New Delhi: The recently released sports film, Freaky Ali, banked singularly on the rustic appeal of its lead actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Siddiqui—for whom the romantic sports comedy marks his second titular role after Anurag Kashyap’s psychological thriller Raman Raghav 2.0 this year—is an actor who has as much a reputation for standing out in commercial blockbusters like Bajrangi Bhaijaan as he does for spearheading smaller, content-driven films like Manjhi-The Mountain Man and Dekh Indian Circus, both despite and on the merit of his unconventional looks and persona.
For an audience used to larger-than-life, strapping male leads dancing around trees or beating bad guys to pulp without flinching, actors like Siddiqui with their commonplace vibe and appeal may appear more than a little uncommon. But clearly, they’ve been embraced and how.
“The fact that somebody like a Nawaz has a pretty strong fan following and has been given space purely on the basis of talent, shows that it’s not about looks or six-pack, gymed bodies in that sense. It’s really about economic forces finding these people viable,” said Navdeep Singh, director of last year’s Anushka Sharma-starrer NH10.
The change, Singh added, stemmed from audiences wanting to see characters who looked and behaved like them, people who lived in places like them rather than fancy houses abroad. It’s always the audience that brings about change because writers and directors can put things out there but if nobody wants to watch them, it doesn’t really help.
To be sure, Siddiqui represents the change brought in not just by contemporary actors like Irrfan Khan, Manoj Bajpayee, Dhanush, Rajkummar Rao, Vinay Pathak and Ranvir Shorey, but also by those like Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri and Amol Palekar who first broke the mould of the conventional leading man in the 1980s.
“I’m not really surprised (by the rise of an unconventional face like Siddiqui as a leading man) because there already was a foundation that was made with somebody like Irrfan manoeuvring the space, wading his way through, establishing himself as someone around whom a story could be pegged. Also, to an extent, with somebody like a Naseeruddin Shah or an Om Puri, there is a historical reference point,” said film author Gautam Chintamani.
“Ultimately films are about stories, if you stop looking at a journalist and start looking at, say, a journalist in a small town, what their story would be, perhaps you would need someone like Nawaz to play that role. If you look at a film like Gangs of Wasseypur, the story and location become as much of a character as the actors. So if you want to make a compelling story, if you want to be authentic, then somewhere good actors like Irrfan or Nawaz come to the forefront,” said Chintamani.
Middle-of-the-road cinema may have been a significant phenomenon in the 1980s but the period afterwards was far bleaker. The coming of video, in the words of director Tigmanshu Dhulia, killed cinema. Plus, the condition of theatres, then single-screens, started going down and people, at least family audiences, stopped going to movie theatres altogether.
Not that there hadn’t been takes on diasporic Indians previously but the decade of the 1990s is remembered for the crucial positioning of the NRI (non-resident Indian) in Hindi films marked by stereotypes like big stars, romances, affluent lifestyle and fancy locations, and the work of young filmmakers like Aditya Chopra, Karan Johar and Sooraj Barjatya.
“All these south Indian remakes and corny films came up. Then the overseas market came in, films became beautiful and we forgot about real Indians again,” said Dhulia.
Things changed in the 2000s for sure—for one, there was the multiplex explosion and it became viable to make alternative cinema, as theatres went from 500-700 seaters to 50-80 seaters. And 40 out of 500 seats filling up didn’t make commercial sense, 40 out of 80 seats did.
“I think what started the change was the multiplex boom. The single screens said you had to appeal to the lowest common denominator of the audience. The multiplex says that you can section out your audience,” said Apurva Asrani, writer and editor of biographical drama Aligarh and editor of films like Satya, Shahid and CityLights. “It’s a very big deal that you can afford to make these films that cost a couple of crores and there is some audience for them.”
Secondly, filmmaking itself changed with directors and writers who were not part of film families coming from different parts of the country to Mumbai to tell different stories. The likes of Kabir Khan, born in Hyderabad and educated in Delhi; Imtiaz Ali from Jamshedpur; and Anurag Kashyap and Abhinav Kashyap, who grew up in Uttar Pradesh, have all changed the texture of filmmaking.
“These faces fitted well with these stories rather than just the conventional good-looking boys and girls. Because so many directors were making these films, they consumed this talent. It is not the actor who makes the change. It is the director and writer who do so,” said Dhulia.
Along with the new talent came the evolution in budgets. An “item” film which follows a certain formula and has an almost fixed kind of return thanks to a dynastic star cast, has a budget that requires producers to go for actors that are bankable.
“The moment you controlled the budget of your film, you were dependent on or you nurtured your content enough to sell your film. We make more films like that right now,” said Asrani. “We are taking the budget of one multi-starrer and maybe making 10 small films. Strong-enough content will give you some returns.”
A sizeable chunk of the money is also made with pre-sales and selling other rights. “So when content is king, and you can’t afford the stars, besides you want an actor as opposed to a star, which is where actors like Nawazuddin and Manoj come in,” he pointed out.
The economics of these films have certainly evolved over time. Filmmaker Singh recalls how he couldn’t raise funds with either Siddiqui or Khan when he was making his directorial debut Manorama Six Feet Under in 2007 that eventually starred Abhay Deol. But despite the fact that economic forces find these actors viable now and they have fairly strong fan following of their own, challenges remain. Especially in terms of the kind of box office these films actually command at the end of the day. Khan’s last solo release Madaari made Rs18 crore at the box office while Siddiqui’s Raman Raghav 2.0 managed Rs7 crore.
“Nobody makes a film only for awards. They make a film hoping they’ll recover whatever investment they’ve made,” emphasized Dhulia. “What usually happens is people in India come to see big stars and big films. Most of these smaller films have not been doing so well for the past couple of years. People think why spend Rs150 watching these actors and these kinds of films. They’ll watch it on DVD and whenever it comes on TV.”
And yet, some have found a way out by focusing not on the box-office collections of their films but the kind of longevity they earn.
“Up to Shahid, it used to break my heart to see a small number of people in the audience. But by the time we made Aligarh, I had realized that there are certain films that find an audience over a lifetime,” said Asrani. “Shahid, till today, gets screened not just at festivals but remains the most popular Indian film on Netflix in the UK and Ireland.”
That is not all. Aligarh has been to every country and festival in the world, and continues to be a talking point, Asrani pointed out. “I feel these content-driven and high-concept films have a shelf life far beyond the films made primarily for money. They have to be seen like that as well, they have to be given that respectability. Maybe our system is such that it’s taken a long time for it to come into practice but great talents like Manoj, Nawaz, Rajkummar— these guys are stars. And it’s just a matter of time before people realize their stardom. It’s different from the stardom of a Salman Khan but they’re stars nevertheless,” he said.