That Mithun Chakraborty’s golden pantsuit and peeking chest in Disco Dancer (1982) got India its first Rs. 100-crore film is a known fact. Mithun Da’s face is one of the most recognizable ones in the country and the fact that he has acted in over 350 films across languages like Bengali, Hindi, Odia, Bhojpuri, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, and Punjabi has much to do with that. But so overpowering is the success of his mainstream and pulpy films (hello, Gunda), that it often overshadows Mithun’s more serious endeavours in Indian cinema. Although he is known for his flamboyance and that cheerful smile, the actor has been a part of numerous projects that could make space for his acting talent, allowing him to add subtler and more nuanced performances to his repertoire. Here, we look at five such roles.
Mithun made his debut with one of the most critically acclaimed directors in India – Mrinal Sen. Sen reportedly spotted the actor at the Film and Television Institute of India, where Mithun seemed to be brazenly teasing some fellow classmates during his graduation ceremony. The director was drawn to the dark-skinned youth’s genial and boisterous nature. Around the same time, Sen was set to make Mrigayaa, a film that explored the relationship between British colonial officers and native villagers of Odisha in the 1930s. He wanted someone to play the character of the young tribal man Ghinua and remembered the broad-shouldered man he had seen earlier. “I was looking for somebody who looked like a man,” said Sen in an later and it’s clear why he picked Mithun. Ghinua is a skilled tribal archer, often glimpsed through the pastures of the forest shirtless as he silently hunts his prey. When a British officer takes a liking to Ghinua’s skills and promises to reward him for a big kill, Ghinua carries the large butchered animal on his shoulders from the forest to the officer’s mansion. Later, Ghinua must also kill humans and pay the price for it and Mithun does complete justice to the role. The actor won a National Film Award for his performance and his first appearance on-screen brims with talent ready to be mined – an endeavour he perhaps never got to fully explore.
On the cusp of his Disco Dancer era, the actor starred in Sitara opposite Zarina Wahab. Mithun is his charming best in the first half as Kundan, sportily bickering with Dhaniya (Wahab), the woman with whom he shares a simultaneously non-platonic and familial relationship. He childishly blasts her for flexing her broken English but cheekily reminds her in the same breath that she’ll be marrying him anyway. But trouble begins when the two move to Mumbai to make it big. Dhaniya is quickly pulled into the showbiz, while Kundan stands limply by her side. Although the story is a familiar one, Wahab and Mithun are sweetly touching as two wide-eyed youngsters drowning in their own misunderstandings. After knowing the macho flamboyance Mithun is usually associated with, it’s surprising to note how good sorrow looks on the young actor. He cries brokenly and convincingly in Sitara, hinting at a deep reserve for sombre and complex roles.
In the same year, Mithun appeared in legendary director Bapu’s Hum Paanch, brushing shoulders with an all-star ensemble: Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, Sanjeev Kumar and more. The film was Boney Kapoor’s maiden venture as a producer and adapted the Mahabharat to a contemporary setting. Mithun plays the legend’s fearsome Bheem and while this might seem like the obvious choice for the actor, his character, Bhima, starts out as a docile servant in the film. He loyally serves the central villain of the film, Vir Pratap Singh (Puri), despite his needling conscience. But when Singh refuses to give Bhima gold to buy a mangalsutra for the woman he loves, the latter’s eyes open. He becomes an essential component of the Pandava flank, pouring the rage and injustice he felt towards his master for twenty years into the battle against him. Mithun not only stands tall next to the star power in the frame but carves out enough space for himself to leave a lasting impression.
On the heels of Disco Dancer – a film that cemented his stardom – Mithun starred in K Vishwanath’s Jaag Utha Insaan as a Dalit musician, Hari. Hari is a softie, often seen around the village playing his flute or bonding with the children. He shares an effortless romance with Sandhya (played by Sridevi), born out of their mutual love for music, before caste complicates their love story. When the moment comes for Hari to reveal his caste to Sandhya, Mithun steers clear of histrionics, a subtle flicker of pain nestling in his quietly determined face. The moment is reminiscent of a similar scene in Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), except Rahul Bose’s Raja isn’t as scarred as Mithun’s Hari is. Hari’s retelling of the horrors he has seen isn’t a war cry or the crystallization of life-long rage but rather the quiet revealing of wounds to the woman he loves the most. And Mithun Da nailed the assignment.
In the legendary Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Tahader Katha, Mithun plays Shibnath, a freedom fighter who is released from prison into a new, independent and unfamiliar India, marked by the horrors of the Partition. Shibnath is unable to make sense of the life or the land he sees before him, his idealistic dreams of a free homeland now a complex fantasy that he can no longer match with reality. “I know I’m not what I was before. But who is mad? Me or you?” he says, echoing the confusion inside him. Mithun is unrecognizable as the broken warrior, fossilised in the past and unwilling to move on. The film won the actor his second National Film Award – a well-deserved recognition.