Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Neena Gupta to Gajraj Rao: Supporting actors are finally getting their due

Characters apart from the protagonists are now getting due importance because of meaningful scripts, the digital revolution and an evolving audience

Kunal Purandare
Published: Dec 26, 2019 09:48:29 AM IST
Updated: Dec 26, 2019 10:05:32 AM IST

Neena Gupta to Gajraj Rao: Supporting actors are finally getting their dueNeena Gupta, actor
Image: Aditi Tailang

In July 2017, Neena Gupta created a flutter on the internet by posting her photograph on Instagram with the caption: “I live in Mumbai and working as a good actor looking for good parts to play [sic].” It was an unusual post, considering she has over three decades of acting experience and that it’s a rarity for an actor to seek work publicly, especially on a social media platform. Gupta’s daughter, fashion designer Masaba, reposted it immediately and wrote that among other things, her 62-year-old National Award-winning mother told her that they don’t write parts for women her age anymore. Actor Priyanka Chopra left a one-word comment: “Inspired”. 

“It was not an act of bravery, but an act of frustration because the media had created an image of mine where I was supposed to be living in Delhi and not working,” says Gupta of the post. Reality hit her hard when she went to filmmaker Zoya Akhtar’s office in connection with a part in Made in Heaven, a web series, and her assistant asked her when she had relocated to Mumbai. “I returned home and felt dejected. People had forgotten me and believed I lived in the national capital after my marriage,” says Gupta. 

Instagram helped her clear the misconception and it worked in her favour. The actor was inundated with five offers after the post, the first being Anubhav Sinha’s Mulk (2018). However, it was the pivotal role in Badhaai Ho (2018) that made people sit up and take notice of her. “People started thinking about me when they were casting for a film. But Badhaai Ho changed everything for me. Actors come to Mumbai looking for a break… on TV, my break was Khandaan (1985), but in films, I’ve got my break now. Badhaai Ho is my break. It has come several years later, but it’s better than not to have got it at all,” says Gupta, who came to Mumbai in 1981 to become an actor. 

Badhaai Ho is about a middle-aged couple, with two sons, who struggles with the wife’s late pregnancy. The film went on to collect ₹138 crore at the box office. Though it had popular actors like Ayushmann Khurrana and Sanya Malhotra, the movie became a talking point for the sharply crafted characters of Gupta and her on-screen husband, essayed by Gajraj Rao. They played author-backed roles despite the presence of a lead male and female actor.

Gupta and Rao are among a growing tribe of supporting actors who are now indispensable to films and have parts written especially for them. The change is particularly evident in the last couple of years, which saw the emergence of over-the-top (OTT) platforms that offer diverse content in multiple languages. So, if Pankaj Tripathi plays a paramilitary commander in Newton (2017) and the bride’s father in Bareilly Ki Barfi (2017), he can also be seen as a gang lord in Mirzapur, a crime thriller web series, and as a godman in Sacred Games 2, a Netflix original. Similarly, a Seema Pahwa may be the lead actor’s mother in films like Bareilly Ki Barfi, Shubh Mangal Saavdhan (2017) and Bala (2019), but has a substantial impact because of the way in which the character is written and portrayed.

Neena Gupta to Gajraj Rao: Supporting actors are finally getting their dueGajraj Rao says that like a film’s second half, the second innings of his life is also eventful
Image: Aditi Tailang

Rao, 49, recalls being taken aback when director Amit Sharma, an acquaintance of over two decades, approached him for Badhaai Ho. “I was apprehensive when they offered such an important part to me. I told Amit to conduct a look test so that it does not turn out to be a disaster on the day of the shoot. They could have taken any big star… it was a huge responsibility,” says Rao, who had assisted filmmaker Pradeep Sarkar along with Sharma in Delhi.

“Gajraj Rao went quiet after listening to the narration. He said he would get back… he literally had to be convinced that he could play the part. Eventually people fell in love with his character. He’s such an amazing actor that you will enjoy his presence on screen even if he’s not doing anything,” says Sharma.  

The tide turned for Rao after the success of the film. He says while earlier he would get appreciation with the reviews merely stating “and Gajaraj Rao also performed well”, today he gets invited by writers and directors to discuss the possibility of collaborating for a film. “It’s an amazing feeling to sit across the best of producers, writers and filmmakers, and hear them say that the role is written for me. There cannot be a bigger compliment than this for any actor,” says Rao, adding that like a riveting second half of a film, his second innings in life is turning out to be equally eventful. 

The actor attributes the change to an evolving audience that is receptive to experiments and the changing face of cinema. “Earlier there were big-budget films or C-grade ones. Today, there is a middle path. You have the likes of Rajkummar Rao and Ayushmann as heroes. They are like Amol Palekar and Farooq Shaikh of the 1970s. They are real-life heroes and so there cannot be cardboard characters around them; they have to be real-life faces. That’s how we fit in. It’s also about the choices that we make,” explains Rao, who did local theatre in Delhi before coming to Mumbai and even worked as a freelance journalist for the Hindi edition of Hindustan Times and Navbharat Times, doing celebrity interviews.

Neena Gupta to Gajraj Rao: Supporting actors are finally getting their dueSeema Pahwa is glad that stories have moved from urban locales to the interiors of India

Pahwa, 57, agrees with Rao. The actor who started working as a child artiste in 1968-69 with live programmes on Doordarshan says stories have started revolving around older characters as well. “A good story needs good characters. The change is also because the quality of writing has improved. We have started paying attention to 50-plus people… they also have a story to tell. A hero and heroine were enough to make a commercial film, but now the entire scenario has changed,” she says.

Now in her 50th year in the industry, Pahwa is glad that stories have moved from urban locales to the interiors of the country. She recalls the time when she struggled to get work in the 1990s because only commercial films were being made in those days, about upper middle-class people with modern parents. “There was a set-up. And the thing about our industry is that it is difficult to break that set-up. Only fair and glamorous people got work. Now, because stories are being told about middle-class and lower middle-class people, faces like mine started getting recognised and began getting more work. That is the truth,” says Pahwa, who made her debut as a director with Ramprasad Ki Tehrvi in 2019.

Filmmaker R Prasanna, who directed Pahwa in Shubh Mangal Saavdhan—a film that dealt with its lead actor suffering from erectile dysfunction—takes offence at the mention of “supporting actors”. “It is wrong to call them that. They are characters. Seema Pahwa is one of those essential ingredients in any great recipe. I can cast her in any and every film of mine. She is such a versatile actor that what you see on screen is just the tip of the iceberg. For her, acting is like how we breathe, how we eat,” he says.

Competition from Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar... is forcing Bollywood to value content.”
Amit masurkar, filmmaker

He says these actors have got recognition and earned applause purely for their craft. But it’s not something that has happened overnight, he points out, giving examples of the memorable roles played by yesteryear actors like Mehmood, Kader Khan and even Anupam Kher. Prasanna credits two things for such actors getting quality work today: “Social media, where word-of-mouth plays a critical role, and the fact that the script is the hero.” 

Shubhra Gupta, film critic with The Indian Express, explains that the seeds of change were sown at the beginning of the decade when Bollywood started veering away from its one-hero formula and began making films on interesting subjects. So, if Vicky Donor (2012) was about sperm donation, Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010) portrayed honour killing, casting couch and an MMS scandal. As a result, the idea of the mainstream hero itself changed. Today, you have the likes of Ayushmann Khurrana, Vicky Kaushal and Rajkummar Rao headlining films with relatable stories, she adds. 

“Ayushmann is one of the game changers in Bollywood. He has changed the definition of the hero. And that’s why people who write scripts for him are able to create a film that has a story in which other characters also have some pivotal role to play,” says Gupta, who has authored 50 Films That Changed Bollywood 1995-2015. “It’s an enabling environment in which terrific actors are getting serious roles with some heft, some meaning. They are contributing to the film and its flavour… without those people, the film won’t be there.” Even for a film like Article 15, Khurrana needs co-actors like Manoj Pahwa and Kumud Mishra, she adds. “They are not fillers; they are actual characters.”  

Sharma, who made Badhaai Ho, concedes that apart from the lead actors, you need competent performers to play parts around them. And the digital boom is playing a huge role in opening a world of possibilities for such actors. In fact, Sharma was unsure of casting Neena Gupta for the film. It was only after he saw her in a short film, Khujli, that he told Khurrana, “I have found your mummy.” The actor shot back with a query: “Isn’t she too hot for that?”

The director then told Gupta to come to his office in a simple dress. She wore a salwar kameez, but Sharma asked his domestic help to give the actor her clothes. “She changed into those and I was convinced that she was playing the mother in Badhaai Ho,” says Sharma. “She is a brilliant actor. She brought believability to the character. Hers was like a heroine’s role. I can’t imagine anyone else doing that part.”

Neena Gupta echoes Sharma’s views and says a lot has changed from the time she started working in the absence of web platforms and satellite TV. “You don’t have to be good-looking, dashing, handsome or beautiful to get work anymore. This is a golden period for all kind of actors. I wish I were younger now,” explains Gupta, saying she struggled to get lead roles initially with Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi and Deepti Naval being the first choice for art filmmakers. But she admits that filmmaking is a business and that the makers will cast people who fit in their project as a business.
Rao is delighted that there is content beyond masala films and the audience is embracing newer forms of storytelling.

“Today, even the dates of technicians are not available for a shoot, forget those of actors. The important thing is not what you are being offered, but what you can refuse. It’s a golden period for everyone involved in the entertainment industry,” says the actor who will be seen in Maidaan and Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan next. 

A growing number of smartphone users in India and easy access to the internet have proved to be beneficial in taking stories to every nook and corner in the country. “The digital boom has done wonders for our industry. Now our work can be seen anywhere,” says Pahwa.

Amit Masurkar, who directed Newton, says the proliferation of OTT platforms has compelled content creators to be on their toes. “Serious competition from YouTube, Netflix, Amazon, Hotstar etc is forcing everyone in Bollywood to value content. A good story will have strong, diverse, fleshed-out characters with their own story arcs and not be protagonist-centric. That’s why supporting actors are getting their due. We are spoilt for choice now. When the competition for attention is so fierce, you better make sure your content is good,” he says.

According to Shubhra Gupta, “The audience wants to see something different each time.” 

Prasanna believes we haven’t seen the end of the radical change that has taken place in the last two years. “Soon you will see movies being greenlit with the likes of Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao in them. You won’t need a young couple. Those days are here,” he says.

However, Neena Gupta offers a pragmatic view. “If a younger actor gives a hit like Badhaai Ho, he would get plenty of roles. Most of the films are made with young people in the lead. Our society has not changed much… it will take time. But things have changed for the better,” says the actor, who features in Panga and Shubh Mangal Zyaada Saavdhan, both scheduled to release in 2020. And the veteran actor is unapologetic about voicing her views on the subject. She recently expressed her displeasure at two actors in their 30s playing 60-year-old shooters in Saand Ki Aankh. “If I am successful, they will listen to me. If I fade away, nobody will listen to me. That’s how life is,” says Neena Gupta.

(This story appears in the 03 January, 2020 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)