These are the people who shattered the myth that Bollywood was built on nepotism. They came from obscure backgrounds, first built castles in the air and then the ground beneath them. And that very attitude helped them go where the stars feared to tread. Today, Ayushmann Khurrana, Rajkummar Rao, Vicky Kaushal, Kartik Aaryan among the men, Bhumi Pednekar, Taapsee Pannu, Radhika Apte and Richa Chaddha among the women are true trailblazers of tinsel town. Each of them have picked scripts that others have been scared about even reading because they did not symbolise an Adonis or an Aphrodite and resembled mere mortals with a bevy of flaws.
The cacophony of the cash registers jingling at the box office counters is being heard by every filmmaker worth his salt and ostensibly the actors are also getting the right price for their filmic oeuvres. Amar Kaushik who helmed Rajkummar Rao in Stree and Ayushmann Khurrana in Bala says that these intrepid actors had a doughty spirit which made them what they are. “These were the guys who picked up the roles of a not so good-looking man, or someone who had a negative trait about him. They dared to be different. Such stories were made with a smaller actor but no one saw them. But with the advent of OTT platforms, the audience was exposed to such content worldwide,” he avers.
Ayushmann Khurrana made his mark with Shoojit Sircar’s Vicky Donor and has been tapping filmmakers, pregnant with ideas that had never been conceived before. “He has really evolved as an artiste and a person. He is making his own rules and carving his own path. The script for him is of utmost importance and doesn’t compromise on that. He has a whole lot of gut feeling going in there when it comes to selecting a script. I have come to see him as a person who isn’t overwhelmed with success and neither is defeated by failure. He is constantly improving his own game,” opines wife and writer Tahira Kashyap, who has been married to him for 11 years.
The actor too agrees that such roles always enter his alley. “Quirky and taboo subjects have become like my zone. I always try to do something different… like I did Andhadhun and Article 15. I will try to do some different stuff. Our country has loads of tabooed subjects. We are conservative, progressive and regressive as well. We have all types of people so we can play with all these taboo subjects. The only things we need to dare to choose challenging subjects and characters,” says the Bala actor. Bala incidentally is on its way to become another Rs 100 crore film and his co-star Yami Gautam, who had shared space in Vicky Donor with him says, “I know Ayushmann for a long time. He’s really come a long way. I like the way he has been choosing his films. It was great working with him in Bala.” To trace Ayushmann’s journey, there is a dialogue from Article 15 where his wife played by Isha Talwar tells Ayushmann, “We do not need a hero. We just need people to stop waiting for a hero!”
Taboo subjects like premature balding, LGBT issues, mental health, sperm donation, erectile dysfunction, menstrual cycles, being overweight are now the order of the day. Bala, Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Aligarh, Judgementall Hai Kya, and Shubh Mangal Saavdhan among others have been mainstream films telling stories of the real India rather than been restricted to a government funded NFDC film which came and went like a falling meteor.
Upcoming films like Shubh Mangal Zyada Saavdhan will also continue to reflect that. Ayushmann will essay the role of a gay person in the latter. “This role will be the toughest for me because I am heterosexual and will be play the role of a homosexual guy. It is not easy as the thought process is not easy. Aanand Sir (director) is looking for a guy who will play opposite me. I have watched a lot of gay movies. Our film is different and it deals with the situation in a light-hearted manner,” he says.
Writer Kanika Dhillon who has written several films including the Tamil and Telugu film on an overweight girl Size Zero apart from Judgementall Hai Kya and Ra.One says though the audience identifies with demigods and larger-than-life heroes, “They also identify with the boy-next-door, who is struggling with issues. A small everyday triumph over a hackneyed notion or an idea is perhaps as big as killing 100 goons and saving the day. I’d say it’s a great trend that reflects the mindset of a large section of an evolving and young audience. The new generation of actors are making choices and picking stories that talk about issues that were a taboo topic earlier. A large section of the society is ready to look at our absurdities and laugh at them.”
Bhumi Pednekar who is as eponymously grounded as her name was a rotund woman making her debut in a Yash Raj Film opposite Ayushmann. “It is a pleasure when you are branded as a risk-taker. In all honesty it helps me make my choices and pick up stories that excite me rather than think about how it will excite others. As an actor, one needs to experiment and push the envelope to grow as an actor,” she says.
Rajkummar Rao who shared screen space with Ayushmann in Bareilly Ki Barfi along with Kriti Sanon prefers to give the credit to the people who are ready to put their hand into their pocket to shell out the shekels. “The producers today are willing to put their monies on these films. That is because the audience is ready to accept these films. Filmmakers are spending monies on not just making these films well, but also marketing them well,” says Rao.
The Road to Glory!
But the road to glory has never been that easy. Take the case of Taapsee Pannu, who flew north for summer. The actress opines that your resume in the south is not taken into account when you are a Bollywood debutant. “I found it tough to convince some filmmakers to fathom that I was not here for roles that skimmed the surface. But often in the movie industry the economics also define the casting and the last Friday is used as the ready reckoner. Hence, even I do not want to work in films where the economics are buried under the craft,” says the Pink star.
Kartik Aaryan picked up taboo subjects like quirky live-in relationships and buddy comedies. The Pyaar Ka Punchnaama star’s film for Bollywood showman Subhash Ghai called Kaanchi tanked so badly that there were many who weren’t ready to bet on him. And then came a surprise in the form of Sonu ke Titu Ki Sweety and there was a Karan Johar ready to sign on the outsider and give him the golden ticket to A-list movies. What made Kartik work was his comic timing. He will also be seen in Bhool Bhulaiyya 2.
“Content traditionally has been the king and that has worked in fiction as well. Comedy of course is a tough thing to do but I enjoy it,” says Kartik.
It will be fair to say that actors like Irrfan Khan, Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddiqui set the trend for these younger actors to follow. The three weren’t exactly the greatest of lookers, but their acting gave them a charisma and an aura. In the 70s and the eighties when actors worked in socials, the films worked, but didn’t make them into stars. Actors like Sanjeev Kumar, Amol Palekar and Vinod Mehra didn’t really become stars with films by Hrishikesh Mukherji and Basu Chatterjee even though they were social comedies. The new millennium has allowed these stars to twinkle. “If you compare how Sourav Ganguly and M.S. Dhoni set the ball rolling for Virat Kohli to hit out of the part, these actors and the films they worked in were indeed precursors to the good cinema movement that we see today. The advent of social media, the OTT platforms, the multiplexes with several screens in different sizes have also contributed to the rise of this content driven cinema,” says trade analyst Atul Mohan.
Director Rohit Shetty, who has the perfect blend of comedy and action in his movies, feels that a good actor need not have six pack abs. “Ayushmaan is a great actor and a big star. We have to choose an actor and mould him or her according to the character. More than abs it is an actor’s acting skills, which is more visible,” he says. T-Series head honcho Bhushan Kumar says Ayushmaan and Rajkumar are the most sought-after actors today. “The audience wants to watch great characters on the screen. Heroism does not work on the box office now days,” he says.
Director Om Raut, who’s movie Tanahji starring Ajay Devgn and Kajol will be released in January 2020 feels that some unconventional actors supersede many superstars. “I think cinema is getting real. There are many other existing OTT platforms and all these original subjects are coming into lives on the celluloid. In olden days this kind of cinema was known as parallel cinema. Amol Palekar is one fine actor known for doing content driven cinema in earlier years,” he says.
These actors were chosen for the stories that filmmakers wanted to tell but the big stars didn’t want to symbolise them. Vicky Kaushal, who acted in Masaan, Manmarziyaan, Sanju and Raazi got the opportunity of a lifetime with Uri: The Surgical Strike. The action drama got him into the league of the biggies and he finds himself in two Karan Johar films — a historical and a horror flick and two biopics of Sam Manekshaw and Udham Singh. “As an actor one puts his best into every scene. Emotional scenes and action sequences take a lot out of you mentally and physically. Everyone says that you are a star when the film does well. But I don’t necessarily congratulate myself. It is the effort of the entire team,” he says. A point that Rao agrees too. “It would be unfair to compare superstars like Aamir sir, Salman sir and Shah Rukh sir to actors like us. Their body of work is outstanding,” he explains.
Producer Dinesh Vijan who has movies like Hindi Medium, Stree, Luka Chhuppi, Bala apart from upcoming films like Angrezi Medium, Roohi Afza and the Arun Khetarpal biopic in his kitty, explains the logic behind the casting of such actors. “The moment you mention names like Rajkummar Rao, Irrfan Khan, Kartik Aaryan or Ayushmann Khurrana, the first word that comes to mind – is actor! The fact that they are playing the lead in our films is because they are playing those characters. My directors bounce off all kinds of ideas to me. Movies have a script and an edit. The first part needs to be good. Even a great edit cannot salvage a bad script,” he says.
Kanika feels that this is the right time to tell the story! “Filmmakers are open to different scripts and characters. It’s a great time to be a storyteller because all kinds of stories are being celebrated and consumed. As long as you can imagine, create and make them feel there is an audience out there waiting to watch your story!” she signs off.
(With inputs from Sanskriti Media and Lipika Varma)