Lights, Camera, Conversation… “Slumming it…”

Posted on August 1, 2014


On good actors in not-so-good movies. Or sometimes downright terrible ones, like “Kick”.

It’s sometimes a bit of a shock to see a good actor in a bad movie – and it’s always actors that make us feel this way. We say nothing when a famous lawyer takes on a case that doesn’t deserve his experience or time, or when a renowned painter, for a lark, accepts a cartooning commission – but with actors we sigh, “What is he doing in this crappy movie?” We ask this (rhetorical) question despite knowing the probable answers, that the actor is (a) acting, which is what he’s supposed to do, (b) making money, which is what all of us want (and most of us have) to do, (c) keeping himself from getting rusty (or going mad) by sitting at home and waiting for the perfect project, (d) participating in projects that will help him make contacts, get a foot in the door of the “camps” we keep hearing about, and (e) maybe just having some fun.

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Still, it’s not easy to reconcile our image of, say Laura Linney, with the part that she played in Congo, whose plot was eloquently summed up by Rotten Tomatoes as “Good gorillas meet bad gorillas while human beings search for treasure…” In order to make sense, today, of this good actress’s presence in this far-from-good movie (though it certainly has its so-bad-it’s-good moments), we have to consider the point in her career she was then, in 1995, when Congo was released. She had played “Young Teacher” in Lorenzo’s Oil, “School Teacher” in Searching for Bobby Fischer, and in the oddly prescient Dave, she played the cute young thing the president of the United States was having an affair with. Her only major role till then had been in the television miniseries based on Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City books. You can see why she took off to the African jungles with a vengeance. It was a question of visibility – and look at the films that followed: Primal Fear, the well-regarded Richard Gere drama, Absolute Power, directed by Clint Eastwood, and The Truman Show.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are the cases of actors who have truly arrived and yet take on parts that some would consider beneath them. Consider Liam Neeson as Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, or Cate Blanchett as the campy villainess in Indiana Jones and The Kingdom Of the Crystal Skull. From the production’s point of view, the presence of these “serious” actors classes up the project, and from the actors’ viewpoint, these films offer the opportunity to cut loose. When Blanchett made Crystal Skull, she was coming off playing prickly parts in Little Fish (heroin addict), Babel (bad marriage, dead child, mortal wound), The Good German (a Jew in Nazi Germany), Notes on a Scandal (student seducer, victim of blackmail), Elizabeth: The Golden Age (beleaguered royal) and I’m Not There (Bob Dylan, enough said). You can see why she wanted to go skull-hunting while bellowing in a Rrrraashan accent.

These thoughts sprang to mind after watching Kick, the Salman Khan starrer which really didn’t need anyone else – after all, it’s the hero the adoring fans are coming to watch – but still managed to rope in a superb supporting cast. There’s Rajit Kapur in a white coat, pretending to be a doctor. There’s Saurabh Shukla, playing the heroine’s father and the fool, in that order. (In one scene, he’s stumped seeing Salman Khan at the door and forgets to invite him in. Khan asks if this is his idea of hospitality. A flustered Shukla says, “Please come to the hospital.”) Sanjay Mishra, who was the centre of the superb Ankhon Dekhi, gets to play a cop who’s reduced to standing in his underpants. Randeep Hooda, at first, has nothing to do but listen to stories of Khan’s exploits and respond with oh-that’s-amazing reaction shots. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui hams it up as the villain.

What a powerhouse cast. These actors could be the ensemble in a terrific offbeat film – but here, they’re satellites around the hero. One scene unintentionally comments on where they stand with respect to him. Hooda is on the streets, looking for Khan, who is on a nearby bridge. Khan looks down at Hooda and says, “Tu hamesha mere neeche hoga aur main tere oopar.” (“You will always be beneath me, and I’ll always be above you.”) For a minute, I felt bad for Hooda, but then he has everything to gain from this film – a lot more people will end up watching him, and he’ll get a lot more money than he usually does, which will hopefully help him make the kind of films he really wants to make. The best wisdom about this subject was delivered by Michael Caine, to whom, apparently, no movie was low enough to refuse. A year after winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and her Sisters, he starred in Jaws IV: The Revenge. Asked about the film, he said, “I have never seen it but by all accounts it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here. Copyright ©2014 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.