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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | How wrong we are about actors is what makes them great

A father cries at his son’s funeral. A man interrupts him, and asks if he can cry louder, or quieter, say a word that is poignant maybe. The actor attempts some variations. He has never been in this situation in his real life. An unsung feature of all art, even though it defines the very quality of an artist, is the element of conjecture — how an artist guesses an experience he has never experienced, or even cares about. But more consciously than other kinds of artists, an actor projects a farce that other people then absorb as a deep emotion. That is the actor’s job. Not only to be understood, but also to be somewhat misunderstood.

As the nation mourns the death of two beloved actors, Irrfan Khan and Rishi Kapoor, who died last week, we see a quality in the tributes—the homage is often more about the person paying the tribute than the men who died. How they made the mourner feel, how old the mourner was when that film released, what the mourner was going through when she saw that memorable scene. You can argue there is a bit of this in every tribute because people are full of themselves, but this level of self-absorption tends to appear in public obituaries only when an actor dies.

At the heart of the special relationship between successful actors and people is the fact that people see more in actors than the actors themselves wish to display. In essence, an actor succeeds when people develop wrong ideas about him.

People associate acting with faces, but the finest actors are primarily great speakers, usually in one language. Acting itself, I believe, is not making faces, but speaking. As we saw in Irrfan, especially, who had power over us when he spoke in Hindi and was merely efficient or even farcical in English films. An absurd thing Hollywood does is hire the finest Indian actors only to make them speak in an unnatural way in English. It is almost like hiring a great cricketer to play baseball.

Yes, there was Charlie Chaplin. But wasn’t he more dance and choreography than acting? Millions of Tamilians will point to Kamal Haasan’s Pesum Padam, a silent film ahead of its time. But then, bereft of words, most actors in the film, except some extras, could stand up to the great Kamal Haasan.

What about silences, you may say? Haven’t we all read about the masterful silences of great actors. But then, if directors reveal the history of many silent facial expressions, we will probably be baffled. Some great menacing faces of an actor may have been of a moment when he was just sitting around after a take, waiting for his cup of chai.

The talent of an actor is in the ambiguity of his personality, in being the way he is for the world to deduce a million wrong meanings.

This phenomenon is even more powerful in actors who are not considered actors. Most successful politicians, for instance. I don’t mean to say they are tricksters. When we use the word “acting" outside the art of acting, we usually mean it as some kind of a devious trick. But tricks themselves are low forms of deviousness, and far more inefficient than tricksters imagine. Powerful politicians, activists, gurus, writers, singers do exactly what good actors do—they unknowingly radiate a broad ambiguous idea and then millions of people see whatever they wish to see.

In many aspects of life, the more clear a person is, the less successful he will be because clarity is the end of a story. Ambiguity, on the other hand, is the start of one.

M.G. Ramachandran, who could never make as many faces as his great rival Sivaji Ganesan, and who could never pass the final test of a great Tamil actor—which is the ability to laugh and cry at the same time—was a much bigger star than all his contemporaries. Something in this Malayalee born in Sri Lanka made millions of poor Tamilians misunderstand him as one of them and their saviour. It is not something one achieves through a mere trick. It takes a physical body that captures circumstance and a vast collective illusion. It takes an actor.

Years after the reign of M.G.R., Rajinikanth, a Marathi-speaker born in Karnataka would hold a similar sway in Tamil Nadu over the more expressive Kamal Haasan.

A quality that many great actors—probably all professional actors—possess that is not celebrated enough is their ability to permit moments of debasement on screen.

Once, when I was interviewing Aamir Khan, a photographer asked him if he would make some faces for the camera—a wide range of human emotions. It seemed like a good idea, until Khan dismissed it with a degree of silent contempt. Years later, I witnessed a similar moment when several members of an audience begged the actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, on stage, to repeat a famous dialogue from a film. He refused. Without the context of a cinematic scene, the two men found it undignified to indulge in a farce. Yet, when there is context, an actor will go to great lengths to diminish himself—like displaying nudity or performing sexual acts or other things that are not glorious.

Any other person performing those things in public would be perceived as debasing himself. But an actor survives that; he is even rewarded for taking the risk. And he is celebrated. And wherever he goes, he is chased by people.

What a strange thing stature is—people grant it grudgingly and they are then in awe of what they themselves gave.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, and a novelist, most recently of ‘Miss Laila, Armed And Dangerous’

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