Friday, October 23, 2015

No tamasha – the return of Nikhil Bhagat

[My latest Mint Lounge column]

The Oscar-winning actress Luise Rainer, who died last year at age 104, holds what could be a record for longest gap between film roles – appearing in the 1997 The Gambler a full fifty-four years after her previous movie. But Rainer had made a few stage and TV appearances in the intervening decades. In just that sense, Nikhil Bhagat – who makes his “comeback” this year, in a small part as Deepika Padukone’s father in Imtiaz Ali’s Tamasha – is one up on her.

If you are a certain sort of film-watcher, you remember Nikhil Bhagat – by face, if not by name. In the mid-1980s, he played two memorable parts in non-mainstream films made by important directors: first he was the headstrong schoolboy Raghu, geared for football stardom, in Prakash Jha’s debut feature Hip Hip Hurray and then the callow, smitten Ruiz in Shyam Benegal’s gorgeously shot Goa-based ensemble film Trikaal. He was nominated for a supporting actor Filmfare Award for the former, but shortly afterwards slipped out of sight and made a living in a much less glamorous field: leather exports. “I wasn’t driven enough to pursue a film career,” he said when we spoke a few years ago.

A blasé attitude to stardom is still on view today, as Bhagat discusses his new role with a touch of amusement. Calling this a comeback would be hyperbolic, he was quick to tell me on the phone recently: it’s a very short part, and a non-speaking one too, since his scenes with Padukone unfold against the backdrop of a song. But he also says that he fell back into the old routines easily, and that – notwithstanding the many technical improvements in filmmaking – the basics haven’t changed much: “You still have people bustling about setting things up, lots of noise.”

Bhagat with Imtiaz Ali

There is a sweet symmetry in the stories of Bhagat’s “discovery” in 1983 and his “rediscovery” three decades later. In each case, he didn’t have to leave Calcutta or make much effort to sell himself – opportunity came to him, and he took it with a bemused shrug. In the first instance, Prakash Jha was in the city, auditioning for the part of Raghu, and things happened in a blur; in the second, one of Imtiaz Ali’s assistants was scouting when he heard about someone who was the right age, tall and good-looking (as a Deepika-daddy should be) – and what’s more, he had even acted once before, a long long time ago.

Contemplating Bhagat’s second stint in front of the camera, one realizes this is a rare instance of someone whose life has intersected with movie glamour for brief periods (Raghu was quite a hit with many young small-town viewers when Hip Hip Hurray released – one of them being Imtiaz Ali, who told me he had watched the film in Jamshedpur in his early teens) without seriously being affected by it. And what a contrast that makes with performers who live nearly an entire adult lifetime under the arc lights – not to mention star-children who know little of life outside the film industry, grow up watching their parents being worshipped and intruded on… and then, like lemmings drawn to a cliff, head down the same path themselves. Meanwhile, here is Bhagat, whose own children belong to the part of his life that came after his initial dalliance with fame, and whose attitude is a reminder that it is possible to think of acting as something one does for a lark – even if you are working with one of the country’s hottest actresses.

At one point Bhagat makes the obvious frat-boy joke (who can resist it? Even Amitabh Bachchan couldn’t while discussing Piku) about how he should have been Deepika’s love interest instead of her dad. You chuckle along – and then you remember that Shah Rukh Khan, who is just a year or two younger than Bhagat, has done exactly this onscreen, with Padukone and with even younger actresses like Anushka Sharma.

Mint recently carried a study of the vast age gap between male stars and the actresses whom they court on-screen. Some of that data may be slightly skewed by the discrepancy between the “official” and real birth-years of many female stars; such fudging doesn’t happen to the same degree with male actors – but even that is a pointer to how unconcerned people are with a hero’s real-life age, how his hitting 50 doesn’t sound the alarm bells that an actress turning 35 or 40 does.

The still-reigning Khans have been central to our pop culture since the late 80s, many of us have grown up with them – we watched them doing “Tip Tip Baarish” and “Kabhi Linking Road Kabhi Warden Road” when we were children or adolescents; now we are practically middle-aged and they are playing PK and Bajrangi – and none of them has been away from the public gaze for any length of time. You’d think this incessant exposure would make their advancing years more obvious, but somehow it doesn’t work that way: such is the nature of stardom and the way it intersects with male privilege.

So here, in one corner, is Raghu the schoolboy who vanishes for a few decades, then reappears and is now expected to play his age (even though, as Imtiaz Ali told me, “He looks so fit, almost the same as he did in Hip Hip Hurray”). And there, in the other corner, are men of his own generation, mixtures of Dorian Gray and Peter Pan frozen in movieland’s amber, destined to play lover boys onscreen until their skins are as leathery as the handbags Nikhil Bhagat has been trading in all these years.

[An old piece about Nikhil Bhagat is here]


  1. Interestingly enough, I noticed this gentleman in the 'Heer Toh Badi Sad Hai' clip (really loved the song so was playing the video version on loop!). I was curious to know who he was as I found his face very interesting and also, Imtiaz Ali often brings a refreshing diversity to the casting choices in his films, as in the actors may not be very well known (at least, to me) in the mainstream context and usually do great justice to their parts (I can't immediately remember any one stand-out character in any specific film offhand so generally speaking about his output so far). Thanks for sharing more about Mr Bhagat and will be looking him up in the films you mentioned!

  2. Hip Hip Hurray is one of my fav. movie