Screen Savour:THE INVISIBLES
Apr 11 2014
Junior artistes or “extras” in films have a face despite being faceless
It’s a very irritable feeling when you cannot place a person who looks so familiar, especially when he stands out with this strange behaviour amongst a crowd of drunken regulars. Where could I have seen him? Back at the rented pad, drunk, me and my friend switched on the TV and surfed our way to a channel that was beaming Zanjeer (1973). And suddenly the same man whom we had seen at the bar just a while ago, popped out of the small screen, much younger and handsome, being bashed up by an angry young Amitabh Bachchan along with other baddies!
More than the remarkable coincidence what struck me was the career graph of the junior artist or ‘extra’ as they are called in the film industry. From gracing the screen with a rising star and appearing in countless other movies over three decades, always being at the receiving end of every kind of screen violence in tacky action scenes, to a nondescript, mentally challenged alcoholic at a dingy bar is the stuff that realist literature would revel in; the only difference being that the character arc would involve his journey from being a nonentity to a nonentity and not any fall from grace.
The episode brought back memories of a wonderful documentary on Hindi film extras beamed on television around the same time. The film primarily drew on the life of a man who came to Mumbai in the early 60s with dreams in his eyes. After struggling for a few years, he got his lucky break as a hero against an upcoming young perky heroine called Mumtaz! It was a big production and the press went to town, covering the mahurat and interviewing the debutant pair. But as it happens to so many productions, the film, after a few days of shoot ran out of money and the production stopped.
The actor got hassled. A neighbour advised him to take up roles as extras to sustain his livelihood. While Mumtaz went on to become a major star, her co-star became a faceless member in a faceless crowd, sipping from a glass of artificial wine in every party sequence for the next 30 years, swaying his head to different heroes as they hammered away on the piano, serenading dolled up, buxom heroines with beehive bouffants.
Faceless extras have a way of acquiring an identity over decades, through their countless appearances in countless films, and weave their way into the audience’s collective memory without the audience ever realising it. It’s only through such strange encounters that they suddenly stir the consciousness and they find their fleeting redemption through the recognition of the people who look at them without any awe.
Unlike Mumtaz’s failed co-star, most junior artists though, are not in the game for glamour but basic survival. Most of them have their own guilds and have fixed rates, which are determined by the categories they belong to A, B or C, C being the lowest rung where they appear only in crowd scenes, while A-category junior artists may have the luxury of a few speaking lines.
In recent times, one actor who successfully crossed the perilous path from being a junior artist in one particular scene in Sarfarosh (1999) where he is bashed up by Aamir Khan inside a police station to an actor on the verge of being a major star today, gracing the covers of glossy magazines, is Nawazuddin Siddiqui. The clipping has gone viral on the net, but then, not everybody is as lucky as him.
(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)