With AK Hangal gone, so is the self-effacing (and archetypal) character actor, content to blend noiselessly into the background

It is customary to mourn the passing of a beloved actor as “the end of an era”, but in the case of AK Hangal, the phrase isn’t just a handy cliché, a warm shawl reached for to alleviate, at least for the instant, the chill of death. Hangal’s passing really feels like the end of an era, if only because the kind of movies in which he was such a fixture simply aren’t made anymore.

Or maybe they’re still made, but a little differently — the middle-class family in the movies made today resembles an upper-class household in India of the 1970s. And there’s no space in these films for an actor such as Hangal. What would he do in them? His specialty was the embodiment of a certain kind of sturdy decency that has vanished in the India we see around us, where social-media platforms have weaned a tetchy, independent, wiseass citizenry that has little use for being fussed over by a faithful family retainer.

Even those of us who grew up in Hangal’s India — a nation that remained largely unchanged for what seemed like decades — may cluck with impatience, today, if he showed up and began to dispense homilies in that measured cadence of his, with its slightly nasal lilt. It’s easier to confine Hangal (and his character-actor peers) to the past, like a photo album we pull out when in the mood. Because today, we’ve gotten used to character actors who play characters — while Hangal and his cohorts were mostly called upon to essay archetypes.

Think Om Prakash, for instance, and we recall with fondness a bumbling man constantly flustered by life’s unanticipated happenings. Think Leela Mishra, and we remember the matron who worried about unmarried daughters and nieces. These were not the only parts these actors played, of course, but these were the parts they were most often called upon to play. Carrying this persona along from film to film, they compacted reams of backstory into a smile or a glance.

Hangal’s backstory, in his films, was that he’d been around for generations, and he was therefore an unshakable link to the values of a long time ago. If your parents were gone or weren’t around, he was a stand-in who took charge of feeding you the way your mother would, while also being the father you could turn to during life’s bleakest moments. If not within the family, Hangal was the conscience-keeper from without, the way he so memorably was in Sholay — if you hurt him, you hurt everyone around him. And in films such as Bawarchi, he was a part of the extended family, the kind of weak-willed householder we knew all too well from our homes and from the homes of those around us.

And as we gravitated from joint families to nuclear households, as our lifestyles began to favour a few close and like-minded friends over the families next door (whom we’d smile at; nothing more), and as we exiled ourselves from a communal existence to self-sufficient islands of our own making, we outgrew the need for AK Hangal.

I say this not with sadness or bitterness, but simply as a statement of fact — which is why his passing is, quite literally, the end of an era. Or to be more precise about it, the era was long gone — he was one of the last connecting tissues, and now that link is severed too. A Hangal “type” today would be a crusty old coot, given to salty euphemisms, swigging down local liquor and trying to bed the 16-year-old next door.

The parts that character actors play, the ones that get them noticed, have increasingly gotten more extreme, more colourful, more idiosyncratic — more like individualistic characters, in other words. Today’s supporting actor wants to stand out, be aggressively memorable. In Hangal’s time, he was content to blend into the background. That, right there, is another way we’ve changed, our country has changed.

We may reflect on AK Hangal with fondness whenever a film of his plays on TV, but we will never really need him again.