Home >Industry >Media >Spotlight falls on Bollywood’s support cast
(From left) Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao and Aparshakti Khurrana in Stree.
(From left) Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao and Aparshakti Khurrana in Stree.

Spotlight falls on Bollywood’s support cast

  • Filmmakers recognize the value that character actors bring to slice-of-life films
  • The family film formula has always worked in India, Seema Pahwa says, given the fact that 80% of the country is made up of middle-class families

They live in Hindi cinema’s small-towns and are parents and best friends in slice-of-life stories. Though long consigned to the sidelines, supporting actors in Bollywood films are now finally moving to the centre stage. And there is a strong case to be made that they are now as popular as mainstream stars. After all, actors such as Aparshakti Khurrana, Pankaj Tripathi, Seema and Manoj Pahwa, Varun Sharma, and Deepak Dobriyal, among others, are household names, having established their credentials in films such as Chhichhore, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Luka Chuppi, Stree, Hindi Medium and many others.

Ayushmann Khurrana-starrer Bala, which has collected more than 89 crore, won hearts not just because of its lead actor, but also its ensemble supporting cast—Seema Pahwa, Saurabh Shukla and Abhishek Banerjee are the perfect foil to Khurrana’s complicated protagonist.

“The entire scenario in cinema has changed. Earlier, stories were restricted to the hero and heroine, now we have stories about the family," says Seema Pahwa, referring to the trend started by Aanand L. Rai’s Tanu Weds Manu (2011) followed by films like Dum Laga Ke Haisha (2015) and, more recently, Badhaai Ho (2018). The last one, she says, is an apt example of the lead pair (Ayushmann Khurrana and Sanya Malhotra) only being part of a narrative that is actually driven by the supporting acts (Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao). The family film formula has always worked in India, Pahwa says, given the fact that 80% of the country is made up of middle-class families.

“That has ensured that the story is seen as the hero and is viewed in a holistic manner," she says.

Actor Kumud Mishra, known for films like Article 15 and Bharat, says filmmakers recognize the value that character actors bring to slice-of-life films and the role they play in enhancing their authenticity and box office prospects.

“When directors come (to actors like us), it is with the idea of adding something to a script that has been written. That is a fun process because we are not part of the crowd. If you see, now small parts in big films are standing out because directors want to fill them up with colour and nuance," says Mishra.

Film critic Gautam Chintamani points out that before the advent of Amitabh Bachchan’s “angry young man" avatar in the early 1970s, most films had a balance between the comedians, character actors, villains and the hero or heroine—as reflected in films by directors like Guru Dutt, Raj Khosla, Shakti Samanta and Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

“The change was brought about with the coming of Rajesh Khanna and was cemented with Amitabh Bachchan when he turned into a one-man industry and the idea was that if the entire film was sold on a star, why give others screen time" says Chintamani, adding that the reason we are seeing a throwback of sorts to that golden era has to do with how people are consuming films today.

“With streaming platforms having come into play, the audience demography is changing. They are not going to give you the same time, energy and money that easily. The majority of your audience today comprises people who look and feel like a Pankaj Tripathi, so they would want their hero to become an embodiment of that," he says.

Mishra also adds that the casting director has a big role to play in this new milieu.

“Earlier casting was done on the basis of contacts and personal relationships and you couldn’t look beyond a certain set of actors. Then the casting directors came in and brought a certain pool of actors—good, fresh faces that excite directors and audiences.

“It’s not like supporting actors weren’t appreciated earlier but if they did one thing and were good at it, they would be saddled with the image all their lives. Now if you do the same thing more than once, people get bored. My role in a film may not exceed 10-12 minutes but there is a certain kind of work expected from me and I deliver that," he says.

There is, however, a flip side. Actors like Pahwa and Dobriyal are wary of being stereotyped. Pahwa has played the mother in several films—Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Savdhaan and Dum Laga Ke Haisha. Tripathi, meanwhile, has been playing the small-towner right from Masaan to Newton, Bareilly Ki Barfi, Stree, Luka Chuppi and Super 30.

Dobriyal says roles being offered to him always revolve around being the hero’s best friend, with no back story of his own. The actor, who was last seen in Laal Kaptaan alongside Saif Ali Khan and is remembered for Hindi Medium and Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, says he has declined several roles that require him to do the same thing but needs to work consistently to “keep the actor in me alive".

“There is a saturation point (with actors playing the same kind of roles) because the point is, if something is not broken, why fix it," says Chintamani, adding that video streaming platforms have led to an increase in the amount of content generally being produced. When there are that many projects that require these actors, there will be an overlap in what you see them do, he says.

“The saturation is an offshoot of the success, you may feel an actor is everywhere because you see him in the same avatar, but that’s because the consumption is so much more."

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