Why Bollywood never cared for the lead actor's profession
Unless it was a cop, lawyer, doctor or brigand.
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As it joins a small list of mainstream Hindi films where the narrative pivots around food, Chef, this week’s new release, also in a way might initiate a new phase in the on-screen portrayal of the leading man’s profession. In the past, Cheeni Kum and Ramji Londonwaley both featured the leading man, Amitabh Bachchan and R Madhavan respectively, as a chef but their profession unlike Saif Ali Khan’s, in Raja Krishna Menon’s official Hindi remake of the 2014 American of the same name, ended up looking incidental to the plot.
The leading man’s profession in popular Hindi cinema was mostly relegated to the background and for the longest time, unless the narrative demanded specificity, say a doctor falling in love with a nurse (Dil Apna Aur Preet Parai; 1960), the hero’s vocation was an afterthought in the grander scheme of things.
In the case of Hindi cinema, the location of a story or the context that is set in got more prominence. Perhaps this is the reason why BR Chopra wanted to shoot Naya Daur on authentic locations and not sound stages, as that would dampen the spirit of a story showing the impact of industrialisation on traditional life.
It’s telling to note that if the setting of a film is what adds to its uniqueness, the profession of the protagonists, too, then somewhere should give the narrative an edge. Imagine a film such as Tere Ghar Ke Saamne where the story seems predictable — the girl and the boy’s fathers cannot stand each other — but the hero (Dev Anand) being an architect employed by his girlfriend’s (Nutan) father (Harindranath Chattopadhyay) and his own (Om Prakash) to construct a house on adjacent plots makes the drama potent.
Yet in terms of detailing most Hindi films never really cared for what the leading man did beyond a point unless it was a cop, a lawyer or doctor or a brigand. This led to them playing the same principle character in some varying degree and it had a significant impact on the progression of the character. The practice reached a point where the leading man in Hindi cinema became a "hero" by definition (read could sing, dance, emote, etc) and not by action.
If popular cinema is believed to reflect what happens in the society, would it then be correct to imagine that up until a few years ago most Indians were largely police officers, lawyers, doctors or progeny of rich businessmen with nothing better to do than pursuing love across continents? The 1990s saw a great boom in MBA students but looking at popular Hindi films of the period one would be convinced that such a phenomenon did not exist.
Like most things in Hindi cinema, when it comes to a protagonist’s vocation, women have gotten a raw deal here as well. Despite a brief moment in the mid-1970s with the rise of middle cinema most films never bothered with creating women characters that would truly reflect the change that was taking place in the real world.
One could argue that if only a certain kind of Hindi cinema ruled the roost, certain professions would tend to be over-represented. In fact, this seems like a global occurrence. The US job search giant Monster, in an article on its website, highlighted how screenwriters used certain professions as shorthand for character types or personalities.
For them most journalists were hard drinking, fast-talking, risk-takers incapable of maintaining healthy relationships or chances of a primary male character that was intelligent, sensitive, handsome, passionate and an overall great catch being an architect were high — Sleepless in Seattle, Indecent Proposal, The Lake House, Intersection, Jungle Fever, The Last Kiss, Breaking and Entering, Love, Actually and My Super Ex-Girlfriend. Even in Hindi cinema the two popular instances of an architect being all these can be seen in Dev Anand in Tere Ghar Ke Saamne and Shashi Kapoor in Kabhi Kabhie (1976).
Conventional producers or studio executives would argue that no one would shell out money to see a bunch of people sitting around a table and talking a la computer coders.
Therefore a lawyer, a detective or a criminal in action makes for an interesting visual. But with the changing audiences who are tired of old cinematic tropes there is bound to be a proliferation of a chef, video game developer (Aditya Roy Kapur/Dulquer Salmaan in Ok Jaanu/O Kadhal Kanmani), a small-town shop owner (Ayushmann Khurrana in Dum Laga Ke Haisha), a kleptomaniac (Kangana Ranaut in Simran), a cinematographer (Alia Bhatt in Dear Zindagi), an event management executive (Andrea Tariang in Pink) as staple professions for Hindi film characters.
The fact that a major portion of the audience that pays money across different platforms, theatre as well as online, comprised such characters would only give the extra nudge.
(Courtesy of Mail Today.)