There is something striking about men written by women. Constructed from the rubble and flotsam of contemporary masculinity, they become capable of sudden grace, strapping sex appeal, mopey arrogance, and striding confidence. Writers and directors Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti have been dishing out such characters since Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd (2007). The films they’ve made since — Luck By Chance (2009), Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011), Talaash (2012), Dil Dhadakne Do (2015) among others — segued into a production house, Tiger Baby Films, which has taken that legacy forward with Gully Boy (2019), Made In Heaven, and Eternally Confused And Eager For Love.
Here are some of our favorite characters that brewed out of their collaboration.
From sleeping with his best friend’s girlfriend to throwing said friend’s phone from a car, Imran from Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara has a peculiar sense of humour. Having just learnt that the now-dead man who raised him was not actually his father and that the sperm donor fled the scene when his mother was pregnant, Imran is the beautiful, curly-haired poster child for daddy issues. Afraid of vulnerability, he confides in a Spaniard who can’t understand Hindi, after having sex with her. Our man is a copywriter by day, a poet by night and a charmer 24-hour round. But beneath the charisma and the raspy voice is a person who only understands the burden of his own betrayal when struck by Judas’s kiss. Above all, however, Imran remains memorable as the creative force who birthed Bagwati and wrote the Diamond Biscuit jingle.
So much about whom a show considers most vital, most exciting can be gauged from which character is given the strongest arc. In Dahaad, sub-inspector Kailash Parghi is nudged, slowly and surely, from being a corrupt, bribe-taking officer willing to sacrifice his colleagues to get a promotion, into a sensitive team player. Dahaad’s finest moment — emotionally rich, tonally tense — is given to him, riding a bike on an empty stretch of curving road in the middle of Rajasthan. The question of will-he-won’t-he sacrifice pumps the scene with adrenaline. His crisis of paternity — he is worried about bringing a child into this evil world — helps him disentangle his professional crisis, bringing him closer to his colleagues. There is nothing like a character we begin to dislike, but grow to love, and in the process, see his limitations for what they are.
Kamal Mehra’s sharp moustache and crisp suits fool us for a while, but a wonderful thing about Akhtar’s shrewd observation is how ‘meta’ her casting ends up feeling. What seemed like an Amitabh Bachchan-in-Baghban type prestige character at first, reveals itself to be the complete opposite. Kamal Mehra’s reckless ways as a philanderer, his pride at being “self-made”, and his obsession with remaining young-at-heart all seem to borrow from the myth of Anil Kapoor the star. And Kapoor the actor delivers, doing justice to the scenes handed to him by Akhtar, varying pitches to showcase what a wonderfully dense, complex character Kamal is. He’s at his hammy best when he gets carried away and plants a peck on Parmeet Sethi’s cheek (reminiscent of his mischievous Ram Lakhan (1989) days). There’s righteous rage in his voice as he grabs Rahul Bose by his neck and reminds us of Trimurti (1995). His tender scenes with Shefali Shah feel like a hark back to the softer moments from films like Virasat (1997) and 1942: A Love Story (1994).
Moeen Arif has his back to the camera, walking down the streets of Mumbai in the dead of the night when Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy opens. In the next shot, he’s jacking a car suavely. He lights a sutta from behind his ear. “I thought I’d take you losers for a spin today,” he says. Murad unwittingly steps inside the car, as the friends share a lighter moment, listening to some cringe rap music. Mooen is that one childhood friend that we all have — he remembers everything, exists to make fun of you (“Did some current pass through your hair?” he asks Murad as he’s styling his hair before a video shoot), a touch out of sync, but always snapping you back to reality. Mooen calls Murad out when needed (“I see right through you,” he tells Murad, catching him in a moment of cowardice), forgives him for judging his place in the warped fabric of society, and makes the ultimate sacrifice for a friend. Murad might make fancy new friends and a new life, but he cannot escape Mooen just as he cannot escape Dharavi. He’s a beautifully flawed support system, without whom Murad’s incredible success story would feel incomplete.
The most perceptive filmmakers often ensure that the casting is half the character written. Just like Zoya Akhtar relies on our perception of Ranveer Singh’s loud off-screen image to present him as disarmingly quiet characters, she also channels the angst of the criminally underutilized Arjun Mathur to create wonderfully simmering portraits of peripheral masculinity. It’s no coincidence that Mathur excels as Abhimanyu Gupta, the resentful theatre artist in a movie (Luck By Chance) full of flashy Bollywood aspirants. It’s also fitting that he excels as Karan Mehra, the gay wedding planner in a show (Made In Heaven) full of formalised desire. In both cases, he is an insider by association but an outsider by design. The uncanny trust between maker and actor is evident in the way these men are filmed — as average humans in an abusive relationship with the society they can see through. They want to fit in and stand out at once, but the cruel irony — as platformed so well by the two productions — is that they are both drowned and propelled by the bitterness of being unseen.
It's the Big Daddy of cameos — Zoya Akhtar saved the best for last when she kept Shah Rukh Khan’s appearance for the final act of Luck By Chance. Akhtar gave the actor lines that draw on Khan’s off-screen charm, presenting him as someone who isn’t distracted by the hurly burly of Bollywood. He is everything you want a star to be — dimpled with confidence but still grounded, lounging on the couch of an upscale bar like Cleopatra’s desi cousin and yet approachable as he gently advises Vikram (Farhan Akhtar) to not lose sight of who and what is important. “I can't even imagine what it must be like for you,” says Vikram, who has just tasted fame and success. “It's insane,” replies Khan, narrowing his eyes for a moment and packing more acting genius into those two words than he managed in all of Ra.One (2011). Give thanks to Akhtar for making Shah Rukh Khan the ultimate voice of wisdom.
There are very few instances in Talaash when we see Inspector Suri in plain clothes. His crisply-ironed uniform is an extension of his stone-faced determination as a lawman but it’s also a front to hide his internal anguish. That Suri is always in uniform is an indication that he barely goes home – the place that once held his happy marriage, before it was crushed under the weight of his young son’s death. Suri is a man’s man – he blames himself for the accident, calls it his own “carelessness” and assumes his wife blames him. It can seem predictable, then, that he forms a connection with a tantalising sex worker, Rosie (Kareena Kapoor Khan). But Kagti paints their bond as erotically-charged but chaste, making it a space for Suri to ask for things that seemed too difficult to ask out of a loved one: A caress on the head and the reassuring weight of another human being on the bed. It lets him stray, just a little bit, from the tight line he walks. His disbelief, even anger, at the idea of his son being able to communicate from the other side speaks to the vigilance with which he commands himself.