Gender isn’t the only handicap in the Hindi film industry. Some truly great actors never got to showcase their talent to the fullest simply because Bollywood is fixated on certain last names, chocolate boys, and faces that are “just aspirational enough” for the common man. Bollywood is about distorting Everyman’s self-image and making him believe he can be a “hero”, too. Because the front-and-rear stall waalas don’t want to aspire to talent. All they want is to be able to look, walk, talk like the Khans and Kapoors and Kumars. In Bollywood, it is a sin to be too good looking. What’s an even bigger sin, it seems, is to be talented but not look like someone your average Joe wants to copy.
We may be a superficial people, us Indians, but we like our fantasies to be just within our grasp. We don’t want the Arjun Rampals and John Abrahams on the big screen. I mean, who can look like that?!! We’d much rather have the Shah Rukhs and Salmans and Akshays instead. One haircut, and voila, anyone can be SRK from any one of his 90s movies. One signature cap, and every roadside Romeo is suddenly Amir in ‘Dil Hai Ki Manta Nahin’. Shave your chest and go topless, and any wannabe tapori is Salman Khan.
Here are some truly brilliant actors who only ever got to play secondary, tertiary, and/or negative roles in Hindi movies, because Bollywood just isn’t about acting. It’s about packaging and selling false dreams and fantasies. If you want to witness true acting, go to the freaking theater why don’t you?!!
1. Naseeruddin Shah
‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’, ‘Masoom’, ‘Ijaazat’, ‘Mirch Masala’, ‘Sparsh’, ‘Bazaar’. These are just some of the names on his repertoire. He was especially brilliant as Tungrus in Shyam Benegal’s ‘Mandi’. But if you wanna see how truly great he is at his craft, catch him perform on stage.
2. Pankaj Kapoor
In ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ he was the sleazy, homicidal businessman. In ‘Ek Ruka Hua Faisla’ he was the only person on a twelve-member jury who is hell-bent on believing that the accused is guilty despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. For me, his finest performance was his role as Abbaji in Vishal Bhardwaj’s ‘Maqbool’.
3. Farooque Sheikh
Perhaps best remembered for his roles in ‘Umrao Jaan’ and ‘Chashme Buddoor’, he was part of some of the most poignant movies of the 70s and 80s — ‘Garam Hawa’, ‘Bazaar’, ‘Shatranj Ke Khilari’, and ‘Gaman’.
4. Om Puri
‘Aakrosh’, ‘Ardh Satya’, ‘Drohkaal’, and ‘Maachis’ are some of his finest performances. His drunken scene opposite Satish Shah in ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’ is one for the books.
5. Arshad Warsi
His portrayal of the character Circuit is the reason why the ‘Munnabhai’ movies are what they are. ‘Kabul Express’, ‘Ishqiya’ and ‘Dedh Ishqiya’ are some other great roles he’s done.
While Hollywood seems to have realized the hidden genius of Irrfan, Bollywood still hasn’t begun to scratch the surface of this man’s acting abilities. ‘Haasil’, ‘Maqbool’, ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, and ‘The Lunchbox’ are some of his finest performances.
7. Manoj Bajpai
He did a pretty great job playing Salim, Tiku’s only friend, in ‘Tamanna’. The year after that, he became Bhiku Mhatre to everybody — even to those who’d never seen ‘Satya’. After memorable performances in ‘Shool’, ‘Aks’, ‘Road’ ‘Pinjar’, and ‘Rajneeti’, he now embodies his ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ character — Sardar Khan.
8. Nawazuddin Siddiqui
He’s been around since the late 90s, and has played the odd-criminal/thief/goon in an unusual number of movies. He then played Faizal in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ and made people sit up and take notice. ‘Paan Singh Tomar’, ‘Talaash’, and ‘The Lunchbox’ are some of the other noteworthy movies he’s done. I wonder how many people realize he’s the guy in the strange bandwaala outfit singing ‘Emotional Atyachar’ in ‘Dev D’.
9. Atul Kulkarni
In ‘Rang De Basanti’ he plays Laxman Pandey who plays Bismil. He has done a brilliant job portraying the inner battle between ideological conditioning on the one side and common sense and humanity on the other. ‘Chandni Bar’, ‘Dum’, ‘Hey Ram’, and ‘Khakhee’ are some of his other movies.
10. Nirmal Pandey
He first got noticed in Shekhar Kapoor’s ‘Bandit Queen’. ‘Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin’, ‘Daayra’, ‘Train to Pakistan’, and ‘Godmother’ are some other memorable names on his repertoire. A force to be reckoned with on stage, Nirmal Pandey, sadly, got mostly negative roles in Hindi cinema.
11. Boman Irani
The man started his Bollywood career in his 40s. And even though he isn’t much older than the Khans and Akshay Kumar, you will often find him cast as their uncle, or worse, father. And all this, while the women they’ll be romancing will be at least half their age. Strange! Watch ‘Khosla Ka Ghosla’, ‘Don 2’, ‘Munnabhai MBBS’, ‘Main Hoon Na’, and ‘Being Cyrus’ and you’ll see what a versatile actor he is.
12. Satish Shah
The 80s and 90s children will remember him from ‘Ye Jo Hai Zindagi’ and ‘Filmi Chakkar’. He later did ‘Sarabhai vs Sarabhai’ with Ratna Pathak Shah. On the big screen, he only ever got small-ish roles, but he’s one of those actors who makes an impression, be it as Prof. Rasai in ‘Main Hoon Na’, Kuljeet’s father in ‘DDLJ’ or his most brilliant performance ever — Commissioner D’Mello in ‘Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro’.
13. Paresh Rawal
Most people will remember him as the bad guy in so many 90s movies. And while his comic timing is spot-on as the bumbling Baburao Ganpatrao Apte in the ‘Hera Pheri’ movies, you have got to watch him play Veljibhai in ‘Sir’ and Tiku in ‘Tamanna’ to see how good an actor he really is.
14. Ashutosh Rana
Gokul Pandit in ‘Dushman’ and Lajja Shankar Pandey in ‘Sangharsh’. Two terrifying characters brought to life by this undoubtedly good actor.
15. Piyush Mishra
Music director, lyricist, singer, scriptwriter, Piyush Mishra isn’t your run-of-the-mill actor. His stellar performances include Prithvi Bana in ‘Gulaal’, Kaka in ‘Maqbool’, and Nasir Ahmed in ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’.
16. Kay Kay Menon
When an actor who has been part of great movies like ‘Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi’, ‘Black Friday’, ‘Sarkaar’, and ‘Gulaal’ has to play a dumb character like Riz Razaida in coma-inducing movies like ‘Drona’, you know Bollywood doesn’t care about talent.
17. Abhay Deol
They say he’s really picky about the roles he does. Wouldn’t you be, given the kind of shitty movies Bollywood insists on making?!! ‘Dev D’, ‘Manorama Six Feet Under’, and ‘Shanghai’ are some movies he considered worth his while.
18. Shreyas Talpade
He stormed the Bollywood scene with Nagesh Kukunoor’s ‘Iqbal’. He made up for playing a deaf and mute character in the film in Kukunoor’s next project, ‘Dor’, where he spoke a mile a minute. He was brilliant in both. Pappu Master, his ‘Om Shanti Om’ character, perhaps makes a part-hopeful/part-prophetic statement when he says, “Picture abhi baaki hai mere dost“.