Saturday, September 26, 2015

Stars - big ones and little ones - descending

[From my Mint Lounge column; this is also a continuation of thoughts about Nawazuddin Siddiqui from this post]

Vienna, late at night, filmed in the distinctive shades of 1940s noir. A cat rubbing against someone’s legs in a dark doorway. A drunken monologue, an overhead window opening, a doorway suddenly lit up to reveal a man framed in it, a naughty smile spreading across his face as the camera glides in and a memorable zither score begins.

Speaking about his famous entrance scene in The Third Man – as the charismatic black-marketer Harry Lime – Orson Welles noted that for more than half the film, Harry was nowhere to be seen but everyone talked about him. This was in keeping with the spirit of the theatre he had grown up watching, Welles said: in plays such as “Mister Wu”, the star didn’t come on until the end of the first act… and when he did, the build-up ensured the audience was on its feet.

The zither isn’t much used in Hindi-film soundtracks, but anyone who watched movies of a certain vintage will remember the plink-plonking of piano keys when a star made his or her first appearance onscreen. It is the sort of cue – underlining things for the viewer, telling us what we must feel – that can make some of us shift uneasily even while watching a favourite old film. It is the very essence of melodrama (and remember the etymology of that much-maligned word: melos, or music, plus drame, drama), but you’ll find it even in some low-key films. In Gulzar’s 1975 Aandhi, when we first see Sanjeev Kumar he is grey-haired, tending his garden, looking unstarry. Yet there is a brief swell of music so at odds with the overall mood of this film (about an estranged middle-aged couple recalling the twisted paths or mod that led them to where they now are), it sounds like it was belatedly inserted by a distributor. And in the same director’s Khushboo, made around the same time, there is a similar elbow-nudge when Hema Malini appears. The scene is meant to be melancholy – dressed in a simple, creased sari, she is walking into a room where a doctor is attending to an elderly patient – but the Star Heralding Jukebox has no compunctions about disrupting the tone. “Sit up!” it yells at the viewer, “Dream Girl is here.”

I have been thinking about various types of star entrances after watching Bajrangi Bhaijaan, which has two such scenes – though you might think it only has one. The obvious, larger-than-life one naturally belongs to Salman Khan and occurs 20 minutes into the film, after the prelude about a little Pakistani girl becoming separated from her mother, alone and lost in Kurukshetra. At this point the narrative segues from measured quietness into the boisterous “Selfie Le Le Re” song sequence, centred on Salman as Hanuman bhakt Bajrangi. An apt entrance for a superstar of the masses, the scene also has a clear function within the narrative: it “introduces” India as a place that is colourful, noisy, even terrifyingly pagan at times (what must all those dancers with monkey masks and ten heads look like to a child from a country where there are no pictorial depictions of God and Prophet?), but warm and helpful at heart. And who but Salman to stand in for all these qualities? He will become Shahida’s protector, carrying her safely back to her home (some of their scenes together will mimic the classic Hanuman-Sita iconography, much as their clinch in the freeze-frame that ends the film – Bajrangi holding Shahida up above his head – will resemble the positions of India and Pakistan on a map, the former an indulgent big-brother figure, the latter a child balanced on a shoulder).

But much later comes another, different (and definitely non-musical) entrance scene that is very aware of the special appeal and standing of the actor concerned. In his first scene as a TV journalist, Nawazuddin Siddiqui is seen through a handheld camera, trying to report a mundane bit of news but repeatedly frustrated by passersby photo-bombing the footage. This scene has a utilitarian function too – establishing the professional life of a character who will later use a camera to record the major goings on in the narrative – and yet it felt a tiny bit contrived to me. It’s as if the director and writer had said: Nawaz needs an actorly moment that fits his personality, one that will let him amuse and impress the viewer at the same time – so let’s insert some Dogme-style footage here, complete with stops and starts and double-takes.

In fact, Siddiqui’s status as a “serious”, “non-starry” performer has been creating fresh subtexts for the films he appears in and making him something of a “pahaar-katva” (to cite a description of his role in Manjhi) staring down the mountains of the mainstream star system, undercutting them with his own special little moments. There is more to say on that subject, but for now it’s enough to note that his entrance scene in Bajrangi Bhaijaan is nearly as much of a “Mister Wu” moment as Salman’s is.

P.S. In 1984, another famous “actor’s actor” with the same initials, Naseeruddin Shah, had perhaps Indian cinema’s most vivid “Mister Wu” scene ever, his character Amrit appearing only in an unforgettable nightmare scene in the final seconds of Govind Nihalani’s Party, after 120 minutes of being discussed by the other characters. But that was a “parallel” film and it could be argued that on some level it played off the fact that Naseer’s status in that circuit was comparable to Bachchan's in the mainstream. At any rate, Nihalani did something similar with him in Aghaat too.


  1. Perhaps that scene was there only as a tribute to the inspiration behind the character (i.e. this famous youtube video )...

  2. Slightly away from the post. In Aaghat, Om Puri is terrifyingly convincing as a union leader when he screams from the stage. Naseer's screaming seemed not even half as good. The difference in the quality of that screaming (acting) was so much that I had almost made up my mind that Om is a better actor for even when he screamed he seemed to be naturally speaking loudly. I know its not a wise way to conclude for actors who have performed superbly in so many roles. But, I think, if not for Naseer in Sparsh (and that scene when he yells at his assistant when told to get a maid), I'd say that Om Puri is a definitely a better actor than Naseer. But, I guess even then, this approach to judge actors isn't very thorough.

  3. Irrfan Khan's entry in Haider reminded me of Harry Lime's in The Third Man.