Kaamyaab review: Sanjai Mishra ‘leads’ the charge for Bollywood’s unsung heroes

Director Hardik Mehta and Sanjai Mishra give a fitting tribute to the forlorn actors of yore

Rating: 4 / 5

By Mayur Lookhar

“Darshakon ke dil mein sirf hero baste hain. Hamari koi pehchan nahin,” (It’s the heroes who are close to audiences’ hearts. We [supporting cast] have no identity), a sullen Sudhir [Sanjai Mishra] tells in his maiden interview that’s come after spending over four decades in the Hindi film industry [now popularly known as Bollywood].

For a man who himself doesn’t sound upbeat in his first interview, the journalist, too, loses interest. Fate deals a cruel blow as an untimely power outage results in this interview never seeing the light of the day.  The journalist though opens Sudhir’s eyes to an important statistic that the veteran actor was oblivious to.  Babulal Chandola, better known by his screen name Sudhir, is on the cusp of personal glory.  He’s one short of having 500 film titles to his name.  Quite a miracle that IMDB (Internet Movie Database] was able to find 499 titles that feature a forlorn ‘70s, ‘80s unheralded actor, often labelled as sidekick.

He’s spent much of his life playing the henchman.  The odd memorable role was as Shera a cliched villain who threw more verbal punches than bullets. Shera’s trademark dialogue is “enjoying life, aur kya option hain”. Having lived through most of his career without any option or choice, Sudhir now dreams to sign off his career with a defining role in his 500 film.  But when most living stars from that era are retired, how many filmmakers would think of casting a forlorn henchman? Sudhir seeks help from his friend actor-turned-casting director Gulati [Deepak Dobriyal]. He does land him a 500 film but things don’t go as Sudhir envisaged.

Sudhir in Dharmatma [1975]

Trapped [2017] co-writer Hardik Mehta comes up with his maiden feature Kaamyaab [2020] a heartening ode to the unsung actors of yore. While he bears the late Sudhir’s name, but Mehta’s principal character in Kaamyaab [2020] resonates with every unheralded actors of the time.  This is no Sudhir biopic. Mehta could have named his principal character after any one of the famous henchmen, ‘character actor’ [as they are bizarrely called].  The name is immaterial, for most of them share familiar tales.   Men like Sudhir [Sanjai Mishra] were labelled as aloos (potatoes] for that’s how they were used in Hindi films.

From ‘70s onwards, formulaic films with primarily revenge themes became extremely popular.  Cliched stories, cliched stars, cliched villains and their cliched henchmen.  While they didn’t really offer any creative satisfaction, but the Sudhirs found work.  While the stars became popular, sadly, the ‘aloo’ cast could never forge an identity for themselves. Five decades later, formulaic films lack the same appeal and the conventional tropes haven’t left much scope for the cliched characters.  Thus artistes like Sudhir continue to remain a footnote in Indian cinema’s history.

It’s no secret that the media then was largely star obsessed and the Sudhirs never got their due credit. Not much has changed today either with the marquee media brands still chasing the stars. And the now dominant PR machinery all the more selling pretty faces to media elites.

Hindi cinema has often prided itself in its pluralism. But a Kaamyaab makes you question if Bollywood truly imbibes the pluralistic spirit. Why is it that artistes like Sudhir never got their due?.  A few years ago, in a conversation with your reviewer, veteran actor Sharat Saxena had shocked us when he alleged color, racial bias in the industry.   Perhaps, in 2020, such prejudices may be passé, but then one is always alarmed as to why do many unheralded names from the past die as loners? Yes, there are social media tributes, but how many yesteryear stars were there to bid goodbye to these ‘character’ artistes, the henchmen at their funerals?

A veteran make-up and hair artiste subtly informs Sudhir [Mishra] of the lonely death of an unheralded actor whose body was only discovered four days later.  A Kaamyaab  [2020] subtly questions Bollywood’s pluralism. But the film is not all about shedding tears, Kaamyaab pays respect to the unheralded artistes.  Many are no more, but Mehta brings few surviving members of the ‘supporting cast’ brigade under one roof.   One is delighted to see the likes of Avtar Gill (huge fan), Birbal, Ramesh Goyal, Manmauji, Manoj Bakshi, Anil Nagrath, late Viju Khote, Guddi Maruti and M. M Faruqui [disrespected by the industry as Lilliput] in one film.  There’s even Shehzad Khan, popularly known as Bhalla from Andaz Apna Apna [1994].

Avtar Gill (L), Birbal, Manmauji (C), M.M. Faruqui (R)

Not many of these names will ring a bell, but google image and you’re likely to say, “Oh, yeah, I’ve seen this guy/lady before”.

Their rendezvous partly reminded of the reunion of super villains from gaming world in Wreck-It Ralph [2012]. The American film though was an animation feature. Here it is our unheralded actors of the yore.

Unlike a Ralph, Sudhir [Mishra] doesn’t want to challenge or rewrite his legacy, but he simply wants that 500 film badly.  Their career is full of struggle but it’s the obsession that often sees them live a life of despair. Unlike many of his contemporaries, money is not an issue for the widower Sudhir. But when this profession becomes an obsession, it challenges personal relationships.  His wife has long left him. The loner Sudhir finds the odd moment of joy when he is around his granddaughter Anu [Kaurwakee Vasistha].  All his daughter Bhavna [Sarika Singh] seeks is for her father to live the rest of his life peacefully and not under any delusion.  

It’s a challenge on the professional front too for Sudhir.  Yesteryear artistes are used to a different work culture, where often scripts were discussed but not brought to the sets. Auditions were largely non-existent and cast was picked through mutual word.  The cliched narratives/characters are passé’ and the organised way of functioning pose a different set of challenge for such artistes. Adaptability is perhaps alien to him.

A late bloomer himself, but Mishra would consider himself fortunate that his career has peaked in an era where good performances aren’t judged by the length of the role or physical traits.  A seasoned campaigner now, Mishra has proven his mettle with powerful performances as a lead in films like Aankhon Dekhi [2012] , Kadvi Hawa [2017]. If not the most successful, Kaamyaab [2020] is perhaps the most satisfying role of his career.  Mishra wins hearts again with an emotionally gripping, virtuoso performance.  Take a bow, Mishra ji.

Sarika Singh comes likes a breath of fresh air.  Deepak Dobriyal has a silly hairdo but he is endearing in his casting director’s avatar. South import Isha Talwar continues to enhance her reputation in Hindi cinema. Talwar plays a struggling actress and Sudhir’s neighbour.  The times have changed, but the challenges for an outsider remains the same.  Talwar epitomises the dreams, the struggles of migrants who strive hard to get that elusive break.  Talwar’s convincing show makes you wonder why don’t we get to see more of her in Bollywood?

Mehta’s story is penned into a gripping, entertaining screenplay by Radhika Anand. There is the odd dip but largely the quality of writing and the performance build consistent engagement.

There’s no real villain in this heartening tale, but the egoistic, haughty guy here is one star Rahul Chopra carrying forward his star father’s legacy.  Rahul is a name that Kaamyaab producer and super star Shah Rukh Khan has carried in many of his iconic films. However, this Rahul is vastly different to the iconic characters played by Khan. What’s common between them though is the stardom. 

 While Kaamyaab is a fitting ode to the unsung actors, but Mehta doesn’t lose sight of the reality.  Sudhir’s swansong doesn’t happen on a film set but at a school annual day.  Sudhir is asked to chip in for the fashionably late Rahul Chopra.  The man puts up a quite an impromptu show hoping it would define his legacy.  After leaving them in splits for a while, the audience immediately turn around as Rahul Chopra walks in.  Well, that is the sad reality of Indian cinema.  We still largely value the pretty faces.  The Sudhirs are still a long way away from getting a grand farewell.  May be, it’s an impossible task to be kaamyaab (successful) in the eyes of the masses but Sanjai Mishra, Hardik Mehta earn immense respect. We owe an apology to the many Sudhirs, but Mishra ji aap hamare dil mein baste hain.

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