Not just a pretty face: Anupama Chopra on the rise of the actor-star
New platforms and changing audiences have finally put talent at centrestage in Bollywood. Stardom today must contain skill.
In the blitz of promotional interviews for the recently released war film Shershaah, one stood out. The film’s leads, Sidharth Malhotra and Kiara Advani, were featured in Filmfare magazine. The cover photograph sold old-school stardom; both bronzed and colour-coordinated, they looked suitably glamorous (in sharp contrast to the middle-class characters they play in the film). In the interview carried within, though, Kiara said something intriguing. She talked about how driven and focused Sidharth was on set. She said: “He constantly likes to have an acting coach with him. They’d just jam together during the breaks and add certain nuances. I really thought he was just a pretty face before.”
The good news is that no actor in Bollywood can afford to be “just a pretty face” anymore. A few decades ago, the prerequisite for being a Hindi film actor was the same as that for taking Poo to the prom in Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham — “good looks, good looks and good looks”. There were of course exceptions to the rule; actors, usually male, who didn’t fit into the traditional notion of north Indian beauty (think strapping and fair-skinned) did still manage to break into the ranks and were tagged “unconventionally handsome” (think Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgn). It was harder, if not impossible, for women to sidestep the burden of beauty. Which is why from the mid-’90s onwards, so many beauty pageant winners and models transitioned into acting. It seemed like the logical next step. If you had the “right” face, craft and skill were an afterthought.
Thankfully, in the last ten years, the idea of who qualifies for stardom has become more elastic. Actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao, Vikrant Massey, Vicky Kaushal and, notably, the late Irrfan, have shown that blazing talent is in itself sexy. The rise of streaming platforms has accelerated the change in audience mindsets and thrown up a slew of new stars who redefine that term: Jaideep Ahlawat, Pratik Gandhi, Shweta Tripathi, Rasika Dugal. Even established stars have reinvented themselves with striking work on OTT shows, as Saif Ali Khan did in Sacred Games, Sushmita Sen in Aarya and more recently Samantha Akkineni in season two of The Family Man. Telugu cinema’s most popular female actor chose a challenging, purposefully non-glamorous role (that of an elite commando of the Sri Lankan rebels) for her introduction to the pan-India audience.
Streaming platforms have also introduced audiences to the staggering talent that exists beyond the Hindi film industry, with stars such as Fahadh Faasil, Vijay Sethupathi and Nimisha Sajayan becoming household names. All brilliant actors minimally invested in being conventionally pretty or likeable on screen.
Now the pressure is on pretty faces to act. In an interview in August, Karan Johar told me that acting skills are the first requirement when he considers new faces. “If you can’t act,” he said, “you don’t belong here”. Acting mentor Atul Mongia corroborated this with data. He said that a decade ago, he was asked to do one or two acting workshops a year. Now at least 30 projects, films and shows both, approach him for such sessions each year.
“Production budgets now include acting workshops,” he added. Atul is also hired by individual actors looking to up their game. He hypothesises that social media has played a key role in this change. “The superstar era has been diluted. Actors are no longer unapproachable or mysterious. We see them 24x7 on their handles so now when we go to a movie, we want to see them act. The star persona is not so much the vehicle for a film. The performance is the vehicle of the film.”
The holy grail is the actor-star, an artist who combines both craft and charisma (think Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt). Which is why Sidharth Malhotra, a Dharma Productions protégé and already an in-demand star, confers with an acting coach between takes. The standards are simply higher. His hard work seems to have paid off, with Shershaah currently the most-watched film on Amazon Prime in India.
Film is a visual medium. Physical beauty will always be part of an actor’s allure. But it’s wonderful that finally, in Bollywood, talent is essential too.