Standing on a Bandra cliff in Satya (1998), Bhiku Mhatre, the gangster played out by a young Manoj Bajpayee, asks, Mumbai ka king kaun? (Who’s the king of Mumbai?)” And then, without waiting for an answer, he shouts: Bhiku Mhatre. If one were to ask the Bihar-born actor who is the reigning king of B-town today, he is most likely to say: nobody. It’s precisely the sort of content that matters more than just star power now.
With big-budget movies falling like nine pins of late, the citadel of popular stars seems to be crumbling bit by bit each Friday. The much-vaunted star system of the film industry is finally losing its sheen in the era of ‘millennials’, who are discerning enough to refuse any unpalatable kitsch served in the name of entertainment. The days of stars behind the Rs 100-crore extravaganzas may not be over yet, but the writing is clearly on the wall for them—change tracks or check out of the marquee.
“The star system isn’t going to vanish anytime soon but yes, the audiences are opting for content-heavy cinema in a big way,” says Manoj Bajpayee. “Even big stars like Akshay Kumar are doing meaningful movies now.”
But who are the new badshahs of box-office in this rapidly changing scenario? If the latest trends are anything to go by, it is increasingly the content that determines a film’s fate today. It does not matter whether it stars a Shahrukh Khan or a Rajkummar Rao in the lead. Recent commercial and critical successes of movies like Hindi Medium and Newton, which did not boast of any big star with conventional good looks and huge fan-following, have given ample indications about the direction the industry is moving in now.
That is what makes the likes of Manoj Bajpayee, Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rao the new poster boys of new cinema—the actors who have been giving a big push to quality cinema for long without getting trapped in any image and keeping pace with the changing taste of the audience in the new millennium. Their versatility to fit into any subject or any genre makes them the favourites of new-age film makers who can expect them to come up with nuanced and layered performance in each of their roles. But that was not always the case. Barring Rao, every one of the aforementioned actors struggled hard at the outset of their careers when the industry was under the spell of romantic musicals. In the early 1990s, liberalistaion had opened up a mega territory for Bollywood cinema overseas, thanks largely to a large diaspora pining for the mushy tales of a boy and girl in love. Aamir Khan’s Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992), Shahrukh Khan’s Darr (1993) and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995) and Salman Khan’s Hum aapke Hain Koun! (1994) opened the floodgates of romantic musicals laying the strong foundation of the empire of the Khan triumvirate. The days of the action movies appeared to be over by that time with the gradual fading out of the old war horses of the ‘guns-and-goons’ cinema championed by Amitabh Bachchan, Mithun Chakravorty and a few of their contemporaries.
After Khuda Gawah (1992), Bachchan had taken a sabbatical for a few years before returning with the same old formulaic movies like Mritudaata (1997), Lal Badshah and Kohram (1999) only to find the goings tough. Mithun had shifted lock, stock and barrel to Ooty to concentrate on his hotel business and started doing low-budget flicks. This set the stage for the Khan trio to emerge as the heart-throbs of the nation.
Manoj Bajpayee as Bhiku Mhatre in Satya
The ’90s were real hard times for actors like Bajpayee and Irrfan, who would have to wait for too long for success.
The Nineties was also a period of feel-good movies which saw the rise of directors like Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Dharmesh Darshan, to name a few, who came up with breezy romantic entertainers. There was nothing unusual about it. Tired of watching action vendettas for years, it was but natural for the audiences to prefer mush to gore, although it turned out to be real hard times for struggling actors like Bajpayee and Irrfan who, after—and along with—the customary stint with theatre, sought refuge in television serials for survival.
Bajpayee began playing small roles in movies such as Drohkaal (1994), The Bandit Queen (1994) and Tamanna (1997) before Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and E. Niwas’s Shool (1999) bailed him out. But it was not an easy journey for him. After leaving home at Belwa village in the West Champaran district of Bihar at an early age, he landed in Mumbai to chase his dreams. Even though he failed to get admission into the National School of Drama despite repeated attempts, he did not lose hope. He honed his acting skills at Barry John’s acting classes in Delhi. Shah Rukh , who was also in the same acting school, had already made it big by the time Bajpayee arrived to try his luck in Mumbai. Thankfully, Ram Gopal Varma noticed the spark in him and decided to cast him in Satya, one of the first films that sought to present a realistic portrayal of Mumbai’s underworld and offered a refreshing alternative to audiences who were beginning to get fed up with the syrupy love stories which were in vogue till then.
Bajpayee’s success came as a glimmer of hope to other struggling hopefuls such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui who were also trying to find a toehold. Siddiqui had left home in Muzzafarnagar district of UP and reached Mumbai to pursue a career in films. But his experience and expertise in theatre were of no avail as no film-maker showed interest in an ordinary-looking actor. The outright rejection forced him to do roles of an ‘extra’ in Shool, Sarfarosh (1999) and many other films. It was after almost a decade that movies like Kahaani and Gangs of Wasseypur (2012) propelled Siddiqui into the limelight. By this time, it had become clear that the audiences were craving for good content from different genres, not merely from a love story or an action-packed drama. Siddiqui says that the audiences have started rejecting “hero-type” cinema because they are sick of love stories being told over and over again. “The audience is more than keen to watch fresh and realistic tales on celluloid,” he says. “Even if there is no heavy content, they want to see different films. There was not much content as such in Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (2017) but it was liked because of the way its story was told,” he adds.
It was a different way of story-telling that made Irrfan’s The Lunch Box (2013) and Hindi Medium such loved films. Irrfan is senior to both Bajpayee and Siddiqui. He had debuted in Mira Nair’s acclaimed Salam Bombay in 1988, three years before liberalistion. But then, he too had to struggle for about 15 years before his talent was eventually acknowledged. Although he did Kamala ki Maut (1989), Ek Doctor ki Maut (1990), Ghaath (2000) besides several television serials, including Bharat Ek Khoj (1988) and Banegi Apni Baat (1993), it was only after Haasil (2002), Maqbool (2003) and above all, Life in A Metro (2006) that the doors of the industry opened for him. Later, Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster Returns (2012), The Lunchbox, Piku, Haider (2014) and Hindi Medium and Qarib Qarib Singlle (2017) cemented his position as a parallel cinema powerhouse. In between, he also did Hollywood movies, including Jurassic World (2015).
Looking back, it seems nobody would have given a chance to Rajkummar Rao had Bajpayee and Irrfan not showed the way to aspiring but unglamorous actors. But in his case too, it was sheer talent that helped him carve out his niche in such time. The Gurgaon lad began his career with Bombay Mirror (2010) but he was first noticed in Love, Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) and Ragini MMS (2011). The word-of-mouth appreciation of his natural acting earned him Kai Po Che (2013), Shahid (2013), Queen (2014), City Lights (2014), Aligarh (2016), Bareilly ki Barfi (2017) and, above all, Newton —the official Indian entry at this year’s Academy Awards. He made the most of each opportunity that came his way. The young actor is now playing a key role opposite Aishwarya Rai in the upcoming Fanney Khan, which further underlines his credentials as being one of the best in the industry today.
Experts attribute the rise of these actors to factors like the advent of multiplexes, which created a niche audience for low-budget, quality cinema, as also to the entry of big studios and corporates into the movie business. One more major factor is the ascendancy of digital platforms like Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, which have given movie-lovers unlimited access to quality cinema from across the world.
Nawaz as don Faisal Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur (left), Rajkummar Rao in Newton
A reason for the rise of the parallel actor is that multiplexes have finally created a niche audience for quality cinema.
However, all these factors would not have mattered had a new crop of auteurs not taken over. Refusing to follow the beaten tracks, directors like Anurag Kashyap, Vishal Bhardwaj, Hansal Mehta, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Anand L. Rai, Imtiyaz Ali, Subhash Kapoor and many other young turks chose to tell out-of-the-box tales. From painting a telling account of a gang war in a small town run by the coal mafia to a sensitive portrayal of a gay professor at a central university, they narrated refreshing stories backed by superb performances. Noted writer-lyricist Javed Akhtar believes that many small budget movies like Bareilly ki Barfi and Newton became hits this year without having big stars because of the emergence of niche audience for such movies in the multiplexes. “It is nice that there is a certain audience for such films,” he says. “It may not happen soon but such movies will become really big in future. I can see society moving in that direction.”
That augurs well for the actors like Irrfan, Bajpayee, Siddiqui and Rao, who primarily bank on parallel cinema but do not fight shy of doing diverse movies, right from a hardcore commercial to a short film. The fact that they are not shackled by any fixed image and that they are under no weight of enormous expectations to deliver a Rs 100-crore hit every time their film is released keeps them in good stead. Mind you, they are all here to stay.