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On our actors who touched the zenith of greatness, by Khalid Mohamed

This has been bugging me. Do actors, like wine, improve with age? I’m not at all sure. And for this I would resort to a remark made by Naseeruddin Shah in a course of an interview with me, ages ago.

Said Shah, “The moment an actor’s feet no longer touch the ground, they’re no longer in touch with reality. They fly over some other planet.” Fortuitously, this actor has remained grounded, one of the very few who has achieved the status of greatness.

And I don’t use the G-word loosely. A great actor is one who has steadily but surely, hones his craft and evolves, despite advancing age and market demands. To put it plainly, he is not a star but an actor.

A great actor, even in the world’s pantheon of performers, is a rare breed. Justly Britain’s stage-and-film thespian Laurence Olivier, America’s Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Japan’s Toshiro Mifune belong to this hallowed circle. Their films may have been disappointing at times, but never their performances.

Today, when I look back and forward, there are maybe a few leading men in the Indian pantheon who have been more than mere stars who have evoked mass adulation. These are formidable actors in India’s post-independence decades, artistes who have reached sublime heights and yet, stayed rooted in reality. In their performances, you can detect iron-hard strength as well as human frailties.

Of course, it can be argued that actors are as good or bad as the characters written for them in the scripts besides the quality of guidance given from their directors. Either an actor surrenders himself to the vision of the director or intervenes to the point of the film becoming an exercise in inflating one’s ego. And how!

Thus, the dilemma, of actors being constantly at loggerheads with directors who are traditionally meant to be the ‘captains of the ship.’ However, no one could ever mess with Satyajit Ray, who extracted some of the most unforgettable performances from his repertory of Soumitra Chatterjee, Anil Chatterjee, Chaabi Biswas , as well as Uttam Kumar (Nayak) at the peak of the superstar’s career.

The exposure of cinema in various Indian languages, besides Hindi, has been woefully minimal, given the lack of their nationwide theatrical releases. Still, Chennai’s M. G. Ramachandran, Sivaji Ganesan who it is lored could remember pages of dialogue instantaneously, and Kamal Hasan during his mid-career with hard-knuckled roles in “Nayakan” and “Thevar Magan”, and tongue-in chic ones in “Appu Raja”, “Pushpak” and “Chachi 420”, have earned themselves a permanent place in the hall of formidable actors. Rajinikanth has created his own school of acting, striking a contact with the audience -- stylised to the extent of being one of a kind in the world.

From Kerala, the remarkable performances of Mohanlal and Mammootty, too, have underscored the fact that it’s feasible to vault way above formulaic scripts. Karnataka’s Raj Kumar and Andhra Pradesh’s N. T. Rama Rao, Mohan Babu and Chiranjeevi mastered the art of forceful performances, making them into cult figures.

Coming to the range of actors in Mumbai-produced cinema, their power is confined largely to films produced after the 1950s. Hundreds of early talkie films from 1931 to the mid-1940s have been lost because of lack of preservation facilities. It is from old timers’ accounts and from TV screenings of the few surviving films, that you can sense the strong screen presence of the Adonis-like Prithviraj Kapoor, the melancholic K L Saigal, the unabashedly theatrical Sohrab Modi. And Ashok Kumar who was astonishingly spontaneous and effortless even in stock patriarchal roles he had to accept when he crossed the age of 50.

Saddled with the tag of a ‘character actor’, Ashok Kumar aka Dadamoni took the demotion so to speak, gamely. Balraj Sahni mostly portrayed the rustic underdog, when he wasn’t sidelined as the hero’s ‘daddy’, but turned in one of the most moving and cherishable performances as a Partition-affected father in “Garm Hawa”, at the fag-end of his life.

Glamour and good looks Bollywood has had in plenty– at one point restricted to fair-complexioned heroes, perhaps because that suited the colour film stocks. There is little doubt, though, that Dilip Kumar made the transition from black-and-white films to the vibgyor entertainers, splendidly. According to me, Dilip Kumar is the greatest actor produced by Hindi cinema, thanks to his impeccable dialogue delivery, implosive acting (oh, those deafening pauses) and the influence of the legendary actors Paul Muni and Ronald Colman, not to forget certain mannerisms borrowed from Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru.

Just a few random examples of his artistry can be evidenced in “Amar”, “Devdas”, “Ganga Jamuna” and later “Shakti”. Born Yusuf Khan, the son of a fruit merchant, he plunged so deep into his roles that he had to undergo psychotherapy to come out of the torpor. He was advised to shift to light-hearted roles, which were responsible for his hilarious horseplay in “Azad”, “Kohinoor” and “Ram aur Shyam”. Dilip Kumar was boss.

Amitabh Bachchan, at one point, was accused of ‘imitating’ Dilip Kumar. Unfair perhaps, because the actor went on to evolve an acting matrix which is singularly his own. His lethal weapons are his voice and a baleful gaze, used superbly in his early films, notably “Zanjeer” and “Deewar”. His sense of comic timing and self-deprecating humour were evidenced, under the direction of Manmohan Desai and Prakash Mehra. At the age of 79 plus today, although his film performances (take Gulabo Sitabo or Chehre) just don’t compare to his career-making performances of the 1970s and ‘80s, he’s untouchable as a TV host, keeping the pot boiling of the long-running quiz show Kaun Banega Crorepati.

Sadly, Bachchan and the chameleon-like Naseeruddin Shah haven’t crossed swords yet on screen. Now that would be some jugalbandi.

To return to the 1950s-‘60s, as an actor Raj Kapoor was underestimated since his persona of a Chaplinesque entertainer and showman director overtook his versatile histrionic skills. But check out his injured lover act in “Andaz” with Nargis and Dilip Kumar, or his bipolar shifts of mood in “Awaara” and “Shri 420”. Absolutely mercurial.

Sanjeev Kumar, Om Puri and Irfaan Khan, have a vast track record which ensures that they will be remembered in the league of the nation’s finest actors. Aamir Khan has scored a good innings for sure. He is studied and methodical, accounting for an accomplished range of performances, right from “Qayamat se Qayamat Tak” and “Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar” to

“Lagaan”, “Rang de Basanti” and “3 Idiots”.

Several other Bollywood actors have been efficient, likeable even lovable, but cannot be anointed with that halo of greatness. To conclude, mine is a purely subjective selection of the ‘actor-actors’ (and I have focused only the male artistes for this piece) who will matter in the history of popular, B-town cinema. As they say, pasand apni apni. Or to each his or her own.

Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and filmmaker.

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