As a country and a culture, we are so used to movies centred on a lead actor and actress, that great ensemble films are relatively rarer to come by. So it’s even more rewarding, and pleasurable, when you have multi-character films with a consistently good cast, where it’s more teamwork than individual brilliance, where each face, regardless the screen time, is cast with care and thought. With newer directors around, and with casting getting more professional and streamlined, that is changing for the better. That’s why a mainstream Hindi film such as Gully Boy is never just about Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt, but a fabulous overall cast that includes character-actors old and new such as Vijay Raaz and Vijay Varma and new discoveries such as Siddhanth Chaturvedi.
For this week’s list, we decided to think along those lines, rack our brains to come up with our favourite ensemble films in Indian cinema, across languages Hindi, Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, and English.
So many of my favourite “multi-starring” Hindi films come to mind: Dil Dhadakne Do, Monsoon Wedding, Dil Chahta Hai, Rang De Basanti, Hera Pheri, Lagaan. But I genuinely felt a shift in the art of casting – where every single face, no matter how big or small, mattered – with the advent of Anurag Kashyap and, namely, the Gangs of Wasseypur films. The Paatal Loks and Delhi Crimes of the world owe a debt to the way GoW paved the way for merit-based performers. Many of us got our first real glimpse of underutilized greats like Rajkummar Rao, Pankaj Tripathi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Vineet Kumar Singh, Vipin Sharma and Jaideep Ahlawat. Except for Manoj Bajpayee in the first and Nawaz in the second, virtually everyone was a “side character,” and not a single one (not even the familiar Jameel Khan) was miscast in the original 319-minute gangland epic. – Rahul Desai
Kumbalangi Nights (2019)
Every character (and the actor playing the part) fit like a glove into the larger design of the film. Of course veterans like Soubin Shahir and Fahadh Faasil delivered stellar performances (Faasil, in fact, was so good that he makes the clumsiest part of the film — the climax — believable). But also look at the others — Anna Ben as Babymol or Grace Antony as her elder sister Simi or the electric Shane Nigam as Bobby. Each one was stellar. Which is one of the many things that makes this film such a rewarding experience. – Anupama Chopra
Ami Thumi (2017)
When you look at Mohana Krishna Indraganti’s filmography, you tend to pick the best of the best, i.e. Ashta Chamma and Sammohanam. It’s natural because the filmmaker is known for these two works more than anything else. But tucked away amidst these two pillars is Ami Thumi, a wonderful screwball comedy. Even when every character goes overboard, you won’t feel like you’re watching a 1950s drama. It’s basically a comedy of errors that’s headlined by a delightful mix of actors –- Eesha Rebba, Vennela Kishore, Adivi Sesh, Srinivas Avasarala, Tanikella Bharani, Aditi Myakal, Jogini Shyamala Devi, etc. The most important aspect of this film is that all the characters have complete arcs. Hence, all the actors are at the height of their powers. Ami Thumi is a terrific, nouveau Telugu ensemble comedy that’ll be cherished by the masses in the coming decades. – Karthik Keramalu
Sudani From Nigeria (2018)
When one talks of movies with great acting overall, one first thinks of the films of either the Coen Brothers or Martin Scorsese where even the junior artistes come with an Oscar nomination or two. But Sudani From Nigeria is the opposite of that. Apart from Soubin, there’s not a single other actor we were familiar with. Even Soubin, until this film, was considered a talented comic actor and not much more. What this film did brilliantly is give us a set of characters that made us instantly fall in love with the actors who played them, even when we didn’t know they were. So it’s not just Majeed’s mother and her best friend that worked, but even his auto rickshaw driver best friend with a heart of gold. Everyone and I mean everyone worked their magic to make us truly believe in this intercontinental story about friendship, family and of course, football. – Vishal Menon
Monsoon Wedding (2001)
Mira Nair’s film about a big fat, expensive Punjabi wedding is possibly one of the best examples of ensemble acting in Indian cinema. There’s Naseeruddin Shah as Lalit Verma, whose Delhi elite sophistication is offset by his desperation to get his daughter arranged-married. The winsome romance between Vijay Raaz, the wedding organiser and Tillotama Shome, the house maid. A cocky young Randeep Hooda as the Australia-return nephew and Shefali Shah, as an unmarried woman who reminds you of an older cousin. Rajat Kapoor as the borderline creepy and revered Tej Uncle. Each character is immaculately cast. You can see the influence of Monsoon Wedding in the more recent mainstream ensemble films such as Kapoor & Sons and Dil Dhadakne Do in the way it pivots on the Indian family and exposes the rotten insides of its patriarchal structure. – Sankhayan Ghosh
Thevar Magan (1992)
The Godfather is usually hailed as the film with the ultimate acting ensemble. And Kamal Haasan’s superb adaptation, directed by Bharathan, is the Tamil equivalent. A performance is only as good as the writing, and here, the screenplay imbues the smallest of characters (say, the bigamist uncle played by Kaka Radhakrishnan) with so much colour and flavour that the entire cast comes out shining. I am fond of this film for many reasons, but especially for giving Sivaji Ganesan a role he could be remembered by in the twilight of his storied career. The interplay between his character and his son (Kamal), the gradual thawing of the Kamal-Revathy relationship, the Gautami character’s flip-out when she discovers her boyfriend is now married… Even Nasser’s magnificent beak seems to be delivering a hell of a performance in the close-ups. – Baradwaj Rangan
It’s difficult to direct a film that revolves around children, especially one that sees them becoming activists for a cause with the potential to turn shrill, like language supremacy. There’s always the risk of them becoming mini-adults in performance, rather than retain their child-like curiosity and innocence about the ways of the world. From Sampath as the adorable Mammootty and Ranjan as Praveena, who repeats Class 7 year after year and is in the flush of first love, to Saptha as Pallavi, Praveena’s crush, the film is teeming with actors who are the characters. Add to this mix, the ever-dependable Anant Nag and Ramesh Bhat playing the two Anantha Padmanabhas, the delightful Prakash Thuminad as the snack-loving Bhujanga and Pramod Shetty as Shantarama Upadhyaya, Pallavi’s father and Yakshagana artiste who’s ever ready for a ugra horatta (angry protest), and you have a film that you see as a reflection of life on screen. Yes, the story, screenplay, direction and the film’s intent are all winners, but without this bunch of actors and the way they nailed the sing-song accent, you would not have cared much for the lone Kannada medium school in the border town of Kasargod. – Subha J Rao