My grandmother once told me about her friend, who in the 60s had put up photos of the Telugu actor NTR in the mandiram in her house. NTR had a run of films playing mythological characters — famously Krishna — and in this friend’s house were garlanded stills from Mayabazar. When my grandmother tried to tell her that this was just an actor, and this sort of deification was absurd, the friend replied that NTR had brought her deity to life, as it were — a life beyond what you would find in paintings, idols or poetic descriptions in mythology — a Krishna in the flesh: his mischievous and elusive nature made palpable in body-language, mannerisms and speech. The actor had given her a way of knowing what was previously abstract and unknowable.
Today, our expectations of our actors are more nuanced: we call upon them to illuminate another abstract (and perhaps, ultimately unknowable) idea — the human condition. In The Lunchbox, when the introverted character played by Irrfan gets a letter he does not expect at lunch, he looks around first, to see if someone has noticed or is about to pry before putting on his glasses and reading the letter. We sense the fear of intrusion that dictates his immediate reaction. When his garrulous trainee (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) surprises him by inviting him home for lunch — his instinct is to make awkward excuses to avoid the situation. He has no concrete reason, but we understand. We know this character like we know a friend or a relative, we empathise, and that empathy is engendered in us by a sharp intelligence — the mind of an actor that has synthesised art, life experience, and the study of human behaviour. A person is conjured from small, deliberate strokes — a gesture, a vocal inflection, a glance — and goes on to embed himself into the collective memory of those who’ve watched the film.
What is it we mourn when an actor leaves us too soon? The loss makes us feel we know them, but the majority of us probably don’t. We are quick to speculate about their feelings, their last moments, their real personality based on interviews we might’ve watched, and, maybe, even short interactions we might’ve had with them. But we have no way of knowing what the actor was really feeling when giving an interview or pausing for a selfie. All we have, concretely, are their decisions — their choice of scripts, the exercise of craft which shapes their characters.
In the final act of MS Dhoni: The Untold Story, we are in the dressing room of the 2011 World Cup final. The Indian batting order seems to be in peril — Muttiah Muralitharan is brought in to the attack; Dhoni gets up, begins padding up, and tells his coach he’s going in next, instead of Yuvraj Singh. Sushant Singh Rajput plays this scene with a clinical stoicism — which is a direct contrast to the emotionally overwhelmed relatives and friends in Ranchi the film keeps cutting away to. His performance contextualises the coolness of “Captain Cool”: Dhoni’s clinical intelligence is his drive — it keeps his eyes on the (literal) prize amidst the expectations of his fans and friends, the middle-class pigeonholing by his father, and the emotional curveballs that life throws at him.
Then there is Ishaan in Kai Po Che!, a quick-tempered, energetic young cricketer who fails to make it professionally but identifies a talent for batsmanship in a young boy. Almost an antithesis to the MS in The Untold Story, Ishaan finds Sushant at his most expressive — a character that is all heart. After an altercation with the boy results in Ishaan shoving him to the ground, he insists to his friends: “It wasn’t personal, I want him to play first-class cricket” — there is a madness in his eyes, a wild passion that sells this scene and the motivation of the character: realising his dreams vicariously by making the boy a professional cricketer. Ishaan is the source of the screenplay’s pathos — denied entry into professional cricket due to petty politics, dedicating himself to the making of this boy, and in the end, dying to save him — but this is on paper. On-screen, the character works because of the likeability and earnestness Sushant Singh Rajput infuses in the character through his craft, as well as his screen presence. The effect of a performance is not solely the result of an intellectual exercise: it depends on the actor’s instincts, the contingencies and exigencies of production schedules, the director and the editor’s choice of takes and cuts, but also on aesthetics — the way Sushant Singh Rajput breaks into a smile is one of the reasons Ishaan endears himself to us.
When we lose an actor before their time, there is an uncanny quality that their films take on: there is no continuing or completed filmography to reflect on; Instead, we are left with the promises of unrealised futures — lost futures, the roles that they would’ve gone on to do, succumbing to or escaping the traps of commerce, typecasting, and formula, but also — the loss of a mind that could illuminate areas of our own psyche: someone who could tell us something about ourselves. Isaac Asimov’s famous sci-fi short story Nightfall is about a fictional species on a planet that experiences a sort of perpetual day. At the end of the story, night does fall, and they realise that the universe is much vaster than they had imagined, that there is a world beyond their planetary vicinity — because they can finally see the distant stars. Perhaps, the metonym star does justify itself.