Roleplaying on screen

July 21, 2019

Does the perception that a lead actor is playing herself, affect how an initiated audience views a film like Baaji?

Roleplaying on screen

The late Bollywood filmmaker Yash Chopra’s 1981 feature, Silsila, is regarded as a timeless story of unrequited love vis-à-vis the call of duty that brought together -- perhaps, unwittingly -- Amitabh Bachchan, his wife Jaya Bachchan, and rumoured girlfriend Rekha in characters very similar to themselves.

Clearly, this wasn’t what Chopra intended -- Parveen Babi and Smita Patil were the director’s original choice for the roles of the glamorous mistress and the dutiful wife, respectively. It is the public’s perception of the cast based on stories about their personal lives circulating at the time that even years later makes this film the subject of interest and debate: is this how events took place in their off-screen lives? It doesn’t help to dampen speculation that Amitabh’s character in the film is named Amit, and has a literary background. Although the film didn’t do well at the box office, it lent support to the idea that a star may be used as a spectacle.

In telling a story creatively, a motion picture has the luxury of carrying things out to the end. When there is a close parallel to the real life story of an actor, there is another dimension of interest to it, and a desire to seek closure.

Going farther back, one can think of more examples of actors playing parts on screen that came remarkably close to their lives. Films where the protagonist is also the director, provide them with greater control over the narrative. Guru Dutt’s cinema, for instance, runs parallel to his life. In Kaghaz Ke Phool (1969), considered to be his most autobiographical work, Dutt essays the role of a film director at the apex of his career who is consumed by his longing for a small-town girl (played by Waheeda Rehman) he launched in films, only to lose her to stardom. Eventually it causes his downfall.

A woman acting in a role that by and large draws on her star persona is another discussion altogether. Tropes and gazes interact here in ways that reinforce problematic assumptions, making it difficult for her to find cathartic release in a project that seeks to balance the demands of commercial cinema. The story can either ‘humanise’ her character by way of watering down her public persona, in an attempt to demystify it as a simpler person hiding behind a façade; or run the risk of making it a deeply cynical account, depicting the star as someone ruined and torn by fame and glamour.

While the recently released Baaji is not a biopic, its story appears to borrow from events that happened in leading lady Meera’s life and became the subject of much gossip -- from waning stardom to a fake marriage, to an abusive ex, and revenge porn. It’s a loaded venture. Having Meera as the lead makes Baaji an important (if not creatively satisfying) film. It is not just the actress’s ‘comeback vehicle’ but has her playing an ageing star who, in the words of Zadie Smith, "is ruining herself simply by getting old."

This is not the first time such a story has been told. Through Baaji, Meera and her screen character are seen attempting a comeback.

"Taking someone like Meera has its own buzz," says filmmaker and critic Hassan Zaidi. "She hasn’t done a film in a long time, and this is her comeback. She is a big celebrity, and we think we know a lot about her life. So this means that people would be interested in watching her do this role when they hear that it has parallels to her life."

According to Zaidi, most people might not know what the story is about and might assume things. He, for instance, thought it had similarities with the Hollywood classic Sunset Boulevard (1950), but insists that no one knew the whole story.

"People go and watch certain films because they are interested in the stars; here [in Pakistan], particularly, people focus more on the cast. Most people are attracted to the actors."

"It certainly is an unusual thing for an actor," opines film critic and academic Mira Hashmi. "Actors don’t write films, after all. Mostly, it is directors for whom personal struggles are often explored in that way. Limelight (1952), written, produced, directed by and starring Charlie Chaplin, for instance, sort of echoes the trajectory of his career.

"The casting can sometimes happen organically, in a way that leads audiences to question if the intent was there," she adds.

For Zaidi, if the celebrities are "willingly part of a film, it’s likely that [that] is their view of their life. Most actors or celebrities would not be willing to do a role that question their actions or motives. People are just not comfortable putting themselves out like that."

He says that films believed to be telling the story of a celebrity gain in terms of "publicity and public interest." But they can be disappointing when the story is handled in a way that is regarded too one-sided.

As for Baaji, one comes away with the feeling that the story could have been told better, with less distractions and subplots. With Meera playing the role of the protagonist, there is a greater urgency to this. The room to carry things out to the end, the liberty of aesthetic closure, appears not to have been fully exploited. There could have been less cynicism about the world of entertainment in a way that does not compromise the messiness of the female characters.

Nevertheless, in an interview to Gulf News, Meera said, "If I ask Meeraji the actress what is most precious to me and what I have gained or lost, my answer would be Baaji. I have gained a lot through Baaji."

Perhaps, the actress sees value in leaving her mark on the film through her performance. In a context where women haven’t been the subject of serious discourse, even in the telling of their own stories, this is no small feat.

Roleplaying on screen