Sep 20, 2008

Columnists - Vir Sanghvi;Roles that went on to make movie history

It’s funny how so much of the media hype surrounding the release of the new Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) focused on Harrison Ford. Was he young enough to play the iconic role? Would he still be convincing in the action sequences? And so on.

Funny, because the role was not written for Ford. Indiana Jones grew out of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas’ desire to make “a James Bond movie without all the gadgetry”. They tested several actors for the part but their heart was set on Tom Selleck. Unfortunately for Selleck, he had signed on to star in the TV series, Magnum PI, and his network would not release him — not even for Spielberg and Lucas. Desperate for a leading man, Lucas fell back on Ford who had zoomed to stardom in the Star Wars movies. Ford was not wild about Indiana Jones but then, he’d never been wild about Star Wars either. Spielberg and Lucas thought he had the necessary physicality for the role and persuaded him to star in Raiders of the Lost Ark. When that film became a hit, the Indiana Jones franchise was created and the role became indelibly associated with Ford.
Casting is one of those Hollywood mysteries. The right cast can make a movie soar. The wrong casting can destroy it. When Mike Nichols was making the movie of Nora Ephron’s best-seller Heartburn, he cast Mandy Patinkin in the Carl Bernstein role (the book was about the break-up of Ephron’s marriage to Bernstein). Patinkin walked out and Nichols affected not to mind, signing Jack Nicholson, one of the world’s biggest stars, instead. But Nicholson was too Irish for the role, never quite made his character seem convincing and his performance sank the picture. Patinkin was no star but he would have been a better choice.
Often, stars who decline roles because they realize they are wrong for them, do big favours to unknowns. David Lean wanted to cast Albert Finney as TE Lawrence in his Lawrence of Arabia. When Finney turned him down, he went for the unknown Peter O’Toole who looked nothing like the real Lawrence (who was something of a midget.) The casting worked and who can now think of the movie without thinking of O’Toole’s performance?
One other star turned Lawrence of Arabia down. Lean’s original choice for Sharif Ali was Dilip Kumar. Kumar thought abut the offer and then decided that he’d rather be king of the Bombay film industry than co-star to some Western unknown. So, Lean cast Omar Sharif who few people had heard of, even in West Asia.
Many years later, I asked Kumar if he regretted turning down the role that made Sharif an international star. He said he didn’t. But surely, I persisted, he must regret not becoming an internationally renowned actor. He was ambivalent. “How do you know I would have been convincing as a Arab?” he asked. “Maybe the film would not have done so well if they had cast me.”
Lean had bad luck with Indians, anyway. In the 1960s he was slated to direct Gandhi (which Richard Attenborough made two decades later, eventually) and asked Alec Guinness to play the title role, claiming that there was no Indian actor who could do justice to the character. The project floundered but, in the 1980s, when Lean made A Passage to India, he cast Guinness as Professor Godbole, a horrific piece of miscasting that turned the movie into a laughing stock.
But Lean was merely advancing the Western preference for white actors in brown-face that was normal practice in the film industry in those days. In Nine Hours to Rama, about Gandhiji’s assassination, Nathuram Godse was played by the German Horst Buchholz and Robert Morley played a character based on Morarji Desai! Even when Attenborough finally made Gandhi (with Indian money) he refused to cast an Indian in the lead role choosing the stage actor Ben Kingsley over say, Naseeruddin Shah (who, I think, would have been much better) and claiming that Kingsley’s Indian ancestry meant that the role had gone to an Indian.
Casting is less important in Hindi movies. Hrishikesh Mukherjee wanted to make Anand in the 1950s with Raj Kapoor. Eventually, he made it with Rajesh Khanna but it is hard to see whether the casting improved the film. Even when Karan Johar produced a virtual remake in Kal Ho Na Ho, with Shah Rukh Khan, the choice of lead actor made little difference to the subject.
On the other hand, Amitabh Bachchan owes his career to casting choices. Prakash Mehra offered the lead role in Zanjeer to the entire Bombay industry (including Jeetendra and Raj Kumar). It was only when they all turned him down that he cast Bachchan. Today it is impossible to imagine any other actor in that role — and it became the first rung on Bachchan’s journey to superstardom.
Similarly, Bachchan was not supposed to be in Sholay. While other actors were being considered, he spoke to Dharmendra who had already been cast. Dharmendra is the sort of man who never turns down anybody who asks for a favour, so he agreed to get Ramesh Sippy to cast Bachchan as his co-star.
But the real enigma of Sholay is: What would Danny Denzongpa have been like as Gabbar Singh? He was Ramesh Sippy’s original choice and it was only when Danny said he was unavailable that an unknown actor called Amjad Khan got his first break. My guess, for what it’s worth, is that Danny would have played Gabbar differently, but that he would have been as good as Amjad was.
These days I’m less and less convinced that casting matters in Hindi movies. Most films have little in the way of characterization and the roles are written so that any actor can play them. Only in Hollywood does casting still matter.
If you don’t believe me, pull out a DVD of the second Tim Burton Batman movie and see Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman. Then, watch Halle Berry’s version from the eponymous movie.
You’ll see the difference a good actor can make.

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