Three years after her sparkling mega-masala debut in Dabangg, followed by hyper-loud entertainers like Rowdy Rathore and Son of Sardaar, Sonakshi Sinha did something quite unexpected. She stunned us with her intensely quiet, delicately underplayed performance in Vikramaditya Motwane's Lootera.
What was remarkable was that Sonakshi had the courage to do such a film so early in her career. She signed Lootera barely a year after Dabangg released and before her second film, Rowdy Rathore, did.
Sonakshi could well have picked the usual potboiler from the dozens of films she was being offered at the time. Lootera, clearly not made or destined for a box-office bonanza, was an interesting choice for an actress whose career had just taken off.
Her co-star in the film Ranveer Singh was off the mark even faster — Lootera was just his third film. And the departure from his image was even more dramatic. To play a subdued lover and go so radically against the hyperactive onscreen and real-life persona (both of which earned him a hot, brash, happening image) was an equally brave step. Both stars have admitted that many well-wishers tried to dissuade them from taking a step that went against all traditional film wisdom — a belief that it is near-suicidal for a star to do an offbeat film in the early stages, which is meant to build a box-office reputation and bank balance; art can come later.
Sonakshi and Ranveer are among the new breed willing to take chances. The realistic style of filmmaking and acting, once to be found only in what were called art films or parallel cinema, has now blended seamlessly into mainstream cinema.
Of course, there have always been actors and actresses down the years who preferred to stay largely within parallel cinema while making the odd foray into mainstream. Think Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and, more recently, Nandita Das, Konkona Sen Sharma or Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Those who had set their sights on commercial films and success would sing and dance, get the blockbusters, make the money — and save the arty stuff for later when the roles dried up. That has been the story for the likes of Rishi Kapoor, Raveena Tandon, Juhi Chawla, Madhuri Dixit and Preity Zinta.
Even actresses like Kareena Kapoor, who started off with the not-too-commercial Refugee, did some 10 mainstream films before she tried her hand at Chameli and Dev. Priyanka Chopra did the offbeat Nau Do Gyarah some 15 films after her debut and did her Marathi mulgi number in Vishal Bharadwaj's dark Kaminey a good two years later. Her co-star Shahid Kapoor did almost as many commercial films (including Jab We Met) before he got to Kaminey.
But each new wave of stars gets more adventurous. Take Ranbir Kapoor, who did films like Wake Up Sid, Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year and Raajneeti in his first few years and today does a Barfi along with a glossy Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani. Some of his choices, like Barfi, paid off at the box-office and at award nights. Some like the terrific, much-acclaimed Rocket Singh, alas, didn't. Ranbir has said often enough that he can afford to take risks with his choice of films thanks to the fact that he comes from an affluent family and is under no financial pressure.
But that's not really the whole story is it? Many stars who have made good money from their movies, award night acts, dancing at weddings and what-have-you can well afford to take the same risks — but don't. Given his enormous success, Salman Khan for instance, could surely have risked the odd experiment. Especially since his fellow Khans, Shah Rukh and Aamir, have taken their share of risks in their career.
While Aamir has every reason to celebrate a Lagaan or Earth or Rang de Basanti, Shah Rukh has films like Chak De and Swades under his cap. Yes, they could have taken a few more such detours but, at the highest levels, risk-taking is not so much about the money as the fear of losing a hard-earned position and the clout that comes with blockbusters.
The new kids on the block not only have less at stake, they have bigger risk appetites as well. Kangana Ranaut, for instance, came to Mumbai with precious little money and could ill afford to take chances with her career. She's done a fair share of forgettable masala potboilers in her career, presumably to keep her home fires burning. But, to her credit, she also did solid roles like the unusual, not-very-glamorous second lead in Life in a Metro early on. Now that she's more comfortable financially, she's going only for the roles. And it's paid off— she's been on a roll with Krissh 3, Queen and Revolver Rani. She's leading the brat pack when it comes to acting today.
Deepika Padukone, on the other hand, is sitting pretty at the top of the heap, but has not had much luck with her offbeat outings. Karthik Calling Karthik, Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey and Aarakshan simply didn't work at the box-office but she has been scoring one roaring commercial success after the other. She's giving it another shot with Homi Adajania's Finding Fanny.
The latest wave of stars is taking the offbeat agenda further. Look at Sushant Singh Rajput, making his debut in Kai Po Che, a film set against the background of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Definitely not blockbuster material, but a film that offered him a great role.
And there's Alia Bhatt, who went straight from the designer-clad la-la land of Student of the Year to the stark beauty of Highway. Bundled up in loose pherans and shalwars, hair left unwashed and face with minimal makeup, she took the road to a world far removed from the high-gloss one of SOTY. With the success of her third film, 2 States, it's Round one, two and three to this sparkling new star.
Alia, Ranveer and Sushant are the new kids on the block who are lucky to have entered the Hindi film industry at a time when the water-tight barriers between mainstream and offbeat/ experimental/parallel/alternative cinema have come crashing down. Labels are passé now; the genres have merged and so have directorial and acting styles.
Matters were not as flexible even a few years ago, when Ranbir and Sonam Kapoor made their debut with Saawariya in 2007. For the latest entrants into the industry, who have grown up on a cinematic culture and diet that's very different from their seniors, a film is a film is a film. And the role is all that matters.
Of course, there will always be some stars who stay strictly within commercial boundaries. Like Katrina Kaif or Salman Khan from the older lot or Varun Dhawan and Siddharth Malhotra (so far) from the younger bunch. Then, there are those who are ready to experiment but with some safety guards — like Hrithik Roshan or Parineeti Chopra, who stay within the broad parameters of mainstream cinema.
Indeed, the kind of films Parineeti has done are what some have christened 'offbeat mainstream cinema' to distinguish it from the all-out formula film or a radically different one like Delhi Belly.
This new label could sum up the approach of actors like Vidya Balan and Farhan Akhtar, who have tried to mix it up and have succeeded to a degree. Vidya glided easily from No One Killed Jessica to Kahaani to Ishqiya, while Farhan didn't miss a beat as he went from a Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara to Bhaag Milkha Bhaag.
But new times need new labels. And the boundaries are melting away as stars cross from one side to the other and linger somewhere in the middle as well. It's exciting and, it can also be rewarding at the box-office. There's a whole new world of freedom and opportunities waiting for the brave new bunch of stars and they're revelling in it.