Saturday, November 18, 2017

Actorly pairings – expected ones and unusual ones

[Did this for Mint Lounge]

Watching Saket Chaudhary’s Hindi Medium a few weeks ago, I found myself momentarily whisked away to another filmic universe. This happened when Irrfan Khan, playing a father who is trying to get his daughter into a good English-medium school, and Tillotama Shome, in a supporting role as a disdainful counsellor, first appeared together on screen. I had a hard time concentrating on the scene because my mind went back to the last time I had seen these two actors share a frame – in a vastly different sort of film in which they played very different roles.

In Anup Singh’s mesmerizing 2013 film Qissa: Tale of a Lonely Ghost, set just after Partition, Irrfan is a Sikh patriarch who, without heeding any counsel or acknowledging his duplicity even to himself, pretends that his newborn daughter is a son; Shome (in a stunning performance) is this unfortunate in-between, her life as partitioned as the newly independent country she is living in.

As a movie nerd who likes to connect dots, one might half-jokingly note that both these stories are about challenges facing parents. But the differences are much more pronounced. Qissa was a great big-theatre film, an intense widescreen experience that also, paradoxically, manages to feel claustrophobic. It is shot in dark, muted colours; even the daytime scenes have a stygian, oppressive feel to them. Hindi Medium, on the other hand, is bright and colourful, not least because of its depiction of the main family’s flashy, nouveau-riche lifestyle. It is an upbeat, fast-paced portrayal of modern life in a status-conscious world, while Singh’s film is a stately period work that finds exactly the right tone and pace to tell the story of a family frozen in time.

In comparing these two instances of co-stars in disparate films, I’m not trying to make a point about acting versatility (though Khan and Shome are both terrific performers, well capable of inhabiting a range of roles). It’s just that I was reminded of the effect our knowledge of an actor’s history can have on our viewing experience: how seeing the same performers in a variety of roles or situations can help one appreciate different filmmaking styles or sensibilities.

There are variations on this, of course. When watching a well-established screen pairing over a period of time, there might be a strong component of nostalgia involved. For example, we see Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy together as classic Hollywood matinee idols performing a love-hate waltz in Woman of the Year (1942) – and then again as a long-married couple in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner 25 years later (with Tracy, who died just after the film’s completion, looking haggard and older than he really was) – and we become aware not just that glamorous, larger-than-life stars are mortal, but of our own aging process and how it affects the way we experience films. Something similar happens when we see Farooque Shaikh and Deepti Naval as an elderly couple tentatively exploring romance in Listen…Amaya, with some prior knowledge of what these actors were like decades earlier in films like Chashme Baddoor and Saath Saath.

With cinema getting more self-referential by the year, there are also cases of contemporary directors wittily playing off or subverting our expectations of an old pairing. One of the most indelible images from the Middle Cinema of the 1970s was Amitabh Bachchan and Moushumi Chatterjee splashing through rain-drenched south Bombay in Manzil, while “Rim Jhim Gire Saawan” played on the soundtrack and KK Mahajan’s camera performed a dizzying dance around them – a marvelous portrayal of romantic love in a city that might swallow the lovers up at any moment. It’s likely that the director Shoojit Sircar and the writer Juhi Chaturvedi – both of whom were fans of the Middle Cinema – had those images in mind when they cast Chatterjee as Bachchan’s sister-in-law (with whom he is always bickering) in Piku, a film where the character name Bhaskor Banerjee was also a nod to Bachchan’s role in another major work of that decade, Anand.

At other times, the same director may use two actors in subtly similar ways in different situations. Most film enthusiasts know Akira Kurosawa’s medieval-era epic The Seven Samurai, in which the veteran Takashi Shimura plays the wise, grizzled, somewhat weary leader of the samurai while the younger Toshiro Mifune is the snarling upstart who wants to become a part of the group (and
must be kept in check by the older man). But many years before that, in a film set in contemporary Japan – Drunken Angel – Kurosawa had already begun the process of creating a mould for the two actors: Shimura was a jaded doctor who serves as a mentor and guiding light for Mifune’s brash young gangster.

To watch these two films next to each other is to see how a director might show versatility in one sense (that is, making movies with different subject matter and settings) while also achieving an authorial consistency in another respect – through the carefully worked out use of screen personalities whom a viewer can recognize, relate to and incorporate into their experience of a film.


[Related posts: Qissa, Listen... Amaya, Familiarity breeds affection]


  1. "With cinema getting more self-referential by the year"

    Why do you think this is the case? This tendency was conspicuously absent in earlier decades. I don't see the Bollywood cinema of 50s referring nostalgically to the films of 40s or the films of the 70s referring to those of the 50s/60s.

    Somehow in each of those decades I sensed a self-confidence and high self-worth, which has been absent since the 80s.

    Curious to hear your thoughts.

  2. That's an interesting question. I don't think it's so much about a lack of confidence. I think often it's more about cashing in on nostalgia value, and has become an established trend; sort of the new cool. Also saves the music director effort when he can bank on a past popular hit song, rather than composing every song in the movie from scratch. Take the song 'Hawa Hawai' song from Mr. India being slightly remixed and used in the recent release 'Tumhari Sulu' which I haven't seen, but which has received good reviews. The lyrics fit in with the image of the happy-go-lucky character Vidya Balan is playing, so there was some rationale for using that song, but it's probably also convenient as well. To be fair though, some of the original songs in the 'Tumhari Sulu' album are quite good in themselves.

  3. "I think often it's more about cashing in on nostalgia value"

    Yes, but the earlier generations never did that cashing in. You never saw Rajesh Khanna or Amitabh Bachchan making fond references to Raj Kapoor or Rajendra Kumar. Nor did you ever see Raj Kapoor make references to Ashok Kumar or Prithviraj in his films.

    I never saw that in any of the decades prior to the 90s (excepting perhaps Guddi - a heavily self-referential film). I believe this trend started with DDLJ - where there was a very clear reference to Waqt, when Amrish Puri sang "O Mere Zohra Jabeen". And it has grown stronger since.

    And it's not as if 1-2 directors from the Chopra clan who are engaging in these nostalgic references. It is across the board. Even a Sriram Raghavan film like Johnny Gaddaar was replete with "tributes".

    Somehow I feel there is this sense in Bollywood post 1990s that the generations that went by were "bigger" in some respect. They inspire awe. The movie makers in the 70s did not quite have that sense of awe when they looked back at the 40s / 50s.

  4. To my mind, it seems fairly logical that as an art form gets older, it will become more self-referential or "meta" (or post-post-modernist, or whatever other term you like) - there is a larger, deeper history, more to draw upon, more to refer to, either ironically or seriously. Of course, that doesn't have to be the only reason.

    I don't agree about the greater self-confidence/self-worth in the 50s-70s compared to later decades.

  5. there is a larger, deeper history...

    Add to this: a greater sense of perspective about what the medium has achieved over the decades, the legacy that has been created by the careers of specific directors or actors, how the audience over the years has responded to (and then perhaps changed its mind about) key personalities and filmmaking styles...

  6. Hmm...Maybe it has also got to do with how yawning the cultural gap is between the two periods.

    One reason why the awe comes in is probably because the earlier generation represents an alernative cultural universe, which has more or less gone extinct. So it's a bit like watching people from a different planet.

    A similar awe for classic hollywood existed among the New Hollywood directors like Martin Scorsese, who were operating in a post-sexual revolution age and looking back nostalgically at a time pre 1960s - which represented an age with altogether different ideals.

    In India, the 70s filmmakers never had that sense of awe for say 50s-60s as there was no cultural disconnect. Rajesh Khanna's moral and behavioral moorings aren't all that different from say Ashok Kumar's or Raj Kapoor's.

    However we had our own mini-sexual / cultural revolution in late 80s/90s. So the generation post 90s started looking back at the pre 80s films with a sense of wonder as they began to look like cultural capsules from a different cultural universe.