Farhan Akhtar and Irrfan Khan are two of the most interesting figures to come out of the Mumbai film industry in recent times. They’re not strictly comparable because Khan is primarily an actor while Akhtar is the Swiss knife of desi showbiz— actor/scriptwriter/director/ producer/singer/lyricist/talk-show host—but in different ways their careers mark the coming of age of a new sort of Hindi film.
Two of a kind: Farhan Akhtar (left – Prodip Guha / Hindustan Times) and Irrfan Khan (Francois Guillot / AFP) are stars of New Age Hindi cinema.
If you were to focus on their obvious differences, the pairing seems arbitrary. In terms of age, they belong to different generations: Khan is 46 and Akhtar is 35. Khan is striking in a pop-eyed, everyman, character actor way, while Akhtar is movie star good-looking: great abs, perfect teeth, killer smile. But neither of them is contained by these stereotypes. Khan has a screen presence, an ability to colour a film that makes nonsense of the character-actor pigeonhole and the lived-in, used-up quality of Akhtar’s physical persona (the scar on the cheekbone, that odd, strangled voice) connect him to everyday-ness, to normalcy in a way that Salman, Shah Rukh and Aamir, with their hyper-groomed images, would find impossible.
So though they aren’t the same age and despite the fact that they come from different worlds (Khan is the outsider who grew up in Jaipur and served a long apprenticeship in theatre and television before becoming a “name”, while Akhtar, the son of Honey Irani and Javed Akhtar, was born and raised in the film industry), they meet in Hindi cinema’s new “middle”, the ensemble film.
This is obvious from the films for which they are best known. Akhtar’s most successful films as director, actor and producer are Dil Chahta Hai, Rock On!! and Luck By Chance, respectively. All of them have half a dozen or more life stories going on at once. Similarly, Khan’s films—7½ Phere, Maqbool, (we could add Namesake and Slumdog Millionaire but they aren’t, strictly speaking, Hindi films) have, at their best, the momentum and energy you associate with plays produced by good repertory companies.
There have always been successful Hindi films of this sort: Some of Shyam Benegal’s films come to mind (Manthan, Bhumika, Nishant), as does Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke. Ketan Mehta’s Holi is a good example of ensemble cinema from the early 1980s, but the definitive precursor of the contemporary ensemble film must be Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Kundan Shah’s great black comedy, made in 1983. The difference is that most of these films needed subsidies to make and were difficult to distribute. Now, with multiplexes there are niche audiences that can be profitably exploited and every now and then a film such as Rock On!! will transcend that audience and cross over into the commercial mainstream.
The difference between the ensemble film now and the ensemble film then is that 25 years ago, the category didn’t exist. Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal and Kundan Shah’s work was, at the time, seen as part of the parallel cinema, while Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Chupke Chupke was classified as a multi-starrer whose success depended on the aggregated star value of its many heroes and heroines. The reason we can class them within a single category now is because we’re looking for the ancestors of a contemporary genre.
The current ensemble film is realist to the extent that its metropolitan, often middle-class audience appreciates plausible storylines. This realism can be hard-edged and violent, as in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptations of Shakespeare; in Maqbool and Omkara, the director uses gangland crime and provincial thuggery to assimilate Macbeth and Othello into Indian settings. Equally, films such as Rock On!! or Jhankaar Beats or Luck By Chance can confine themselves to a narrow middle-class world and deal in bourgeois angst and narcissism. Films of the latter sort owe a considerable debt to the British film-maker, Richard Curtis, who pioneered romantic ensemble comedy in England and America with Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill and Love, Actually.
The casting in films such as Maqbool and Luck By Chance is conventional and risk-free: Thus, Khan will impersonate lower-middle class and plebeian characters because he doesn’t look like a yuppie, while Akhtar, true to physical type, will play affluent young men. In Luck By Chance, even though the character Akhtar plays is a young actor struggling to break into Mumbai’s film industry, the film makes it clear that Vikram Jai Singh is the son of an affluent Delhi businessman. Unlike Shah Rukh Khan in Om Shanti Om, Akhtar won’t return to a chawl in Mumbai because the self-consciously sophisticated audience for an ensemble film doesn’t want its credulity strained. For the same reason, these films will go to great lengths to avoid operatic song sequences: Songs will figure in the film only if there’s a real life circumstance that warrants them, such as low entertainment for policemen (Omkara) or the shooting of a movie within the movie (Luck By Chance). Plausibility, if you like, is the new realism.
Mukul Kesavan, a professor of social history at Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi, is the author of Men in White.
Write to Mukul at firstname.lastname@example.org