It does not happen very often and not certainly in the current crop of commercial Indian cinema, where the actors rises above the material, brings an amount of respectability, the much needed 'gravitas' that makes the role more believable and endearing. Usually the trend is to parrot whatever is on paper, get the job done and move on to the next one. Essaying a role simply meant that - portray a character as it was concieved than go the extra length and be that character. The blame does not entirely lie on the actors themselves as the roles that they often get to perform are not very much different from one another - angry young man, angry lover, angry anti-establishment guy, angry guy fighting against the anti-social elements and the like. In those rare cases, when the actor does rise above the mediocrity of the material (like Atul Kulkarni in Rang De Basanti), it certainly makes one wonder what he would have done and where he would have gone with a stronger foundation. That is not to say that a good material is any lesser or inferior to a good performance, but in some cases, it provides just the right platform creating enough room for the actor to stretch his limbs, while feeling the character out. The material serves the sole purpose of triggering the motivation and steps out of the way while the actor takes over from there and starts playing the role in ways he feels right, than merely following the printed word on paper. Situations such as these allow the actor to bring his toolset and interact with the role in all the different ways possible, creating a believable impression as though he is living and breathing the character. And in that rare moment when both the actor and the material disappear in the role, movies like Iqbal take shape.
Consider Naseeruddin Shah's performance, the lone one of the holy trinity (sharing the honors with Om Puri and Shabana Azmi) still eking out a living in the commercial medium. His role in Iqbal is etched out in pretty broad strokes - a fallen from grace drunkard, initially forced but later willingly volunteers to help a deaf and mute kid realize his goal. In the hands of a lesser actor, the role would have been reduced to a parody of sorts. The role is just one step away from becoming a filmi cliche. Talented drunkard - lot of scope for brooding and wallowing in self-pity. Turned away by the system - ample room for displaying the Hindi film staple role - anti-establishment angry man. Turns his life around and helps somebody realize his lifelong dream - over the top theatricality against loud bombastic background score. With such seemingly obvious pitfalls all around, Shah's performance stands right and bright, walking along the path of redemption one step at a time, allowing the material to slowly transform his character into what he finally becomes. It does not seem forced, it does not seem rushed and it does not feel artificial in the least bit, when the character finally sobers up and gives up his licentious ways. This is definitely a feat, considering the movie length is only around 2 hours. Sure, enough situations could have been created for establishing the character even more allowing him to live, breathe and grow, but in such restricted space and time, to convince the audience of the genuineness of his intentions and motivations is a direct reflection on the capability of the actor more than the way the role is written. A classic example of the actor rising above the material.
Another gem of a performance among the other glittering ones - Shweta Prasad, the actor portraying the sister of the deaf-mute. She plays Iqbal's voice to the world; she also doubles as the world's voice to Iqbal. In between she has the job of playing the role as more than just an interpreter. Shweta Prasad takes up this difficult proposition with so much enthusiasm, so much life and so much vigor, that the movie would still have worked, had it been named "Khadija" (her character's name, instead of Iqbal) for all intents and purposes. There was an interesting sequence in the movie Roja, when Madhubala stops a state's parade midway to confront a minister and find out about her kidnapped husband's whereabouts. Here an interpreter starts translating her language into Hindi to the minister to make him understand her plight. After a couple of statements, the minister simply asks the interpreter to stop, as he clearly understands the distress that Roja was going through, even though he doesn't quite understand her words. Very powerful and moving moment, that. In just the same way, the scenes where the brother and sister communicate in sign language when they are alone (without any subtitles or a voice-overs explaining what exactly they are talking about) and the way silence sometimes communicates more than the signs and words is just exhilarating film-making. Shweta plays the role without looking down upon her brother, show any pity or act in a condescending way as the issue of her brother's handicap is never played into the equation. To her it is just like speaking another language with another person, only this one does not involve any words. Contrast her performance to the over-played and over-wrought role of Manisha Koirala in Khamoshi, and one would realize the sea of difference between playing a role and portraying a character.
Nagesh Kukunoor deserves all the accolades that come along his way with Iqbal. Ever since Hyderabad Blues he seems to be struggling with finding a middleground between his independent way of film-making and the regular commercial fare. Though not in a completely artistic way, his movies did try to step away from the mainstream, even though most of the themes that he tried in Rockford, Bollywood Calling, Teen Deewarein are pretty much regular commercials. With Iqbal, he makes another attempt at yet another genre fare, the underdog story, but this time, it appears as though he respected the mainstream format and tried to tell his story with those paramaters. The result is nothing sort of refreshing. With the performances more than making up for the gloss and the glitz of the regular fare, Nagesh's output both in the writing and the directing departments finds a perfect tone, that is neither too commercial nor too artistic, but is a fair balance between mind and heart (as he points out through one of his characters, if everything is in the right place, mind and heart are in fact one and the same). Another interesting choice is the way Nagesh remains completely oblivious to the handicap of his main character, instead of harping on the issue and squeeze out some more symapthy, indicating that any handicap, be it physical or mental, is only as obstructing and physically restricting as one allows it to be. Pulling off that aspect in a movie about a majorly handicapped boy is indeed a miracle, like the miracle that happens where Andhra does in fact win the Ranji Trophy in the end, in the movie. Three cheers!
Ramblings on films
The Da Vinci Code
Rang De Basanti (Hindi)
Mangal Padey (Hindi)
Anukokunda Oka Roju
Batman Begins (English)
Mughal E Azam
Kakha Kakha (Tamil)
Mr & Mrs Iyer
Srinivas Kanchibhotla how you liked the article