Ratnabali Bhattacharjee does not have any portfolio of glamorous photographs. Nor does she seem too eager to do a photoshoot. She confesses she’s “horrible” at networking, unheard of for an actress. But she is charmingly candid about her cussed ways and their not-so-great consequences. “People need to know who you are to offer you roles, for they can’t cast you in their heads,” she admits nonchalantly. “But I’d rather let my work speak for itself.”
Well, it is. We caught up with her last week in Panchgani, in the middle of a well-earned holiday, as Shor, one of the five films in the compendium called Shorts, got released in the theatres. As a woman torn between the demands of a young schoolgoing son, a jobless, wastrel husband and a prickly mother-in-law, Ratnabali lets her quiet, calm face do all the emoting—from the unthinking routines to the sheer hurt and pain after an ugly brawl with the husband. “I love building on the characters I play,” she says.
You might also not know of Neeraj Kabi yet, but you couldn’t have missed his good-natured, ever-smiling but dogged monk in the Ship of Theseus. Neeraj employs not just an expressive face in his acting, he uses his entire body—notice the quick gait with which he moves and how he shrinks and shrivels through the film as his character’s life begins to ebb away—an astounding physical performance rarely witnessed on the Indian screen.
Other unknown faces are also catching the audience’s eye, their performance marking them out in the crowd of the all-star cast (see infographic). Already, last year’s newcomers—Nawazuddin, Swara Bhaskar, Richa Chaddha, Huma Qureshi, Pitobash, Raj Kumar Yadav—have been elevated to ‘seniordom’. Today belongs to Shriswara, Aakash Dahiya, Sohum Shah, Vineet Singh, Mohammed Zeeshan Ayyub, some mint-fresh, others like Rajesh Sharma having journeyed through several roles and films. None of them boasts a Bollywood connection or a big-city background—most of them are from smaller towns like Lucknow, Varanasi or Sri Ganganagar.
Now, The Moment Of The Stardust
Cast in gold, this line-up promises more exciting times for Bollywood
|Shriswara The Lucknow girl bagged the role of Irrfan’s wife Nafisa in D-Day after more than four years of struggle. Had audiences’ eyes well up in the climax. Still at the periphery, but here to stay.||Aakash Dahiya Noticed first in Chillar Party. Now plays lanky, awkward, unsure Indian mole on a mission in Pakistan in D-Day. “Children took to me in Chillar, now adults have discovered me in D-Day.”|
|Ratnabali Nuts about theatre, but is beginning to understand films. Plays housewife who rediscovers rhythm and relationship with her husband in the face of a crisis in the short film Shor.||Vineet Singh Varanasi boy with a medical degree. Made Big B taste the murabba in Bombay Talkies and plays Ratnabali’s jobless, frustrated husband in Shor. Coming soon: Issaq.|
|Neeraj Kabi An actor who can express not just with his face but his entire body. Plays good-natured, ever-smiling monk in Ship of Theseus. Lost weight for the role, dropping down to 41 kg.||Rajesh Sharma Worked with Calcutta’s Rangkarmi theatre group and in Bangla films. Great comic timing, his mere presence is enough in Ghanchakkar, Luv Shuv Tey Chicken Khurana.|
|Mohd Zeeshan Ayyub Won hearts as hero Kundan’s best pal Murari in Ranjhanaa. Got the best lines, delivered them with energy and conviction. Watch out now for Shahid.||Sohum Shah Grew up with filmi dreams in Sri Ganganagar. Plays materialistic Rajasthani businessman who finds a larger meaning in life by helping the needy get justice. Next: Tumbad.|
|Nimrat Kaur Next new talent on the block. In The Lunchbox, she plays a bored housewife who finds unique companionship with a stranger through notes exchanged in a lunch box.|
For Lucknow girl Shriswara, recognition has come after a wait of more than four years. Critics and film buffs alike are raving about her short role as Irrfan Khan’s wife in the thriller D-Day. “There was a long lull of nothingness,” she says, “which irritated me.” She still considers herself as being on the periphery, and thinks she needs more time to establish herself. But one thing she is sure of now: she is here to stay.
No Bollywood connection, no big-city background. These stars are from Lucknow, Varanasi and Sri Ganganagar.
Vineet Singh’s struggle has not just been long but also meant a change in direction, from medicine to cinema. His mathematician father back home in Varanasi thought he’d give up his acting dream once he got his MBBS degree and start practising. But Dr Vineet went just the other way. With the security and assurance of a degree behind him, he participated in the talent show Superstar. Soon, he moved to Mumbai, went on to assist Mahesh Manjrekar and worked in several TV serials. His big break came with Manjrekar’s City of Gold and became his entry point to the cinema of Anurag Kashyap. Gangs of Wasseypur, Bombay Talkies and Shor followed. As did recognition. “Bollywood has a large heart and long arms,. It eventually accepts and embraces everyone.” says Vineet—quite an uncharacteristic, charitable assessment of Mumbai filmdom.
Like Vineet, Sohum Shah too grew up with filmi dreams in his head in Sri Ganganagar in Rajasthan. “We get inspired and learn from films,” he says of the small towner’s obsession with movies. “We connect our lives with cinema.” But he took his time before heading to Mumbai, establishing himself well in business first. His break came with a film called Babar in 2009. “It was the film I worked the hardest on,” he says. The results didn’t quite show then but they are in full evidence now in the Ship of Theseus, which he also went on to produce when the project got stuck. His first love, though, is acting. “I am able to lead another man’s life, see life from his perspective,” says Sohum. “It makes me dive within myself and seek hidden depths.”
Sohum, however, is an exception. Unlike him, most actors are grounded in theatre and derive their performing skills from the proscenium than instinct and experience. Rajesh, for instance has worked with Rangkarmi in Calcutta and has been doing commercial Bengali films as well as the arthouse cinema of Aparna Sen, Sandip Ray, Gautam Ghosh and Buddhadeb Bhattacharya. Dibakar Banerjee spotted him in the play Kashinama and cast him in Khosla ka Ghosla. Ishqiya, Chillar Party and Noone Killed Jessica followed. The buzz, however, has grown for him with Luv Shuv Te Chicken Khurana and Ghanchakkar. He continues to be based out of Calcutta and retains a foothold in theatre.
Aakash was with Rangsaptak in Delhi, assisted in casting for films till he got a break himself in Chillar Party. “Children took to me in that film and now adults have discovered me in D-Day,” says Aakash while nursing his ailing father in the ICU. He has been shooting in the thick of personal crisis, flitting between the sets in Ahmedabad and home in Delhi to check on his father’s health.
Curiously, Zeeshan’s parents, themselves theatre actors, wanted him to stay away from it. Persisting, the Okhla boy cut his teeth at The Players in Kirori Mal College and trained at NSD. Noone Killed Jessica got him the break in Bollywood, and Raanjhanaa, overnight popularity. “If people start reaching out to you in a city like Mumbai, which is so used to the star culture, then you have arrived,” he says.
Interesting faces are being seen as professionals are spotting them, and casting has become central to filmmaking.
Theatre is something Ratnabali too confesses to being “nuts” about, but she is beginning to appreciate films too, bit by bit. For Neeraj, it has been 15 years since his last film, but the intervening training in theatre has come to bear on his role in Theseus. To play the ailing, dying monk, he lost weight, dropping to 41 kg, eating only boiled food and liquids. “I could hold the folds of my skin in my hands, count my ribs and bones,”he says. “One day, I took off my clothes and looked in the mirror. It was a cathartic moment.” Then on, he lost consciousness of his body, of how he looked. “This was no gimmick. I am stubborn with my craft.” In becoming the part, Neeraj says he has transformed from within. No longer does he enjoy non-veg fare and life has taken on a new minimalistic meaning. “I realised we needed to eat very little to survive, can make do with two sets of clothes,” he says.
Committed actors like Neeraj are here and are experimenting because there is an audience for them, for the kind of cinema they would want to be part of. “There’s a new thinking, unique ideas,” says Sohum. The characters in the background are becoming as significant, sometimes more, as the stars in the foreground. And new faces, liberated of a defined style or image, are able to essay these roles much better on screen. “They come with a fresh feeling, are not predictable,” says the leading casting director Mukesh Chhabra. “The audience can imagine them as the characters they are seeing on the screen. You will find them coming out saying, ‘Irrfan ki wife (rather than Shriswara) achchhi lagi thi D-Day mein.’”
New, interesting faces are proliferating also because spotting them has become professional, and casting has become central to filmmaking. “We are getting proper credit and money now,” says Chhabra, who has himself acted and assisted in films before making a career out of casting. Interesting experiments are being done with the process, with real people, rather than actors, getting cast. “We went through an exhaustive process of audition to arrive at our cast,” says Anand Gandhi, director of Theseus.
The sun indeed is shining for this troupe of actors. Neeraj is working on chhau and thumri for his next play. His Monsoon Shootout is ready for release and he has been cast as Gandhi in Shyam Benegal’s TV serial Samvidhaan. Vineet’s Issaq hits the screens this week. Sohum will be seen soon in Rahi Barve’s Tumbad. Zeeshan has Shahid and Maazi while Rajesh is looking forward to Sudhir Mishra’s next with Big B and Bejoy Nambiar’s Hindi remake of the Tamil horror hit, Pizza. It’s time some real actors took on the big stars of Bollywood.