There's a throwaway moment in WAR (2019) where Hrithik Roshan's Kabir, a RAW agent, camps out on a boat to spy on a diamond merchant with dubious connections, while seeming to be holidaying in Malta. Wearing a yellow beach shirt with rolled up sleeves and a white hat, a fishing rod, a pair of binoculars and packaged juice for company, he seems to be munching on some snack. The muffled beats of electronic music can be heard from a distance. Seeing his subject do nothing but frolic by the pool in his seaside villa with bikini-clad women, he yawns. He has spent all day doing this, but with no results. Such is the Life of Spy.
The scene lasts a few seconds — soon, Kabir receives a phone call from his boss and gets going. But it gives off more, for the lack of a better word, chill vibes than what Roshan had managed to convey in all of Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2012), a hangout/road trip movie, where he came off stiffer and much less fun than the other two actors (Abhay Deol and Farhan Akhtar). One of Roshan's big problems as a performer has been that he would always seem so hyper, even if he was sincere, incapable of having a good time on screen even when he is supposed to.
In last year's WAR and Super 30, he displayed a cool aloofness that signals a departure from his nostril-flaring-cheekbone-quivering days. The result is a subtler, improved actor who seems to have learnt to play with soft hands. In Super 30 — a mid-sized commercial hit — Roshan lands heavy-duty scenes with a lightness of touch, and light scenes with a spontaneity that has been missing from his earlier performances. And his flecks of grey and "weathered gorgeousness" drew drooling admiration in WAR — one of the biggest blockbusters of 2019 — where he burns up the screen with effortless charisma.
Until a year ago it had seemed that Roshan was heading towards obsolescence. At a time when the idea of Hindi film heroism is being redefined, he had began to feel like a star out of time. He didn't seem to have the smarts of the younger lot — Ranbir Kapoor, Ranveer Singh and Ayushmann Khurrana, actors who no longer subscribed to the rule book — in terms of choice of roles and directors. Neither did he have the legacy of the Khans, with whom he was put on the same pedestal after the overnight sensation of Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai, his debut film, that had released 20 years ago, a pop culture signpost for the 90s generation.
[After Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai], Roshan wasn't dubbed the next big thing, he was the big thing itself… It was something akin to what would happen if our deification of screen gods met teenybopper hysteria met India winning the cricket world cup.
Roshan wasn't dubbed the next big thing, he was the big thing. He was on the cover of the India Today magazine (which began with an anecdote of two young women ramming their car into a tree — after one of them pressed the accelerator instead of the brake — because they saw the actor chatting with his friend on the street outside his Juhu home). Some teenagers were detained by the Calcutta police after they were caught trying to travel to Mumbai to catch a glimpse of the star. Fan clubs were formed to rival those of Shah Rukh's. It was something akin to what would happen if our deification of screen gods met teenybopper hysteria met India winning the cricket world cup. Gangsters, who had demanded extortion money after the film's mega success, shot at Rakesh Roshan, his father. There were riots in Nepal because of something controversial the actor had said in a news channel. All after just one film.
Then he spectacularly imploded. There were a string of flops. In many of them, Roshan came across as a clueless dope in strangely jumpy variations of the suave Raj from Kaho Na… Pyaar Hai. Watching him play those characters, one often felt an itch to magically enter the movie and hand him a doob, just so he could relax a bit. Roshan improved a lot, cementing his position as a big star with films such as Koi Mil Gaya (2003), Krrish (2006) and Dhoom 2 (2006). But even in his best outings, one rarely got a sense of a personality — he was probably a sweet chap, but a bit boring. He gave the impression of a family-friendly star clinging on to his image for dear life. There seemed to be no dark side to him.
As if celebrity's cruel way of balancing things out, the last few years saw Roshan's public image take one blow after another, his reputation dragged through the mud. His divorce was accompanied by whispers of adultery.
And then Kangana Ranaut went public with unsavoury details of their alleged relationship and eventual fallout, which led to a series of suits and counter-suits, leaked emails and counter-allegations. We don't know what the truth is, and time has taught us not to take everything Ranaut says at face value, but the optics of it — it's around the time the conversation around nepotism in the Hindi film industry was gathering momentum — made Roshan look terrible. He got flak for working with Vikas Bahl (director of Super 30), a prime accused in the #MeToo movement. In the middle of all this, the actor underwent a brain surgery and his father was diagnosed with cancer.
His Kabir in WAR comes without a backstory. But it's as if Roshan carries with him his entire screen and personal history. When he reveals his identity to Vaani Kapoor's Naina, she says she suddenly doesn't know who he is. Maybe he is married. Maybe he was once married. He doesn't say anything. He probably had a happier life once. But it's been a while that he has lived like a lone wolf. Nowadays, between hunting down international terrorists in cool ways, he likes to spend time with the five-year-old Ruhi — as in when he pays her a visit to her soccer practice in school. Sometimes he tells her a thing or two about winning and losing.
Like Kabir in WAR, Anand in Super 30 is a variation of the saviour/extraordinary human prototype that Roshan has played multiple times. But it gets its colour from the fact that the actor — who turned 45 last week — is of a certain age.
He's got a bit of that washed-up movie star thing going for him, a little roughed up on the inside. He is part gruff-coach, part intimidating college senior to Tiger Shroff's Khalid, with who his let-me-show-how-you-do-it-son big brother riff-off is at the heart of WAR. Keeping with the meta tone of the movie, the actor plays it with a knowing, inner wink. He even has a 'Woh is chehre ko pehchante hai' moment from Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai — also a movie about replaced faces. It helps that that face is Shroff's, who idolises him, and looks like a version of the earlier Hrithik.
Like Kabir in WAR, Anand in Super 30 is a variation of the saviour/extraordinary human prototype that Roshan has played multiple times. But it gets its colour from the fact that the actor — who turned 46 last week — is of a certain age. To his students he is 'Anand sir', their maths teacher who has dedicated his life to the welfare of underprivileged children. Roshan's Anand Kumar — based on the real life mathematics educator — can't undo his good looks, but does away with baggages of his persona. When the students break into rapturous song and dance on a stage in the streets of Patna — a challenge he gives them to overcome their fear of English — he stays away, trying to hide in the background. Only towards the end, when he thinks no one's watching, does he break into an impromptu jig. He doesn't mesmerise us with his moves but shakes a leg like an everyman dancing to a Holi song. And in the climax, when his character is shot, it's his students who fight the goons to save the day.
In the past, even when Roshan has acted in relatively 'serious' roles — such as the Mughal emperor in Jodhaa Akbar or that of a paraplegic magician in Guzaarish — some dance or action has always been built into the character. But this seems like a deliberate attempt on the actor's part to de-mythologise Hrithik Roshan. "20 years since the well-packaged package was delivered!," he wrote on Twitter while responding to a user congratulating him on the back-to-back successes of Super 30 and WAR, "I'm now focussing on unwrapping every bit with each film. Thanks for the motivation."
20 years on, the actor seems to have found the thing that has eluded him the most: self awareness.
In a revealing interview with film critic Anupama Chopra, Roshan seemed to acknowledge where he had been going wrong. He seemed like a different guy, who probably watched that viral episode from the comedy show Pretentious Movie Review and had a good laugh. He almost dismissed all his life's work leading up to Super 30 and WAR — with the exception of Koi Mil Gaya. "I was pretending, up until Kaabil (2017)," he said. And when one of the audience members — many of who were aspiring actors — asked Roshan how to play characters that he had little in common with, he advised, "Just act. Don't feel it. Don't be it. It's possible."
He said he has stopped prepping too much before a shot — Roshan's painfully sincere approach to his work has often earned him the backhanded compliment of 'hardworking'. He has appointed an acting coach, who accompanies him to his shoots. His main job is to tell Roshan if he is recycling his stock expressions. Evidently, it's working.
Two days before the start of the shoot of WAR, when it struck him that Kabir lacked character, Roshan huddled together with his acting coach and director Siddharth Anand to work on making him interesting. They went over a number of films where the central character had shades of grey, and took a leaf particularly out of a scene in Taxi Driver. "I'm finally feeling the flight of an actor," he said, "I'm at a crazy place in my head right now. I'm at a juncture where some change is about to happen."
Roshan hasn't signed a film after WAR. I read somewhere that he may opt for a quick-fix remake of a South Indian film — lest he is left with no film in 2020. I hope it's not true. Maybe he should do a go-for-broke indie action film, or do something uncharacteristically radical. He used a word in the interview, which he later poked fun at: "reckless". I like the sound of it. Reckless Hrithik.