It is no longer just about good-looking people in good-looking places. Hindi cinema is looking beyond romance between Greek gods and goddesses

A wiry Dhanush pursuing style queen Sonam Kapoor on the ghats of Banaras. A plump Vidya Balan cavorting with Emraan Hashmi in a film called “Ghanchakkar”. Malayalam superstar Prithviraj playing a cop from Gurgaon… Suddenly, Bollywood seems to be looking at more than just face value. Be it casting or pairing, ‘unusual’ is the new adjective buzzing across Bollywood.

In the past we have seen Rajpal Yadav paired with Rituparna Sengupta, and Rahul Bose romancing Mallika Sherawat, but “Main Meri Patni Aur Woh” and “Pyaar Ke Side Effects” were small-budget experiments strictly for the multiplex audience. And “Cheeni Kum” and “Paa” were essentially Amitabh Bachchan’s vehicles and any actress would give her right hand to be his co-passenger.

As always, any experiment becomes a trend only when the box office supports it. So the success of “Wake Up Sid”, where Ranbir Kapoor shared screen space with the “arty” Konkona Sen Sharma in a Dharma Production film spiralled hopes for many. So did “Ishqiya”, where Vidya Balan cavorted with Naseeruddin Shah. Karan Johar says he is giving his directors the liberty to pick and choose their cast. It is this faith that is turning the tide for young directors who no longer come just from the Juhu-Bandra bend and are allowed to call the shots early in their career. With big banners beginning to look beyond the obvious, the canvas for experiment is getting bigger.

Raj Kumar Gupta’s “Ghanchakkar” is not about good-looking people, but he has got Emraan Hashmi and Vidya Balan playing the leads. Emraan is playing a retired conman and Vidya is a plump Punjabi housewife pushing her husband to reignite his sagging career in lock-picking. “Had they not agreed to do the film, ‘Ghanchakkar’ would not have created even half the buzz that it is creating,” admits Gupta, who hails from Hazaribagh and claims that he has been allowed to make the film the way he wanted. “Hashmi and Vidya are two stars who have great script sense. They knew what I am up to,” he relates. “And UTV never said that you cut down on the nuances to reach out to a larger audience.”

This week we have Richa Chadda playing the sole antagonist opposite four boys in “Fukrey”, which comes from the stable of Farhan Akhtar’s Excel Entertainment.

“This is a bold step. There is no romantic pairing or unnecessary reasoning; Bholi Punjaban is the villain of the film,” says Richa, who won accolades for “Gangs Of Wasseypur”, where she was paired opposite Manoj Bajpayee and played the mother of Nawazuddin Siddiqui. “I have grown up watching Manoj’s film but the way the roles were written the age gap became irrelevant. What I really find unusual is when Sunny Deol is paired opposite Kangna Ranaut and Sanjay Dutt with Prachi Desai. The media lampoons when Preity Zinta attempts a love story at 38, but nobody questions the stubbornness of middle-aged heroes to play the romantic lead,” asks Richa, 25. She gives credit to Vidya for bringing heroines back in scripts as actors. “We are no longer just incidental to the story. And I don’t want to wait till 30 to look for meatier roles.”

Himanshu Sharma, who wrote “Tanu Weds Manu” where Madhavan was paired opposite Kangna Ranaut, is now facing similar questions for “Raanjhnaa”, where South star Dhanush is cast opposite Sonam Kapoor. “If you look back at the surnames of the characters that our heroes play, it is invariably a Kapoor, a Verma or a Behl. Why don’t our Sharmas and Guptas find space on the screen? I want to tell their stories. And for this I need actors who look extraordinary in their ordinariness. After all, it is the actors who give a personality to words.” For this reason he backs Dhanush. “After watching ‘Aadulkulam’ we thought we needed an actor like Dhanush but we didn’t approach him because of the language. But then we felt proficiency in the language should not come in the way of casting as long as the actor is ready to slog, and I must say Dhanush gave it all. He can’t get over the Tamil twang but I made a slight adjustment in the script to justify it.”

Talking about the face value part that used to tilt decisions in Bollywood, Himanshu, who grew up in Lucknow, says, “You don’t need to look like a Greek god to be charming or endearing. And how many such gods do we see around us? We needed an actor with whom any boy could identify. He could even feel that he is better looking than Dhanush or Kundan, the character he is playing.”

He says Sonam fits in because the girl needed to be not just extremely beautiful but also a little cold. “The kind of girl about whom the public will ask: what is she doing in a small town?” But the promos suggest that the difference is to highlight the age old art of relentless pursuit in our films. Doesn’t it amount to gratifying stalking? “It doesn’t. The film shows that the pursuit doesn’t get him anything.”

At the time of the release of “Gangs of Wasseypur”, Nawazuddin told this journalist, “We always have romance between two good-looking people. It looks beautiful. I also like it but there is no drama in it. There is no reality to it. I used to tell Huma, ‘Heels bhi pehan le (put on the heels as well).’ When we will walk alongside I will look smaller but there will be that ‘thing’ in my walk that will make a girl swoon over me. It might be rare on screen but we often find such pairs in the neighbourhood market, where we see a beautiful girl with a not-so-handsome man and we wonder what she saw in him.” He didn’t stop at it. In his next film he was paired opposite none other than Bipasha Basu.

Himanshu says one should be clear about the kind of film one is mounting. “If your idea is to woo the youngsters with six songs shot in exotic locales, you’d better go for the so-called face value, but if you are telling a story you’d better be honest with the casting.” And perhaps then unusual will become usual!

This drift that age

Veteran film analyst Raju Bharatan says earlier such experiments were usually limited to parallel cinema where Shabana Azmi would be paired with Raj Kiran or Anant Nag. “Today films are made before they are screened as far as the financial aspect is concerned. The sale of satellite rights and music rights means you know what you have in hand. It gives you the leeway to experiment. But it was not always the case. There was a time when two songs were recorded by the director or producer by paying from his pocket, an advertisement used to be placed in “Screen” magazine and only then the money used to come in from the financiers in instalments. So you had to be sure about the cast and the vibes that they share,” says Bharatan pointing to the ouster of Madhubala from “Naya Daur” because of her strained relations with Dilip Kumar.

Rumour mills suggest that Nutan was never cast opposite Dilip Kumar when the two were at their best because of the height difference, but Bharatan says they were supposed to do Ramesh Saigal’s “Shikwa” but the film was stalled because of financial reasons. “She was also one of K.Asif’s choices to play Anarkali but eventually lost out to Madhubala because the film took a time equivalent to two Five Year Plans.” However, Bharatan adds there were instances when a particular casting created buzz. “Like when Meena Kumari was cast by Vijay Bhatt for ‘Baiju Bawra’, the decision surprised many because till then she was known for costume dramas and mythologicals. Similarly, when Dev Anand agreed to do Gemini’s ‘Insaaniyat’ with Dilip Kumar even when Bharat Bhushan had rejected the role, it created shockwaves because Bhushan allegedly walked out because of Kumar’s propensity to overshadow his co-stars,” recalls Bharatan.