An industry, notorious for having been overtly patriarchal for a long time, appears to be turning over a new leaf, what with women-centric movies finally gaining wider acceptability among audiences in recent times. Curiously, the main beneficiaries of this much-awaited whiff of change are a bunch of relatively lesser-known male actors who have stumbled on a new platform to showcase their talent in roles not less than the lead opposite top-notch heroines of the day.
At a time when content has started undermining star power at the box office, B-town now appears to be looking beyond its happy headhunting ground, picking up performers who may not yet have become a huge commercial draw but certainly have the potential and experience to live their parts, all in keeping with the demand of the scripts.
Sumeet Vyas already had a fan-following for his role in the popular 2014 web series Permanent Roommates, but it was only after the pivotal role he bagged opposite Kareena Kapoor in the upcoming Veere Di Wedding last year that marked his ‘arrival’ in the big league. To be released later this year, the film is being touted as Kareena’s comeback vehicle. She returns to the big screen after her post-motherhood sabbatical.
Vyas earned rave reviews last year for his understated performance in Rakhee Sandilya’s Ribbon, where he played the lead opposite Kalki Koechlin. The 34-year-old actor, whose latest film High Jack is due for release this month, was earlier seen in Sridevi’s English Vinglish (2012). But Veere Di Wedding may well be his ticket to big-time stardom.
Since no A-list actor is usually ready to play second fiddle to a popular actress, the rise of women-centric movies has certainly provided talented actors such as Vyas a new avenue to prove their mettle. Last year, it was the turn of Manav Kaul to make the most of such an opportunity when he was offered the role of Vidya Balan’s husband in Tumhari Sulu. Kaul came up with a fine performance in the small-budget film that not only turned out to be a sleeper hit, but also earned him a plethora of accolades and award nominations. Interestingly, Kaul had always been acknowledged in film and theatre circles as an actor of immense potential but it was only the success of the Vidya Balan-starrer that put his acting prowess under the spotlight.
However, this phenomenon of ‘newbies’ doing lead roles opposite popular actresses is not new in the industry. But unlike in the past, when a new male artiste merely lent support to the female protagonist as a veritable prop in the narrative, today’s actors get a fair share of footage, if not equal, with them. In Ribbon and Tumhari Sulu, for example, the characters of Vyas and Kaul respectively were not dwarfed by the seemingly overpowering presence of their leading ladies who had author-backed roles.
Raazi co-stars Vicky Kaushal and Alia Bhatt
As of now, many young actors are working on films where they are pitted against popular divas. The talented Rajkummar Rao, who proved his acting mettle over and over again with movies like Newton, Bareilly ki Barfi and Trapped last year, is now busy shooting with Aishwarya Rai for Fanne Khan, an eagerly-awaited remake of the Oscar-nominated Belgian movie Everybody’s Famous (2000). Vicky Kaushal, who stunned both audiences and critics in Neeraj Ghaywan’s mindboggling Masaan (2015), is bracing up for the release of Raazi, a directorial venture of Meghna Gulzar. He is cast opposite an equally talented Alia Bhatt in the film.
Industry watchers believe that an actor, whether new or old, has to look the part he is asked to play in any movie. Veteran film-maker Sudhir Mishra—who has cast actor Rahul Bhat for a complex role in his upcoming film Daas Dev—says that an actor should ultimately deliver what is expected of him. “For Daas Dev, I chose Rahul opposite Richa Chadha and Aditi Rao Hydari because I needed an actor who would not be afraid of the fact that the two actresses have equally strong roles in the film,” Mishra tells Outlook. “Besides, he fit the role of an heir to a political dynasty: someone who had a khandani presence and arrogance but also a distinct vulnerability.”
Mishra says that it was Rahul’s performance in Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly (2014) that prompted him to sign him. “In Ugly, I had noticed his tremendous ability as an actor because he was totally contrary to the part given to him,” he recalls.
After directing him in Daas Dev, the Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi director predicts a bright future for Rahul. “Rahul is basically a director’s actor and possesses great calibre,” he says. “In the present context, when the web is becoming a huge medium and writers are coming up with complex characters, I am sure more and more directors will offer him roles. Anurag Kashyap, in fact, is already making another film with him.”
In Ribbon and Tumhari Sulu (above), the roles of Vyas and Kaul were not dwarfed by the seemingly overpowering presence of their leading ladies.
Another factor that has apparently kept these actors in good stead is their vast experience with different mediums, ranging from theatre and television serials to web series. Director Rakhee Sandilya, who made the critically-acclaimed Ribbon starring Vyas, says that actors like him are able to deliver realistic performances because they have a perfect understanding of different mediums. “The new crop of actors has a fair understanding of the roles offered to them,” she says. “With their lived experience, they bring subtle nuances into their characters, especially those roles portraying the middle or upper middle classes.”
Bollywood’s penchant for fresh stories has, of course, prepared the ground for the rise of these actors, but there are other factors as well. “New stories need new faces,” says film writer Vinod Anupam. “For a story about a boy from Bareilly, you can’t show a Salman or a Shahrukh. You have to find someone realistic. But then, there are factors other than creative ones.”
The national award-winning writer contends that barring a few big-budget movies that are expected to do business of more than Rs 100 crore these days, the vast majority of films have to recover their production cost on the first three days of their release. “If a film-maker has already signed a big heroine, like say Vidya Balan, he simply cannot afford to invest in another big male star for his project. It will make his budget go haywire,” he says. “A film-maker, therefore, has to find an artiste who can deliver the part without costing a fortune. That is where these young and talented actors come in handy for them.”