For the screen adaptation of his acclaimed Gujarati play Kanji Virudh Kanji, director Umesh Shukla had signed on Paresh Rawal to play the atheist Kanji Lalji Mehta. But the debut director could not find the right actor to play the role of God in the film titled OMG: Oh My God!. He had always liked the chemistry Rawal shared with Akshay Kumar on screen and it was their comfort level which prompted Shukla to approach the star — also the producer of the film — for the character.
“Akshay was keen only to produce the film. But we offered him the role because he could very well personify God in a modern avatar. At the same time, the film could redefine the way people view Akshay and Paresh together since they have only done slapstick comedies together in the past,” explains Shukla. Kumar’s performance, which won critical acclaim as the film went on to become a huge hit, has bagged a nomination in the Best Actor in Supporting Role (Male) category at the upcoming 19th Annual Colors Screen Awards.
The films that released in 2012 strongly indicate the rise of content over star power. They also point out that Bollywood’s A-list actors are now willing to play memorable characters that may not be central but will offer them scope to portray their skills. Sanjay Dutt stepped into the rather large shoes of one of Bollywood’s iconic villain, Kancha Cheena in the Agneepath remake in the beginning of the year. For Diwali, he turned adversary to Ajay Devgn in Son of Sardaar. The former role has got him a nomination in the Best Actor in Negative Role category. Giving him tough competition is Rishi Kapoor, who plays Rauf Lala in Agneepath, and Bipasha Basu, another prominent Bollywood star, for her character as an insecure actor in Raaz 3. “Actors such as Sanjay Dutt and Rishi Kapoor are at a stage in their careers where they have little to lose. Also, they have the maturity and experience that allows them to experiment with characters,” points out Karan Malhotra, who directed Agneepath.
Filmmaker Dibakar Banerjee adds that the industry is evolving in a way that actors — stars or otherwise — look for exciting, mostly real roles. This finds proof in Emraan Hashmi’s manipulative character in Banerjee’s Shanghai. Nominated alongside Kumar, Hashmi, on the cusp of graduating to the league of A-list stars, chose to go de-glam for the film. “The scope the character offered for experimentation was the biggest draw for Emraan,” Banerjee explains. Rani Mukerji too opted for a supporting role in Talaash even as she shot for Aiyya as the leading lady. Mukerji is pitted against Huma Qureshi and Richa Chadha in the race to bag the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role (Female).
Another reason why stars are increasingly willing to let go of their insecurities for character-driven roles is to diversify their filmography. Otherwise known for his deadpan humour, Abhishek Bachchan chose to share the centrestage with Devgn for his comic role in the slapstick comedy Bol Bachchan, which has got him a nomination in the Best Actor in a Comic Role category. Anushka Sharma, who is used to playing the leading lady, played second fiddle to Katrina Kaif but won a nomination in the Supporting Role category for her lively act in Jab Tak Hai Jaan. Citing her own example, Basu explains that she was tired of the kind of roles she had recently played until Raaz 3 came along. “I did such characters in the early part of my career and this needed me to dig out an emotion I am unaccustomed to.”
Although stars are more willing than ever to play characters that bring them acclaim and not necessarily box-office collections, it isn’t always easy for filmmakers to convince them. Shukla recounts how Akshay wanted to stick to his role as a producer until he saw the play. “With the baggage of his recent hit Housefull 2 from a different genre, he was unsure if audience would be able to see him as God. But watching the stage performance and a complete narration of the role made him see the potential,” Shukla says.