If you thought the double role has lost its appeal, look no further than the Hindi releases in cinemas this week. In Shamshera, Ranbir Kapoor plays both father and son; and in RK/Rkay, filmmaker and actor Rajat Kapoor plays two versions of one man. It’s fascinating how the literary device of two identical-looking characters has gradually made its way into from Western theatre to Indian popular cinema, and found a permanent home here. When Dilip Kumar appeared as the titular brothers in Ram Aur Shyam (1967), one weak and the other strong, he was merely following in the footsteps of NT Rama Rao in the Telugu film Ramudu Bheemudu (1964). Variations on which we would see again and again, like in the Hema Malini starrer Seeta Aur Geeta (1972), and nearly every big star — from Amitabh Bachchan in Don (1978) to Shah Rukh Khan in its 2006 remake — will point to a double-role movie as proof of their acting chops.
Here are some of our favourite double roles.
Shammi Kapoor in China Town (1962)
There are two reasons to look past director Shakti Samanta attempting to pass Madan Puri off as one Mr. Wong and giving characters names like Ching Lee (M.B. Shetty with shaved eyebrows, in a Chinaman outfit) and Chin Chin Choo. One is Helen, who lights up the screen as Suzy, the gangster’s moll. The other is Shammi Kapoor in a double role and multiple, ridiculous disguises. Kapoor plays Mike and Shekhar, the bichhde-huey (long-separated) twins at the heart of Samanta’s thriller. Shekhar is a singer from Darjeeling who follows his girlfriend to Calcutta and gets roped into the police’s efforts to crack a smuggling racket based out of Chinatown. Mike is one of the gangsters. His intro scene has him lounging in a bathtub and rejecting a white towel in favour of a colourful one (“Mike ko sab rangeen cheezon ka shaukh hai [Mike has a fondness for all things colourful],” he tells us, referring to himself in third person). Both Mike and Shekhar allow Kapoor to overact his heart out. It’s a great reminder of how being over the top can work like a charm if the actor is charismatic enough.
Kamal Haasan in Apoorva Sagodharargal (1989)
A story of twins separated at birth, the premise of Apoorva Sagodharargal may sound like the king of all cliches. The 1989 film, however, is anything but that. At a time when there was no CGI in Tamil cinema, Kamal Haasan acted as a man with dwarfism and left the audience open-mouthed. How director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao pulled this off has been the subject of many discussions. Haasan had to tie up his legs and walk on his knees with specially designed shoes for some of the shots, a move that doctors said could potentially damage his legs forever. Still, the actor took the chance. He also had to hold his hands in a certain way to match the size of his legs. His funny-sad-melancholic-twisted clown Appu is an unforgettable character — and so are his inventive murders that range from using a circus tiger to a ball machine. In this revenge drama, Appu seeks out his father’s (also played by Haasan) killers and finishes them off one by one. But his twin, mechanic Raja (a regular sized Haasan) who is unaware of Appu’s existence, is blamed for the murders. Plenty of mistaken identity humour there, and it still works three decades later. If Haasan walked around with his legs tied up as Appu, he swung it like a dream as Raja. Watch him break into the ‘puli’ dance in ‘Annathe Adurar’ for a sample.
Sridevi in Chaalbaaz (1989)
My introduction to Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper premise, which had already resulted in more than one successful adaptation by an Indian film by then, Pankaj Parashar’s ChaalBaaz (1989) affected me more than I could have imagined at the time. One of those Zee Cinema films that I saw on a lazy Sunday afternoon (while most probably dodging homework) Sridevi’s double turn as the meek and servile Anju as well as the ball-busting, beer-guzzling Manju, remains one of the most wholesome film-viewing experiences from my childhood. Especially because of how believable Sridevi feels as both the perpetually trembling damsel and as her own saviour with colourful clothes and personality. Props to Anupam Kher and Rohini Hattangadi for playing the “evil” relatives, who routinely abuse and gaslight Anju with just the right amount of campy relish. Thanks to ChaalBaaz, I knew what justice looked and sounded like: light bouncing off Manju’s glossy make-up, and the crack of her whip. A few years later, when I saw something similar happening in Kishen Kanhaiya (1990) – it wouldn’t have the same impact. Anil Kapoor obviously couldn’t recreate the quivering voice of Sridevi and the few drops of tears she would shed, even while she whipped the living daylights out of her abusive guardian relatives.
Prashanth in Jeans (1998)
Director Shankar toys with technology and storytelling as though it were the most malleable thing. In Jeans he gave us two Prashanths, twin brothers, to a father (Nassar) who is one-half of a twin pair. The father promised himself, in a moment of drama that is given its own thumping backstory, that his children would only marry twins, and so Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s character has to pretend to be twins in order to be with the love of her life — one of the Prashanths. The head spins, but to AR Rahman’s music that sings of Aishwarya Rai as the eighth wonder of the world, visuals of America at a time when it was both rare and cool, and drama that moves at such a swift pace with pungency and poignancy, you would be a fool to stop and question. Besides, where else would you see Aishwarya Rai Bachchan shape-shift into a globe, a pencil, a spinning top, a scroll, and finally, a skeleton?
Shahid Kapoor in Kaminey (2009)
Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey might be best remembered for its brilliant music score – who wasn’t singing ‘Dhan Te Nan’ back then? But the film, reminiscent of Tarantino and Coen Brothers in its treatment, also gave us a memorable Shahid Kapoor as twin brothers Guddu and Charlie. While Bhardwaj uses costumes and personalities to differentiate between the two – Guddu is a sweet, honest-to-god man while Charlie is an ambitious small-time gangster – it is their individual speech impediment that sets them apart from the hordes of Bollywood twins. Guddu is given a good old stutter, overcoming this barrier only while singing, and Charlie is given the hilarious quirk of pronouncing ‘s’ as ‘f’, adding a bit of humour to the menace of his demeanour. The two characters capitalise on Kapoor’s strengths: Guddu is very much the ‘chocolate boy’ everyone had come to associate Kapoor with until then and Charlie becomes the tool to shed this image – it is easy to glimpse Udta Punjab’s Tommy Singh or Haider’s Haider in his unhinged violence.
The cherry on top? Shahid Kapoor is crush-worthy as both characters.
Suriya in Vaaranam Aayiram (2008) and 24 (2016)
Suriya has done a lot of double roles, out of which Vaaranam Aayiram and 24 are quite memorable. Both these films brought out the best in the actor. In Vaaranam Aayiram, he plays Krishnan and his son Surya, and their emotional conversations are some of the most impactful scenes in the film. Mind you, not many can beat this duo in romance. Be it Krishnan winning the love of Malini (Simran) in Mundhinam Parthene or Surya’s love at first sight in Nenjukkul Peidhidum, the film’s songs paired with Suriya’s expression never go out of trend. From their pickup lines to sentimental values, both the characters are so similar yet experience very different things in life.
24 has Suriya play three roles. His first villain role as Athreya in this film set the precedent for the much-loved Rolex in Vikram. Suriya plays a scientist named Dr. Sethuraman, his evil twin Athreya and Sethuraman’s son Manikandan (Mani) who is a watch mechanic. The central concept of 24 is time travel and all the three characters appear time and again in the film. While Sethuraman is innocent and serious, his son Mani is more quirky and fun to watch. But what makes this film special is Athreya and his time games. With his wicked smiles and deadly glares, the character showed the world how versatile Suriya could be.
Kangana Ranaut in Tanu Weds Manu Returns (2015)
The beauty about Kangana Ranaut’s performance in Tanu weds Manu Returns is that the double role lies entirely in the eyes of the beholder. On the one hand, she plays the titular Tanu – the classic manic pixie dream girl now shackled by domestic un-bliss – who wants to escape a dysfunctional marriage with Manu. On the other hand, she plays Datto, a young Haryanvi student-athlete who the embattled Manu soon falls for. Her Datto is such an uncannily distinct turn that we slowly understand how her (facial) resemblance to Tanu might perhaps be Manu’s mental projection of his attachment to his soon-to-be-ex-wife Tanu. In the real world, Datto probably looks very different from Tanu, but he’s going through a phase where he is looking for closure for his crumbling marriage in the most unlikely of avenues. Ranaut’s skill makes Datto look just about similar enough for a husband to miss his wife and just about dissimilar enough for a man to grow feelings for a new woman. Rarely has there been such a perceptively conceived, crafted and performed double-role in modern Hindi cinema.
Vijay in Bigil (2019)
Exploring dual roles is not something new for Tamil filmmaker Atlee, who has toyed with the idea in Theri— the Vijay starrer explores the duality of a person in metaphorical form — and Mersal, which features Vijay in a triple role (of that of a father and his two identical sons, born years apart). Questionable science apart, Mersal handled the visual trifecta with some amount of fun. But one of Atlee’s best attempts at the double role phenomenon is arguably in Bigil. While the film essentially follows the life of a women’s football coach Michael Rayappan, the sports drama comes alive in scenes that trace the relationship between Michael and his ageing mob-boss father Rayappan (played by — no points for guessing — Vijay). Rayappan is a friendly Robin Hood type in his neighbourhood, a ruffian to the baddies, and a softie when it comes to his son, his well-being and passion for football. Rayappan’s biggest fear is Michael turning into him, something which he unwittingly witnesses in an emotional intermission. His stutter-laced dialogue ‘Cupp-u mukkiyam bigil-u’ (‘Winning the cup is important, Bigil’) might have rightfully become instant meme fodder, but it’s also perhaps a symbol of a father yearning for a better life for his son.
Gulshan Devaiah in Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2019)
The hero doesn’t have exclusive rights over the double role — remember Paresh Rawal as Ramgopal Bajaj and his evil twin Teja in Andaz Apna Apna? So in Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, a film that looks at commercial Indian film tropes with a fondness while also giving them a spin, in which Gulshan Devaiah plays Mani, a one-legged karate legend who once took on 100 men in local tournaments — video tapes of which Abhimanyu Dasani’s daydreaming crimefighter grows up watching — and his evil twin Jimmy, a banana chips munching, soda sipping don who wears red sunglasses and throws entertaining insults at his brother (At one point, he calls him ‘PT master’). Their backstory – in a Tamil-dominated Mumbai neighbourhood – unfolds over a faux SPB style song, ‘Life Mein Fair Chance Kiska’, and Bala is fair in his characterisations: while Mani is a straightjacket, he is no saint, crippled by the guilt that he wronged his brother when he was in jail (he slept with his girlfriend); and Jimmy is a product of the oldest tale of two brothers, that of being neglected by a parent. Devaiah is in top form, particularly as the charismatic Jimmy, who is a potent mix of comic timing and menace.