Seeing double, triple…

Shashi Baliga | Updated on March 03, 2011 Published on March 03, 2011

Nambiar and Sivaji Ganesan (dual role) in Venus Pictures' `Uttama Puthiran' (Tamil).   -  THE HINDU

More, more! (Top, from left) Dilip Kumar, Sivaji Ganesan and Nargis play double roles in Ram aur Shyam , `Uttama Puthiran and Anhonee .   -  THE HINDU photo archives

Nargis in a double role in Khwaja Ahmed Abbas's "Anhonee".   -  THE HINDU



Ram and Shyam. Seeta and Geeta. Charlie and Guddu. You get the idea. So I'll spare you the list of Priyanka Chopra's 12 characters in What's Your Raashee? Who remembers anyway? Who wants to, more pertinently?

So why bring up the movie now? Because, surely, there was a smack-you-in-the-face lesson in there. And with Priyanka's latest, Saat Khoon Maaf, being declared a disappointment by the audience and critics alike, one can't help wondering: What were Priyanka and director Vishal Bhardwaj thinking?

Okay, okay, I know there's a difference. What's Your Raashee? had the actress playing 12 different characters, while in Saat Khoon Maaf, she plays one woman who ages through the movie. But it is not a gradual, linear ageing in Saat Khoon Maaf; each of the murderous Susanna's seven avatars is quite different from the other. As he takes her from young hottie to dowdy bride to greying matron, Bhardwaj has tried to give each Susanna a different identity — visually at least.

Obviously, Bhardwaj thought he could pull it off. So did we, actually; he is after all, one of our finest, one who hasn't got it wrong, right from his delightful first film, Makdee, through Maqbool and Omkara, to the dark Kaminey of last year. And let's not forget he had the box-office ringing Dhan te nan as an edgy, energised Shahid Kapoor took on the twin roles of Charlie and Guddu in Kaminey.

As for Priyanka, she trilled on about how the role was such a “challenge” (groan, not that word again) all through the publicity whirl for Saat Khoon Maaf. Well, actually, we can't blame her. Because our actors so love double, triple, multiple roles — just bring ‘em on, they'll take on as many as you can throw at them. The big daddy of ‘em all was Sanjeev Kumar, who took on nine roles in Naya Din Nayi Raat (1974), which was a reprisal of Sivaji Ganesan's Navarathiri (1964). That role is considered a tour de force for Sanjeev Kumar, even if it is not exactly one of his better-loved performances.

If we're talking histrionics, can Kamal Hassan be far behind? But I have to confess I am yet to recover from the overdose of prosthetics and accents in his Dashavatar and its 10 roles. Granted, the actor was simply superb as a hefty but graceful maami in Chachi 420. But Hassan as George W. Bush? C'mon!

Of course, it must be exciting for actors and their directors to etch out two contrasting shades to the same face, to switch from one extreme to the other (they're almost always extremes, aren't they?), to effect intriguing changes in voice, tone and body language.

But our actors and directors don't ever seem to tire of this double whammy — and they've been at it for decades now. Unlike Hollywood, which has largely outgrown this genre. They started earlier, we have to concede. Three Faces of Eve (1957) was one of the earliest such hits, but the multiple roles have dwindled of late as Hollywood has moved on. Perhaps because double roles didn't keep the American box-office too happy. (No, the Superman/Batman/Spiderman franchises don't really count; their success is all about superheroics).

The Indian audience, on the other hand, just seems to lap up these double roles. Sometimes, inexplicably. If they could buy a wife not being able to recognise her husband when he takes off his moustache and puts on some tacky clothes in Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, well, what can I say, except that I have to bow to Shah Rukh Khan's and director Aditya Chopra's infinitely superior box-office savvy. Rab Ne... was a bewildering throwback to all those 1980s and 1990s movies in which actors wore the most atrocious disguises that fooled no one but their co-actors. But whaddya know, the film was a hit.

In fact, the double role is considered such a surefire winner that some careers have even been launched with one: Hrithik Roshan vaulted to stardom with Kaho Na Pyaar Hai and so did Deepika Padukone with her debut film, Om Shanti Om, in which Shah Rukh Khan chipped in with another double role in case one wasn't enough. When even freshly-minted newbies can take on two fearlessly, what of the more experienced? Every actor who's worth his salt has done the two-in-one number at some point; the list is simply too long to list here. The actresses haven't been left behind either: think Hema Malini's Seeta Aur Geeta, Sridevi's Chaalbaaz or Rekha's Khoon Bhari Maang.

This obsession with double roles has now become as pernicious as the brothers-separated-at-birth theme. That fascination, fortunately on the wane now, could be ascribed to the Mahabharat and the story of Karna; our mythological roots go deep. But why are we so sold on twin brothers and sisters who are (but of course) diametric opposites?

Is it as simple as quantity over quality, of getting two for the price of one? Perhaps it's because there is so little variety or layering in our stories that we need gimmicks like this to prop them up? Perhaps we see such roles as a twice-as-tough test of an actor's abilities? Perhaps we expect our actors to do everything in one movie: act, fight, dance, sing, throw in some comedy, some melodramatics and a few stunts, so there's something for every demographic? Indian actors have to be prepared to do all of that in one movie; this is our idea of making them work hard at their roles.

But for some, it seems to come organically: Rajnikanth can do all of that, and throw in some tricks of his own too. Any wonder he is India's biggest star? That his double role in Robot was yet another money-spinner in his career? So successful has the movie been that one hears his next, Rana, will have him in a triple role. We can't say we haven't been warned.

Published on March 03, 2011
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