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Methodless Bollywood

Published Jul 24, 2012 04:11pm


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Sometimes a film becomes greater than what it set out for when actors end up putting in a bit of their souls into the characters. And strange as it may be many such performances can be attributed to a single school of acting – Method Acting. A technique where actors end up creating within themselves emotions that the character would undergo in order to come up with a lifelike performance, Method Acting is the reason behind some of cinema’s most realistic portrayals. Yet, this is one school doesn’t have many believers when it comes to Bollywood.

Under Method Acting, actors bring themselves as close as possible to experiencing the real thing when portraying characters. It’s Method Acting that makes a Robert De Niro train to be as good as a professional boxer in order to play Jake La Motta and inspires an Al Pacino to behave like a gangster off-camera to play Tony Montana as convincingly as possible. While the popular perception is that the Method is more helpful to enact extraordinary characters, the Method’s greatest achievement, in fact, has been to take the regular and transform it into the exceptional. If that were the case then how come this technique doesn’t find many takers in Bollywood, where 9 out of 10 times the hero is an average person who does something outstanding? One of the reasons why the Method doesn’t work for Hindi cinema is that our heroes might be people from everyday life but in spite of that they don’t have regular attached to them. In Hindi cinema the hero mostly follows a strict code of conduct making it almost impossible to differentiate between two similar characters played across decades. Two good screen cops will invariably end up looking the same unless the background of the protagonist is specified. Aamir Khan played a car mechanic in Ishq (1997) but the only time we see him in the garage is when the rich heroine’s father tries to buy his love. The only other time a mechanic looks like a mechanic is when the heroine comes a-calling like in Chalti Ka Naam Gadi (1958).

The world first witnessed Method Acting in Marlon Brando’s performance as Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and later in the mid-1960s acting guru Lee Strasberg imparted the same techniques unto Paul Newman, Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino, Jack Nicholson and Robert De Niro. Many of these actors took the learning of the technique in order to discover the characters they portrayed and thereby regular people such as a sports goods salesman (Paul Newman in Sweet Bird of Youth, 1962), a college graduate coming of age (Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate, 1967) and an upper-class American who works on oil-rigs (Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, 1970) looked plausible. By comparison Hindi cinema’s characters are always treated in extreme hues and the hero suffers the maximum.

Mostly seen as a college student, Hindi cinema’s hero rarely warrants any kind of introspection or preparation. The method makes the actor question their character’s motivation and just how many different ways can an Indian college kid be played! It’s only in the last few years that scripts are making an effort to describe the hero’s profession and although we’ve had chefs, business tycoons, brigands and such but in Hindi cinema being the hero is the protagonist’s full-time profession.

But the thing that has rendered Method Acting almost useless in Bollywood is the overwhelming desire to make the hero look cool. Unless the title of the film suggests a trait every hero must look in control and come across as someone who minds the p’s and q’s even when asleep. The greater the stature of the actor in Hindi cinema, the more natural they want to appear and concepts like Method Acting don’t aid its appearance. You could never imagine Prithviraj Kapoor think beyond simple theatrics while portraying Akbar in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). Even trained actors such as Nasseruddin Shah or Om Puri never made too much about the manner in which they go about their characters. In an interview, Nasseruddin Shah once said that the Brando school of Method is all ‘nose picking, bum scratching’ to make it all look real and he never really cared about it. Shah’s great flair for making his most difficult characters like the Parsi Phirojshah in Pestonjee (1988), the Catholic worker in Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai (1980) or the Portuguese scion Ruiz Pereira in Trikal (1985) reveal the elements of the Method yet remain far removed from it. What separates Shah from most of the actors before him is that he was perhaps the first lead actor who gave equal importance to both the visual, as well as aural appeal of his characters. Save some modulation in the pitch, most Indian actors would end up sounding the same irrespective of the characters they played and Shah is the first one who changed it.

Many actors push the envelope for that streak of authenticity in their characters. De Niro tracked down the tailor who stitched Al Capone’s silk underwear and got some made in the same manner to live the character even though The Untouchables (1987) didn’t have a single scene where the fabled boxers were displayed. But in Bollywood there is no room for that kind of work ethic. It’s not like Bollywood hates things like Method Acting in fact, there are many westerners who, like Naseeruddin Shah, don’t think much of such tools. While working with Dustin Hoffman in The Marathon Man (1976), Sir Laurence Olivier got tired of seeing his American co-star stay up for days or sprint just before the shot to be in character and said ‘Why not try acting.’


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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.

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 (29) Closed

Islam Khan Jul 24, 2012 02:52pm
If above poll is not under this artille, I am sure 80% will vote for Dilip Kumar.
Arjun Jul 25, 2012 02:39pm
Have you seen Irfan's new movie Paan Singh Tomer ? The way he has adopted the accent of that region is just amazing . He looks , walks and even smells like a Bundelkhandi . He is very convincing in the character .
Ashfaq Jul 24, 2012 02:45pm
Late Sanjeeve Kumar was one. Paresh Rawel can be counted as one in the contemporary ones.
JP Singh Jul 24, 2012 02:41pm
Bollywood is all about masala so the question of Method Acting doesnt arise. If bollywood was quality conscious then it would have made some impression at the oscars. Bollywood produces movies for audiences or the level of audience that gives two hoots to the quality of acting. It produces tasteless repetitive stlye of movies with the same standard of acting. Iconicism plays a large part in the industry. Aishwaria Bacchan couldnt act for nuts but became popular for whatever reason. Anyway "Have Bollywood will Travel" quality in Indian entertainment life doesnt matter much masala hai to sala chlega.
muraligv Jul 24, 2012 03:15pm
well for the poll, it is difficult choose from from 4. There were even greater Raj kapoor, Sanjeev kumar, Om prakash, Utpal dutt, sriram lagoo and now, Manoj Bajpai, Boman irani, Paresh rawal, Nawazuddin siddiqi, and of course, Big B. Well, my personal favorite is the new guy Nawazuddin. you may have seen him in Gangs of vaseypur and peepli live.. this guy has loads and loads of talent and has a bright future.
sudeep Jul 24, 2012 03:25pm
Well written. I would add only Naseeruddin Shan and Amir Khan to this list - they truly understand the difference between an actor and a character and bring out that difference. they can stand tall in comparison to any hollywood greats
Masood Hussain Jul 24, 2012 02:13pm
Huge marketing efforts,easy earnings and unreasonable popularity don't give time to think about method acting.
Zakria Jul 24, 2012 02:08pm
I cant seem to digest people praising Irrfan Khan..doesnt he look and sound monotonous in every role, quite like SRK is irritatingly repetitious?
Ananya Jul 24, 2012 01:53pm
Wow, what's with leaving out female actors, and only talking about "heroes"?
toti34 Jul 25, 2012 06:13am
The greatest method acting performer was Brando. I can see his earlier films again and again. His best was On the waterfront.
Unnikrishnan Jul 26, 2012 02:59pm
There are several exceptions. There is an article published on "Kamla" in dawn currently.
Zakria Jul 26, 2012 11:00pm
i ll reserve further judgement on I.K till i watch that film then
Fouad Jul 24, 2012 09:51am
to write about method acting in Bollywood and not mention Paresh Rawal... not cool!
Concerned Netizen Jul 24, 2012 12:49pm
Om Puri, Pankaj Kapoor and Irrfan Khan are other names that pop up in my head who live there characters in most of their films.
Zakria Jul 24, 2012 10:27am
Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in my opinion are two Bollywood actors who tried to 'live' their characters in every film, making viewing the film easier on the eyes. While Shah Sb may not want to admit it, the Stanislavski influence is evident in most of his roles.
Rakhi Jul 24, 2012 10:17am
Acting is still not developed in Bollywood. Not so important as film releasing..
aaa Jul 24, 2012 01:12pm
Certain things are inborn talents and if one loves doing it one tries to make it better every day. That was meaning of art a century ago then came cinema and more it became money earning machine more indian movies specifically have lost what viewers once loved. I was watching movie ''prem rog'' a few days ago and it felt so natural. Where are such topics now other than amir khan noone is making movies with any depth atall. When there arent any topics that need any acting that requires skill why would actors try anything atall. All they need to do is follow the trend list. When trendlist is followed there is nothing left of your soul anyway.
sam Jul 24, 2012 10:50am
Poll should also include All above otherwise it is very difficult to choose one..
kashif akhtar Jul 24, 2012 10:49am
I cant believe that the author singled out Aamir khan from his early movies and ignored his body of work since lagaan. Personal beef i must say. :)
Qaiser Bakhtiari Jul 24, 2012 11:27am
Why is Pakistan still hung up on Bollywood is beyond me. If we look to our West, Iran produces better quality movies then the cheap trash that bollywood produces. It is not surprising if you visit any international film festival around the globe especially in US that viewer eagerly seek Iranian movies compared to Indian movies.
Rajesh Jul 24, 2012 05:44pm
I agree with the author in general about hindi film actors but I have to disagree about Aamir Khan. Aamir is probably the only path breaking actor in hindi cinema today. Everybody else seem to blame public interest for their own inability to act.
Sujith Jul 24, 2012 06:00pm
Who is the most effortless Indian Actor? Well, there are many. First one comes to my mind, who''s is of my generation is Mohan Lal. Definitely hes an Indian but not from Bollywood.
Dipesh Lall Jul 24, 2012 06:44pm
Nasseruddin Shah, Nana Patekar and Om Puri are three of the most talented actors in the Indian cinema. They are in a class apart. Their presence, voice, and passion lends them a gravity that others cannot match even by a wide margin. On the female side I will say it is Shabana Azmi, Hema Malini, and Samita Patil.
Rajesh Jul 24, 2012 06:48pm
I agree with the author in general about hindi film actors but I have to disagree about Aamir Khan. Aamir is probably the only path breaking actor in hindi cinema today.
Human being Jul 25, 2012 01:04am
How can you not put Amitabh jee
Arjun Jul 25, 2012 01:42am
World's first one act play was written and played in Sanskrit ( Abhigyaan Shakuntalam by Mahakavi Kalidas) around 1ST CENTURY BC . And all the classical dances of India are Abhinaya ( acting ) predominent . So , I would not say that acting did not develope here !!!
Banerjee Jul 25, 2012 01:46am
I was watching a talk show (Johny Carson) where Jack Lemon narrated a story about method acting. In the movie Marathon Man, Dustin Hoffman's character gets kidnapped and there is a scene where the captor, played by Lawrence Olivier, meets Dustin Hoffman who is not supposed to have eaten for two days and is supposed to look really starving and haggard. In order to play the scene, Dustin Hoffman, a believer in method acting, did not eat for two days. Lawrence Olivier's comment--"Dustin, my boy, it is much easier if you would just learn how to act." An actor is supposed to act. Not live the character. This method acting business is for actors for whom acting did not come naturally.
Rajinder Jul 25, 2012 04:41am
Indian movies are OK?
Madhur Jul 25, 2012 05:07am
I think author has left out Sanjeev Kumar, for me was one of the foremost method actor of bollywood .Remember his voice modulation for Thakur character in 'Sholay' and comapre it with skirt chasing middle aged man in ' Pati Patni aur Woh' released at almost same time .It is true that most of the work was in main stream commercial cinema and except one or two movies for parallel cinema , quality of his acting was unparallel .We can add Ashok Kumar (as character actor) and Balraj Sahini to the list