The art and skill of oratory does not go hand in hand with the profession of acting it seems. There are scores of actors who light up only when the camera comes on. When asked to speak in interviews or at public forums, there are actors who turn out to be damp squibs and as scintillating as the night sky during new Moon.
Yet, put them in front of a camera, put on the arc lights and they shine out with their histrionics and very impressive oeuvre of high drama and finely nuanced performances. Names such as Ajay Devgn, Ranbir Kapoor, India’s first superstar Rajesh Khanna, even Akshay Kumar come to mind. Aamir Khan, who I feel approaches his work like a genius and transforms completely for every role, fails to impress when at the podium. Shahid Kapoor manages to pass muster but he still has to fine tune his oratorical skills. Ranveer Singh, true to the image he wishes to cultivate, hams it up everywhere. Shah Rukh Khan appears laboured when attempting to be serious; while during a normal interaction he keeps it down to artlessness with his plainspeak.
One of the rising stars, in more ways than one, is Alia Bhatt.
The Shahenshah of the Indian film industry (he despises the term Bollywood), Amitabh Bachchan, stands torso, shoulder and head above most people before his time and now. The sheer magic of his rendition that is tailor made to suit what he is mouthing – from poetry recital to a public discourse to an interview, his voice modulation, hell just his voice which is iconic in its own right, his fluency in any language he chooses to speak in, the diction, the attention given to pronouncing each word just the way it is meant to be, the effortlessness even if he may have practiced day and night; Big B’s skills with the spoken word are legendary. He has set a fine example for generations of people and has had people from his own fraternity follow and learn from him. From Rekha to Anushka, Amitabh Bachchan has been emulated by many.
That brings me to the moot point. Why aren’t all or most public figures good public speakers? Remember Rajiv Gandhi? And how, over time, he just had to pick up the threads and put enough effort into coming across as a passably moderate speaker! In direct contrast were leaders like Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee who had people eating out of their hands by the impeccable prowess over their public speaking. Just as with political figures, with film stars too, I am quite confounded to note that most of them do not live up to their public personas each time they open their mouth.
Bollywood bigwig Amitabh Bachchan.
I seriously wonder why it is so when they have innumerable opportunities and sizeable experience to hone the skill and practice the form. Because, as an offshoot of their profession, whether they like it or not, they will always have to speak in public; then why don’t these highly public figures train themselves well and better their performance in public with every opportunity! Public speaking is an integral component and perpetual pressure of their profession that they cannot turn away from, yet many of them stay abysmal in their presentations.
The Hollywood film, The King’s Speech, imparts a fine lesson on the whys and wherefores of the significance of Public Speaking, taking it back to the time of King George VI. The future king had to hire a speech and language therapist who not only rids the royal of his stammering problem but instills confidence and interest for oratory in him.
The ordinary folk like us resort to practicing on family and friends and using the good ol’ “speaking in front of the mirror” technique, but the influential and famous have the easy option to hire trainers, therapists, speech companions to come out in flying colours when in public.
I have been closely watching the artists from my gender to see how they fare, once again marveling at those who hold the torch high and grossly displeased with the ones who just don’t get it right, after all these years and such wonderful opportunities.
Sadly, only a handful of Bollywood heroines are good public speakers; if you can call them that.
I think, of the entire lot, Priyanka Chopra is the most impressive. She has a slightly higher cerebral quotient than most, speaks well and lucidly, has a command over her talk capsules, keeps the audience engaged and interested, appears knowledgeable and molds herself well to suit the platform she is on - in India, in US, in Bangladesh. Yes, she does come across as fake and put on many a time, but even at that moment she manages to ensnare and entertain the audience that she may be addressing. And that is a win-win.
I also like Vidya Balan a lot. In fact, I like Vidya Balan more than I like Priyanka Chopra. She stays rooted, appears sincere, connects with the pulse of the audience, is shorn off any pretense or frill, is intelligent, and knows when to inject pleasant peals of laughter even when dishing out a sharp pill. My only grouse - she makes very few public outings.
Quantico star Piggy Chops.
One of the rising stars, in more ways than one, is Alia Bhatt. In spite of what she went through - public ridicule-wise post her lack of GK on Koffee with Karan - Alia lets confidence and composure sit well on her petite shoulders. She is upfront somewhat - it is a mere fraction of what her father Mahesh Bhatt is known for but she will soon learn her lessons from her illustrious Dad. And there is this sense of honesty about her - you know the kind which says like me the way I am - that is quite endearing.
Readers of a brief Facebook post I wrote on this subject urged me to consider Kangana Ranaut. If anything, she has been extremely admirable for her turnaround. The fortitude with which she fought off her lisp, the manner in which she taught herself to speak in good Hindi and English, the way she steeled her nerves to come across as stable and confident, if I were to give a The King’s Speech award then I would give it to her without batting an eyelid.
Some of the readers have also suggested the name of the fabulous and fabled Waheeda Rehman. Whatever little I have heard of her, she has come across as a true blue Bollywood royalty, with grace and gravitas, with excellent enunciation and a voice that feels like silk on skin. But I have heard very little of her to talk about her at length with regard to speechmaking.
Amongst the worst ones is easily Hema Malini. It is even more shockingly exasperating because Hema Malini has refused to get her locution right in spite of having worked in Hindi films for almost all her career span. Also because, once again, she chose a very public profession of Politics for her second innings! Yet the woman refuses to train herself, learn to speak clearly and coherently, attach importance to such things as flow and punctuation and pronunciation. Completely unmindful of the audience she continues to hyperventilate and let the sound of her voice crash against our ears each time she utters a word.
Then there is Aishwarya Rai Bachchan. I mean come on now! An international beauty queen, a global icon, an international cosmetic brand ambassador and someone who has had a million high profile opportunities thrust upon her - such great platforms that any girl would die for; yet she is such an earsore to listen to. In fact, each time she opens her trap and is sitting on a panel, I literally have my heart in my mouth for fear that she will make a fool of herself in that august gathering. Aishwarya is a good tutorial on how not to speak in public. She must realise that her excessively punctuating, silly giggles do not save her from her lackluster performance.
As a matter of fact I have always been scared for Aishwarya. From the time she began appearing on David Frost to David Letterman to the more recent Oprah Show and her myriad outings in Cannes. In 2018, yet again all she did was giggle uncontrollably, latch on like a teenager to Dame Helen and speak her favourite, oft-repeated ten lines, “Pleasure is all mine. It will remain a special memory. Incredible interest in our cinema. I get asked about my experience. We are very, very privileged and very very honoured. We have a rich body of work. Thank you for embracing us and our work. It is always fun to return to Paris, LA….Y’all are so loving.”
While the French film director Lisa Azuelos was all meat, Dame Helen Mirren all grace and good content, our dear Ash remained as shaky and flimsy like a piece of jelly floating on her imaginary cloud of Bollywood Queenhood. Will somebody please tell her that a bunch of adjectives and interjections and very-verys liberally sprinkled with giggles don’t necessarily make a great speech.
The other offender is Jaya Bachchan, who is actually a master class on how to antagonise people. With her anger management issues, bad, rude behaviour, haughtiness and despicably condescending attitude, Jaya is like a raging bull let loose in a China Shop.
A real shocker on my list of bad speakers is the very polished and Swiss finishing school sophisticate Simi Grewal. Even with most things working in her favour - great looks, great body, great dressing sense, good exposure, good command over the language - yet when Simi speaks it has the vibrancy of a somnolence-inducing sedative. And the overly sweetness, well it will raise the blood sugar levels even in the non-diabetic.
Rekha, the quintessential Amitabh Bachchan acolyte and copycat, regardless of her inherent charm, the aura she has created for herself, the fondness for languages she displays when she speaks, the beauty she exudes, has not left a mark. She has carried out her Bachchan fetish too far, almost to laughable limits. And has forced herself to stay stuck in her Umrao Jaan courtesan character, which is good only for certain times, but on others it becomes a tiresome caricature.
One lady who had everything going for her - intelligence, voice, presentation, body language, the sheer presence, her aura, her sexiness - and held a lot of promise has sadly lost the plot and gone downhill. Sushmita Sen used to be ravishing, riveting and razzmatazzy at one point. Now she orbits around Mars unhinged and stays in a place that earthlings don't wish to visit.
Before the detractors tell me to let the poor actresses be and the trolls come tumbling down to brand me as judgmental, let me explain why it is essential for public figures – politicians, business leaders, film stars – to be good public speakers. The first reason is obvious – they are in a very public profession and get to be in front of the camera and mike almost every day. With such exposure and with such opportunity, it beats me to think why would they not wish to present their best foot forward.
Also, more than politicians and business leaders, it is the film stars that are the most followed and emulated. Their fan following is huge and their influence extremely deep. What a fine example they would set in the minds of the young and the impressionable with their exemplary attributes, public speaking being one such essential trait.
Some actors are thankfully already setting great goals for us here. Tune back to Bachchan and tune ahead to Benedict Cumberbatch, Sandra Bullock, Will Smith, Wentworth Miller, Taraji P Henson, Sylvester Stallone, Peter Dinklage and Jim Carrey – the last two for their absolute magnificence and magnetism – for irresistibly profound tutelage and lasting inspiration! Watch the YouTube video on the Top Ten Speakers from Filmdom to see what I mean.
(Editor's note: The headline of the article was changed after publishing.)