In the promotional interview blitz for the recently released war film Shershaah, one stood out. The main films, Sidharth Malhotra and Kiara Advani, were featured in Filmfare magazine. Cover photography sold old school stardom; both tanned and color coordinated, they looked suitably glamorous (in stark contrast to the middle class characters they play in the film). In the interview performed inside, however, Kiara said something intriguing. She explained how motivated and focused Sidharth is on set. She said: He constantly enjoys having an acting trainer with him. They just jam together during breaks and add some nuance. I really thought he was just a pretty face before.
The good news is that no actor in Bollywood can afford to be a pretty face anymore. A few decades ago, the prerequisite for being a Hindi film actor was the same as taking Poo to prom at Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham good looks, looks good and looks good. There were of course exceptions to the rule; the actors, usually men, who did not fit the traditional notion of North Indian beauty (think beauty and fair skin) still made it through the ranks and were labeled in such a way unconventional (think Amitabh Bachchan and Ajay Devgn). It was more difficult, if not impossible, for women to shirk the burden of beauty. That’s why from the mid-90s so many beauty and model contest winners went to the theater. It seemed like the next logical step. If you had the right face, the crafting and skills were an afterthought.
Fortunately, over the past decade the idea of who qualifies for fame has become more elastic. Actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Pankaj Tripathi, Rajkummar Rao, Vikrant Massey, Vicky Kaushal and most notably the late Irrfan have shown that flamboyant talent is sexy in and of itself. The rise of streaming platforms has accelerated the change in public mentality and sparked a slew of new stars who are redefining the 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 most recently Samantha Akkineni in season two of The Family Man. The most popular actress in Telugu cinemas chose a stimulating and deliberately non-glamorous role (that of an elite Sri Lankan rebel squad) for her introduction to Pan-Indian audiences.
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 the brilliant actors have invested little in being conventionally pretty or likable on screen.
Now the pressure is on pretty faces to take action. In an interview in August, Karan Johar told me that acting skills are the first requirement when considering 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 ten years ago he was asked to do one or two acting workshops a year. Today, at least 30 projects, films and shows at a time, approach him for such sessions every year.
Production budgets now include theater workshops, he added. Atul is also being hired by individual players looking to improve their game. He speculates that social media has played a key role in this change. The era of superstars has been diluted. The actors are no longer inaccessible or mysterious. We see them 24/7 on their handles so now when we go to the movies we want to see them play. The star character is not so much the vehicle of a film. Performance is the vehicle of the film.
The Holy Grail is the actor-star, an artist who combines both craftsmanship and charisma (think Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh, Deepika Padukone and Alia Bhatt). That’s why Sidharth Malhotra, a protégé of Dharma Productions and already a star in demand, talks to an acting coach between takes. The standards are simply higher. Its hard work seems to have paid off, with Shershaah currently being the most viewed movie on Amazon Prime in India.
Cinema is a visual medium. Physical beauty will always be part of an actor’s appeal. But it’s wonderful that finally, in Bollywood, talent is also essential.
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