Playing against type
It’s a treat when actors let go of on-screen vanity for a film, says Anupama Chopra
War made over 51 crore on its opening day, creating a new box-office record for Hindi cinema. Which make this a good time to ponder vanity. Because the film is an ode to gorgeousness – the leads Hrithik Roshan and Tiger Shroff are platonic ideals of physical prowess. Vaani Kapoor, making a brief appearance, is immaculately put together. The locations – from Italy to Australia – are impossibly glossy. Even the action is varnished – Hrithik might be battered and bleeding but the red is artfully splattered to highlight the piercing green of his eyes and his shirt is torn in exactly the right places so you can admire the rippling muscles. All of which serves the film. This is an unapologetic entertainer that delights in being attractive. It has only one aim – to seduce you.
Three months ago, the same actor was onscreen as the mathematician Anand Kumar in Super 30. He was out of shape, make up made him many shades darker, his clothes were deliberately ordinary. The film didn’t work for me but I admired Hrithik’s ambition to play against type and dress down his DNA. It’s rare in Bollywood for lead actors to do that. History and legacy demands that they remain the gold standard for attractiveness – both on screen and off. They are the repository of our fantasies and no matter what situation they are in, they must look glorious. Of course the burden is more on women. Which has led to innumerable scenes in which the heroine’s looks have little connection to her surroundings. I still remember a film called Dum Maaro Dum in which Bipasha Basu played an air hostess who is imprisoned but even in the grimy cell, her hair is blow-dry perfect.
Vanity hobbles actors and performances. I deeply appreciate when actors are willing to let go of the crutch of beauty. Like Vidya Balan in The Dirty Picture – she wasn’t afraid to let her midriff bulges show. It was part of the unravelling of the character she was playing. Again, in Mission Mangal, she played the harried, overworked scientist to perfection – in her saris, gajra and chappals, she was absolutely relatable. Bhumi Pednekar took an even further leap of faith with her debut film Dum Laga Ke Haisha, gaining more than 20 kilos to play the role of an overweight newly married woman. Aamir Khan in Dangal was brave enough to appear onscreen as a pot-bellied, elderly ex-wrestler who is defeated in a bout by his own daughter. Salman Khan, who is usually in indestructible mode, allowed himself to be vulnerable in Sultan – the best scene in the film has him mournfully examining his paunch in the mirror. Even in a shiny film like War, Hrithik gave us a twist – he kept his greys and the lines etched on his face weren’t digitally erased. The weathering only added to the effect.
Instagram, paparazzi, phone cameras and digital news cycles have perhaps made it impossible for actors to be casual about their looks off-duty. Parineeti Chopra once told me about the slamming she got for wearing chappals to a friend’s house. But onscreen vanity should be retired. Serving the character and the story will eventually also serve the actor better.