I know the term "underrated" has been quite abused and overused over the years, but it quite specifically means that certain artists haven’t gotten the attention and adulation they should have gotten. Maybe most of them have found their niche and are very successful and happy with their own careers, and maybe they’ve found enough cinema enthusiasts who have taken notice of their talent. But in a country like ours, there’s always room for more. With this bunch, and most of them are already well into their careers, one hopes that they receive the attention they deserve and scale greater heights in Indian cinema. It’s always nice to have them around to set the standards – whether in mainstream or independent cinema – and to be assured that they’re always, forever fighting the good fight – for their sake, and for our collective sake.
Here are some of them I’ve grown to admire during the millions of films I’ve watched over the last 15 years:
Many ‘90s fans will have noticed a distinct and heavy figure in many path-breaking (parallel, sort of) Indian films of that decade. From Sudhir Mishra’s Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi (his second role after Bandit Queen) to being the immortal (ear-wormy) Kallu Mama in Ramgopal Varma’s Satya, Saurabh Shukla was already quite a theatre legend by the time he appeared on the silver screen. His advent into mainstream cinema began with Subhash Ghai’s Taal in 1999, in which he made an impression as the flamboyant Anil Kapoor’s shadowy showbiz assistant. But personally, I took notice of him when I was slightly older, in Aditya Chopra’s Mohabbatein, where he played Kim Sharma’s happy-go-lucky film-obsessed hopelessly romantic father. I will always remember his unforgettable stubborn reaction when his daughter berates him and dresses him better for an upcoming date. He went on to play memorable side roles in Nayak (Amrish Puri’s Man Friday) and a constable in Mishra’s cult-achieving Hazaaron Kwaheishein Aisi. He was perhaps a bit too prolific and stereotyped in a variety of movies, including Danny Boyle’s Oscar-winning Slumdog Millionaire. I was, therefore, truly pleased when his excellent and matter-of-fact portrayal of an ambiguous judge in Jolly LLB was rewarded with a National Award – a role, I believe, has been his finest in Hindi films. He once again stood out in the little-known smart satire Kaun Kitney Paani Mein last year as a withered figure of royalty in a draught-stricken village in Odisha. Shukla remains one of Indian cinema’s peripheral figures of true artistry, as he almost always brings a memorable physicality and flavor to most of his characters.
As a child subjected to the hundreds of mid-film advertisments on television, I remember the face of Rajit Kapur (and not Rajat Kapoor, the actor-director) constantly haunting me in the OCM (suitings) ad and that annoying jingle. Soon, though, the face was given gravitas when I noticed him as tapori Aamir Khan’s educated brother (and villain Sharad Saxena’s chamcha accountant) in Vikram Bhatt’s Ghulam. Many will forever associate him with the eponymous Bengali detective Byomkesh Bakshi, who he enacted with distinction in Basu Chatterjee’s immensely popular ‘90s TV series. He, of course, went on to do a handful of bit roles in many Hindi movies over the years – none of which I really remembered till I noticed him in The Threshold, a lovely little Indian film that played at the Mumbai Film Festival last year. He played a gruff patriarchal North Indian husband, who has recently retired to live in the mountains with his wife (Neena Gupta). He delivers one of the most real and heartbreaking performances I’ve ever seen. The film is a chamber piece and a relationship drama, based in a cabin. Kapur is fantastic as a man about to be left by his wife in their twilight years. This film may never be commercially released, but this is Kapur’s only full-fledged on-screen role I will (thankfully) remember with fondness and teary eyes. He is, again, a very respectable theater veteran, and even recently introduced and hosted the legendary Zuben Mehta and Italian tenor Andre Bocelli on stage at their concert in Brabourne recently. His diction is precise and unmistakable, and a clear result of many years of remarkably nuanced stage performances.
The NSD graduate first made an indelible mark as the wedding planning hustler – P.K. Dubey – in Mira Nair’s iconic film, Monsoon Wedding. His grasp of lower middle-class bindaas traits burdened with an ambitious heart is remarkable, and he seems to understand – and has fully exploited – the inherent comic presence of his unconventional facial features through unique self-depreciative mannerisms and dialects. He played another role for the ages in Delhi Belly, as the frustrated gangster saddled with an incompetent team and terrible situations. But he truly fulfilled his potential in his lead role in Rajat Kapoor’s National-award winning Raghu Romeo, and later in his own directorial debut Kya Dilli Kya Lahore, opposite the next actor on this list…
Another immensely under-explored talent, another theater veteran. We all need to see more of Manu Rishi, and not just as a dialogue writer. A regular early fixture in Rajat Kapoor films (Raghu Romeo, Mithya), Rishi truly captured imaginations only in Dibakar Bannerjee’s outrageous Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! as Abhay Deol’s perpetually edgy partner-in-crime, Bangali. He appeared in quick succession as a small-town bungling crook in the satire, Phas Gaya Re Obama, before disappearing for a while and doing a blink-and-miss role in Rajat Kapoor’s wonderful Aankhon Dekhi. Again, he reminded me of what could have been (and what still can be) when he excelled opposite Vijay Raaz in Kya Dilli Kya Lahore – as a good-hearted Indian army cook trapped in a cabin with a Pakistani soldier, ruminating on war and life with genuine experience.
It speaks volumes that the fast-talking, hyperactive actor only got noticed in the sleeper hit Paan Singh Tomar, as the intimidated reporter interviewing the titular dacoit and ex-athlete, Tomar (Irrfan Khan). By then, however, he had already appeared in brief but impressionable roles in Jab We Met, Raghu Romeo, Mithya, Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, Dasvidaniya, Karthik Calling Karthik and Chalo Dilli. Originally part of the same Rajat Kapoor-Vinay Pathak gang of talents, Kala continued “teasing” with his fleeting roles – in Aankhon Dekhi, Jolly LLB, PK, Youngistaan and Guddu Rangeela. He often appears in films with Sanjay Mishra, or as specialist character actors who absolutely must make an impression with the single scene they have. He has made it an art of sorts, though I would love to see him in a full-blooded, meaty role that goes beyond stereotyping and testing him the way mainstream cinema has done.
After playing a vaguely racist and hilarious South Indian software engineer in the very watchable The President Is Coming, Das became semi-famous with his role as Ranbir Kapoor’s best friend in Wake Up Sid. He hasn’t done much after that, with noticeable but unrewarding turns in Ghanchakkar and Lafangey Parindey. As the befuddled son-in-law type in Aankhon Dekhi and a regular fixture in many ad films (including the latest Flipkart series with Rajesh Sharma and Amol Palekar), Das continues to occupy the sidelines of the industry. Hopefully, soon, a writer or director will see more than just a supporting face in him.