A character overtaken by time
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A.K. Hangal, a name synonymous with genteel character roles that stood for old world values — grace, compassion, loyalty — passed away on August 26, but the character he made famous had left our movies long ago. Arguably amongst the finest character actors — Rahim chacha in Sholay who believes in the power of forgiveness, or trade union leader Bipinlal Pandey in Namak Haraam, who stands up for the rights and dignity of workers that he represents — Hangal brought to his characters a special kind of decency. On most occasions he played someone who is loyal, yet never servile. Someone who would never overstep boundaries, no matter what the provocation.
In today's Hindi films, however, an altered narrative, brought on by the death of formula films, as also the rapidly changing social structure, leaves little scope for the loyal family retainer, or "Ramu kaka", as made immortal by Hangal. In the fast paced postmodern zamana with nuclear families sans havelis and live-in domestic staff, there is no room for the loyal conscience keeper of the family. And with Hindi films getting Hollywoodised, a loyal, long-standing family retainer in a contemporary flick would be as much of an escapist fantasy as lip synced song sequences. Or perhaps even more of one.
In fact, today, when it comes to character actors, Hangal's longevity in cinema is not something too many can boast of. Between then and now, the plot has changed. With 100+ films being churned out every year in Hindi alone, the requirement for fresh faces, particularly for character actors, makes an enduring celluloid innings almost impossible. At a recently concluded edition of the Screen Big Picture debate on character actors, the panelists concurred that today's character actors, despite sterling performances, remain unsung heroes, the convenient "that guy" who everyone recognises but whose name nobody can remember.