Are movie stars really artists? The Industry seldom subordinates commerce for the sake of craft. In the medium of the moving image, it’s difficult for both the filmmakers and audience not to get caught up in precisely that - image. Physical beauty is magnified, charm and style is worshiped from a distance. But how much of the star’s appeal is really related to talent?
Similar to the situation in Hollywood, what separated Indian movie stars from serious actors was theatrical training. The Indian drama is a nexus of ancient Vedic sagas, medieval Persian tragedies, and contemporary morality plays. The “true artists” of the ‘40s and ‘50s toted their stage makeup, personal dressers, and could speak in flawless Urdu diction so Persianized you could weave carpets out of it. The actors who make up this list include the great traditionalists and the bold innovators. All fall subject to duty of Bollywood commercialism, the occasional fluff movie, the gratuitous publicity campaigns and commercials - who in show business doesn’t nowadays? But watch them closely and you’ll see the kind of unflinching concentration and inwardness that comes with the best of screen acting.
Prithviraj Kapoor, the looming patriarch of the Kapoor performing dynasty, was the first popular star to have an “art” appeal. A longtime thespian, he took to cinema in the late ‘40s and his career was marked by a string of historical hits, playing larger-than-life figures such as Alexander the Great and The Mughal Emperor Akbar. Always placing his love of classical theatre before the commercialization of cinema, Prithiviraj set the standard for acting in period films, as well as the quality of the way those films were made. In the ‘60s, Prithviraj’s son Shashi Kapoor carried on his father’s theatrical tradition. He played the introspective leading man in early Merchant-Ivory movies, the anguished professor in The Householder, the self-involved playboy in Shakespeare Wallah and the frustrated movie star in Bombay Talkies. In an industry where movies are made quickly, cheaply and in bulk, both Prithviraj and Shashi Kapoor held out for the cerebral parts, often incurring the disdain of the seasoned producers who ran Bollywood. But their movies are all some of the most well-crafted in all of Indian cinema, and the father and son team star make a stunning pair of thespians.
If anyone really paid a price for their nonconformist vision, it was actor/director Guru Dutt. Dutt was Indian’s first auteur, a great creative control freak like Orson Welles whose involvement in every aspect of the picture satisfied his unyielding perfectionism. His 1959 film, Kaagaz ke Phool (Paper Flowers) was, like Citizen Kane was for Welles, both his swansong and his undoing. The film was an autobiographical look at the power of the movie industry and the precariousness of celebrity in a world where illusion and fantasy mean everything. It was a startlingly frank look at the life of movie stars and directors, and its two protagonists, the anguished married director (Dutt) and his ingénue (Waheeda Rahman), shocked audiences because of their depiction as adulterous, but sympathetic characters. The film flopped, leaving Dutt devastated. He did go on to make a few more movies, notably the romantic fairy-tale Chaudvin ka Chand (Full Moon) and the epic Brideshead Revisited-style family saga Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam (Master, Wife, and Servant). But years of alcohol and drug addiction caught up with him and in 1964 he died of an overdose at the age of 39. Dutt’s premature death is heartbreaking to cinephiles; one can only imagine what else he might have made had he lived longer.
Shabana Azmi is the only woman in this group for the simple reason that out of all the actresses that have graced the screen in Indian cinema, she is the only one who never once acted for the camera. She has always believed in the quality of the material and the strength of her performance rather than relying on her physical appearance alone. Like Susan Sarandon and Jane Fonda, Azmi is willing to take risks at the expense of her career and her choice of roles challenge the conventional stereotypes of Indian women: the resilient, daydreaming seamstress in Muzzaffir Ali’s postmodern Cinderalla story, Anjuman (The Congregation), the bored trophy wife growing into her own sense of self after divorce in Arth (Value) and her most complex role, the quietly suffering wife trapped in a stifling arranged marriage who turns to her daughter-in-law for affection and ultimately, physical love in Deepa Mehta’s Fire. Azmi values the impact she can make as a celebrity in challenging the complacencies of her audience, and her films show us the real India, the hypocrisies underneath the gold and glittering lights.
Every once in a while a movie star makes a complete transformation in his screen personality. Aamir Khan went from the teen playboy of the late ‘80s and early ‘90s specializing in bubblegum romances to a brooding, thought-provoking actor. It’s like Zach Morris evolving into Ralph Fiennes. But even more than a gifted actor, Khan is a born impresario, bringing talented actors, directors, cinematographers and composers together to create some of the best films to come out of India in the last ten years. Lagaan, the rousing cricket epic of poor villagers vs. arrogant British aristocrats, signaled the birth of the new Aamir Khan and was India’s first massive cross-over hit. Khan’s subsequent films, The Rising and Rang de Basanti, are deeply patriotic studies of the loss of heritage due to colonial oppression, bereavement, and the hope of reconciliation. As he grows older, Khan seems to be verging into Warren Beatty territory - incessant political commentary. But the quality of his acting is far superior to his contemporaries and, along his gift for making great movies, come together into something to be admired and enjoyed.
Contrary to public opinion, many Indian actors are fairly intellectual. They’re well read, believe in the power and truth of narrative, and want desperately to do bold and innovative films. But then, somewhere along the line, their vanity overtakes them. They become preoccupied with the flattering camera angles and what their fans want, and then they become just another movie star. All the stars detailed here have resisted their vanity. That’s not to say they don’t have any because all actors do, but that they’ve put it aside for the sake of the story and the character. And if that’s not what real acting is all about I don’t know what is.
Shashi Kapoor, in Satyam, Shivam, Sundaram, early ‘70s
Prithviraj Kapoor, in Mughal-E-Azam, ‘60s
Guru Dutt, in Kaagaz ke Phool, late ‘50s
Shabana Azmi, in Ankur, early ‘70s
Aamir Khan, in Sarfarosh, early ‘90s