acting. Sanjeev Kumar too had his roots in theatre. Paresh Rawal, now the BJP MP from Ahmedabad East, is on top of the heap, the most successful. This 64-year-old actor started off playing the villain, but found his forte in comedy. His performance is sometimes the key reason for a film’s success, the Hera Pheri franchise, for instance, and OMG, in which he stole the movie from Akshay Kumar.
Bindu—she of the ample proportions—is still remembered fondly for playing the vamp. Who can forget the Bhavnagari bombshell’s portrayal of Mona Darling, the dim-witted gangster’s moll? She was particularly good against full-blooded villains like Ajit and Prem Chopra. She could do a sizzling cabaret dance, as anyone who saw Zanzeer will attest. She could play sympathetic roles when directors like Hrishikesh Mukherjee gave her the opportunity, as in Abhimaan.
And then there was Aruna Irani, foil to Mehmood in numerous hits. She was pretty and had oomph, but could not make the cut as a heroine. Like Bindu, she too could dance. In later years, she followed the hallowed footsteps of Nirupa Roy, and played mother to heroes until that line of work too dried up.
(Bhaichand Patel is the author of Mothers, Lovers and Other Strangers.)