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Must twice be as nice?

Published Jun 06, 2012 11:39am


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"Ram aur Shyam" film poster
Shunned into cold storage along with other inexplicable miracles, the “double role” finds itself abandoned by a new, upmarket Bollywood. Bundled off with the poor kaboortars who ferried love messages and the ever-faithful canines who’d kill for the hero, the double role might have few takers today, but once upon a time, it was a ritual that every actor looked forward to. In many parts of the world, it might be a gimmick or an actor’s indulgence at best but in Bollywood it was nothing less than a rite of passage.

Like most useful things in the world, the double role, too, owes its creation to necessity. Eons before it became Bollywood, the early days of Hindi cinema weren’t like how we know them to be now. Back then, films were looked down upn and although much might not have changed, at least previously it used to be very difficult for actors to come along and make a mark. So in 1917, Anna Salunkhe ended up played the first double-role in Indian films. No, this wasn’t the tale of good brother/bad brother, or the meek one saved by the braver. Salunkhe actually set the bar very high by playing both the roles of Ram and Seeta in Lanka Dahan (1917). While the popular belief is that B.R. Chopra’s Afsana (1951) is the one where Hindi cinema witnessed double role for the first time, it had a different kind of first attached to it. Not only did B.R. Chopra’s debut feature the biggest star of the day, Ashok Kumar, in the twin roles of Ratan and Chaman, brothers who fall for the same girl, it also created the formula which would go on to become the very template that would define double roles.

No one cared about the cookie-cutter-like treatment of the films that featured stars in double roles. The star liked it as it double-the-pay-and-no-competition, the audience liked it as they got two-for-the-price-of-one and the producer was happy, as there would be no starry tantrums. Multiple roles also give actors an opportunity to portray different characters in the same film but very few managed to remember this while portraying double roles. Barring Sivaji Ganesan and his nine roles in the Tamil film Navarathri (1964), which was later remade as Naya Din Nayee Raat (1974) with Sanjeev Kumar in Hindi, most of the dual roles were portrayed in extreme shades of blacks and whites. It’s hardly surprising then that such films ended up becoming vanity projects or event films that every actor would indulge in. At the height of his stardom Dilip Kumar played twins in Ram Aur Shyam (1967), a film that enjoyed the same success in two other languages from which it was inspired- the Tamil Enga Veetu Pillai (1965) with MG Ramachandran and the Telugu Ramudu-Bheemudu (1964) with N.T. Rama Rao. The Ram Aur Shyam model of twins-separated-at-birth-bought-back-together-by-fate has been used by the biggest stars of every generation to announce their arrival- Hema Malini’s Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) was a testimony of her status, Sridevi’s Chaalbaaz (1989) left little doubt about her prominence and while it didn’t enjoy the same success Anil Kapoor’s Kishen- Kanhaiya (1990) was a similar effort.

Like emperors who did most things with the intention of leaving their indelible mark, the bigger a star gets, the crazier the things they do. In 1976, there was nothing left for Dilip Kumar to prove, so someone thought of a triple role in Bairag to get his attention. The lackluster response to the film marked a milestone in his career and Dilip Sahib switched to character roles. Some, like Amitabh Bachchan, who has played double role 12 times, used the idea of multiple roles to wipe off competition. No other actor has played his own son or father as many times as Bachchan, something that partially justifies the one-man-industry tag that was bestowed upon him.

The whole concept of double roles is amusing to begin with, but very few films have been able to go beyond the usual trappings of the genre. Shakti Samata’s The Great Gambler (1979) could have escaped the twins-separated-at-birth track and made good with the basic premise of a gambler who’s mistaken for a secret agent. One of my favorite double role films, The Great Gambler had enough Hitchcockian McGuffins in the plot, along with some fantastic locations like Cairo, Lisbon, and Venice to transcend the bichade-bhai theme but with each passing minute the film just sank further. David Dhawan’s Bol Radha Bol (1993), Guddu Dhanoa’s Aflatoon (1997) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Duplicate (1998) are three films that stand out in this business and somewhere almost act as the turning point for double roles. The one film that has truly turned this genre around is Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009). In spite of twin brothers at the core, Kaminey takes Bollywood’s love for the double role and spins it around so much that the result is unlike anything ever seen.  Could it be that Kaminey was based on a story idea of Cajetan Boy, a short-filmmaker from Uganda that made it same-same but different? Irrespective of they reached this point, Kaminey has forever changed Hindi cinema and double role’s affair and sad as it may be, it’s time the two went their separate ways. For a while at least.

Born a cinephile and a close observer of society, the author is an award-winning documentary filmmaker/writer. He is a regular contributor to leading Indian publications and is currently working on his first book. Find out more about him here and follow him @gchintamani

The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.


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Gautam Chintamani loves to closely observe society when not being devoured by Bollywood, politics and everything in between. Commissioned by Harper Collins, Gautam is presently working on a biography of Rajesh Khanna due to come out later this year. He tweets @GChintamani.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (16) Closed

Altaf Hussain-Mumbai Jun 07, 2012 11:07am
I do not agree that Aradhana did better than Ram aur Shyam at the box office. Furthermore, Ram aur Shyam is considered an 'all time great'. Dear bro, please do not compare chese with chalk.
SherPunjab SSherGill Jun 07, 2012 01:08am
Why forget beautiful Sadhna who played double role in Mera Saya, with Sunil Dutt. The famous song of film was JHUMKA GIRA RE BARELI KE BAZAAR MEIN.
kkhan Jun 06, 2012 08:55pm
Judwa 2 with saif ali khan in double role is under produciton
Kalyan Jun 06, 2012 05:08pm
Thank you for bringing back some Nostalgic memories. Some of the older films such as Navarathri and Enga Veetu Pillai are so watchable even today. The plot and technology may have been simplistic and budget may have been low but I can tell you that you left the movie theatre with a good feeling.
kevin Jun 07, 2012 05:13pm
Why not? Its an interesting observation.
im_0316 Jun 07, 2012 12:55pm
I cannot believe an article has been written about such topic.
gp65 Jun 08, 2012 06:06pm
Well brohers separated at birth is not the only double role format. Father and son played by same actor is another format. Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana, Amitabh in Suryavasham etc. Saif Ali Khan in Love Aaj Kal was a case of same actor projecting unrelated young people across different timespans. Don had Amitabh and Hum Donon had Dev Anand in a double role where the 2 characters were simply look alikes and unrelated otherwise.
vijay Jun 08, 2012 10:25am
forgot banarasi babu?
Baighairat Jun 06, 2012 01:10pm
Don't think double roles will ever fade away in Bollywood. Recently released Rowdy Rathore, not a great movie but carries on the tradition of double roles in b-town.
Shekhar Jun 07, 2012 08:21am
Lousy movie - Rowdy Rathore - shows that it is set in Bihar - but has all South Indian background.
T Khan Jun 06, 2012 08:22pm
Identical twins were separated upon birth and sent to foster homes. Juan was sent to Mexico and Amol to Egypt. After some time birth parents wanted to see their sons; so agency brought back Juan easily, but was having difficulty finding Amol. Parents saw Juan but insisted on seeing Amol. So Agency In Charge told them “if you see Wuaan you see’em All”
anky Jun 07, 2012 07:05am
its hard to talk about double roles without mentioning sanjeev kumar devan vermas " ANGOOR",,beautiful copy of comedy of errors
anky Jun 07, 2012 07:03am
melone dear,,,,,johnny mera naam had dev anand with PRAN on other anand played a brialliant double role act in hum dono......
Malone Jun 07, 2012 04:26am
Dev Anand's "Johnny Mera Naam" - with Dev Anand punching Dev Anand and asking "Bol tumhara naam kya hai?" - and Rajesh Khanna doing fatther and son in the award winning film "Aradhana" certainly merit inclusion in the list of "famous" films with actors in double roles. Both did better at the box office than "Ram aur Shyam".
Roop Chandel Jun 08, 2012 11:52am
Good article, but some omissions: The first Hindi movie with double role was not Afshana, as stated in the article, but a film called Nishan, produced and directed by SS Vasan of Gemini. In this movie Ranjan played the double role. This story was repeated later in SAWAN (Bharat Bhooshan) and Gora Aur Kala ( Rajendra Kumar). The other famous double roles were Devanand in Hum Dono; Rajesh Khanna in Sachha Jhuta; Sadhna in Woh Kaun Thi, Mera Saya and Anita, etc.
Gautam Chintamani Jun 08, 2012 05:44am
Double roles isn't going to go out of circulation. It's a tried and tested formula and in times such as these when creativity and originality is at its all time low everyone would try to cash in. Rowdy Rathore isn't just about the stereotypical double role, it's got everything that will get the 'masses' going and that explains why someone like Sanjay Leela Bhansali would produce it.