Opinion: Can Arthouse actors ever connect with masala audiences?

Written By: Monojit Lahiri
Kolkata, West Bengal, India Updated: Feb 02, 2018, 12:25 PM(IST)

The different worlds of art and commercial films epitomised in the life of these 3 greatest of Indian actress. Photograph:( Zee News Network )

It was really the Nandita Das–Nawaz Siddiqui’s conversation & discussion relating to their forthcoming film Manto, in the just concluded KALAM Lit Fest in Kolkata, that got me thinking about whether committed and powerful art-house actors really had the clout or charisma to seduce mass audiences to their brand of cinema, and I suddenly found myself getting into flashback mode.


The early seventies in Indian cinema witnessed an exciting phase emerge. Shyam Benegal’s Ankur – literally and metaphorically – smashed Bollywood’s carefully protected and preserved monopolistic glass ceiling to serve notice of a new form of cinema coming into existence.  


Shabana Azmi’s sensational debut was followed by equally stunning debuts by three others – Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Om Puri. They formed a formidable quartet headlining most of the path-breaking films of that decade. The middle-class intelligentsia – sick to the teeth of Bollywood’s escapist hi-jinks and absurd larger-than-life portrayal of clichéd and predictable storylines - embraced this new cinema with enthusiasm. They welcomed actors, treatment, subjects and narratives that entertained, enriched and empowered in one sublime sweep. 


These four actors were the true stars of this new and powerful arthouse cinema, authored by a dazzling galaxy of brilliant, creative minds, determined to push the envelope in pursuit of good, intelligent cinema without full stops. Apart from Bengal, other names that blazed the neons included Govind Nihalani, M.S. Sathyu, Aparna Sen, Gautam Ghosh, Sai Paranjpye, Muzaffar Ali, Kalpana Lajmi, Kundan Shah, Saeed Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Shekhar Kapoor. 


These actors culturally, intellectually and even emotionally bonded to this brand of cinema; this amazing lot believed and pursued with passion and purpose, a cinema that was rooted to reality, humanistic in vision, non-formulaic in approach and definitely light years away from the overt, crass, over-the-top, populist, escapist razzmatazz offered by Bollywood’s masala factory headlined by glamorous stars dedicated to posturing, not acting.


It was [ironically] one of this very fab four, Shabana Azmi, who first sent out tremors within this artistic fraternity by moving across to do an out-and-out commercial film [Fakira] with this devastatingly handsome matinee idol, the [late] Shashi Kapoor.  While most expressed shock, surprise and disappointment, Ms. Azmi offered an informed retort.  She explained that while she was a proud product of the art cinema and that everything she received till date – audience, love, admiration, respect, awards, great directors, films – was because of that, she believed that actors also needed to, at some point, see the big picture.  


Shabana Azmi insisted her commercial foray was for three reasons.  One, experimenting is essential for creative artistes for self-growth.  Two, experience first hand, what this huge platform, that so mesmerised stars and mass audience, was all about. Most importantly – and this is central to her argument and this piece – her presence in commercial cinema, she believed, would mean that her commercial films would reach out to more people at more places [than her brand of niche cinema] and induce at least some of them to patronise her art films and thus help the movement that they all were committed to.  I remember Smita Patil dismissing this rationale outright, stating this kind of conversion can never happen because these two cinemas – their motivations and dynamics – were worlds apart!


A while back, brilliant actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui made a similar remark when he stated that he was delighted with the accolades he was receiving for his cameo [Bajrangi Bhaijan & Raees] and hoped that, at least, some of the zillion fans who stormed the halls to rocket these films to dizzy heights, would patronise his non-commercial, small films. 


The point is: Can this ever happen?  Has it ever happened?  


Can true-blue actors, participating in mainstream, over-the-top, star-driven commercial cinema, ever hope to impact, influence, motivate or inspire even a fraction of the mass audience, to gravitate towards the niche films that they showcase and celebrate?


History clearly says: No! 


Admittedly, Shabana did tons of mainstream films with top line commercial directors but, to be brutally honest, does anyone who loves masala films and their superstars, ever care to remember Shabana Azmi in Amar Akbar Anthony, Parvarish or any other super-hit films from big directors she participated in? The same thing can be said about Naseer, Om [and late bloomer] Smita Patil.  


In Namak Halal or Shakti, was Shabana a memorable, critical, relevant component compared to Amit, Shashi or Praveen Babi?  


Now cut to Arth, Ankur, Nishant, Bhumika, Aakrosh, Sparsh, Chakra, Masoom, Mandi, Anthony Pinto, Ardh Satya, Katha, Paar and tons of similar gems where these four dazzled with their scorching portrayals, defining the linear truth. Is there any comparison, in terms of contribution, between the two brands of cinema that these four graced? 


It was an interesting situation for the mainstream blokes, getting these powerhouse titans of the art house cinema meant a triumph, making them trophy catches.  For the actors, it was a taste of starry extravagance they had heard about, non-existent in their modest workspace.  Barring very few exceptions, sadly, both were losers because – as the late Smita Patil rightly pointed out – they are two completely different brands of cinema with different narratives, focus, compulsion and the twain can never meet.  This is equally true when big stars, bitten by the acting bug, attempt to do parallel cinema or – as the Big B attempted in Yudh – enter TV serial space.  More often than not, they are 5-star disasters!


Nawaz Siddiqui, Irfan Khan, Kay Kay Menon, Manoj Bajpayee, Konkona Sen Sharma, Richa Chadda, Rahul Bose, Adil Hussain, Kalki Kolechin, Radhika Apte are only some very fine actors whose talent are proven, but can they ever carry a commercial film on their shoulders?  Will the mass audience pay to storm the theatres to see them? 


This is not to devalue Nawaz Siddiqui’s talent or hope, but everything being equal and the Bollywood and our mass audiences being what they are, niche will remain niche and big-budget blockbusters will remain the big-budget blockbusters, driven by their own dazzling seductive package of customised requirements and compulsion.  


Sure, Nawaz and gang’s performances continue to be appreciated, but to imagine that their role would motivate audiences to rush into patronising arthouse cinema is like saying that James Bond fans [Sean Connery] would definitely see Connery – synonymous with exotic locales, hot babes and deadly action – in non-Bond films [The Hill] with the same enthusiasm.  


No way! Remember, mass audiences need to be, both shaken and stirred!


(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL) 


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