Reel vs Real

Tags: Films

What is it that differentiates a star from an actor?

Reel vs Real
It is more than a week now since actor Priety Zinta registered a police case against former boyfriend and industrialist Ness Wadia, alleging molestation and abuse during an IPL match at Wankhede stadium. The news, with its subsequent twists and turns, continues to hog prime time on television and front pages of most newspapers, arousing the ire of concerned souls and celebrities.

Notwithstanding the issue of veracity, if it was a lovers’ tiff on the threshold of a bitter break-up or a genuine complaint, what it brings into focus is the identity of the protagonist: she is a star! Had Zinta been a bank employee or a schoolteacher, the allegations wouldn’t have made it to the media, like thousands of other incidents that happen silently across the country every day.

Stardom bestows a halo around a person that generates interest and curiosity beyond his or her role on the big screen. The star’s lifestyle, affairs, tantrums, endorsements, even occasional charity work, come to override the characters they play on the screen, rousing intense emotions in fans, often to the extent of fanaticism where they form clubs and build temples. That is what sets a ‘star’ apart from an ‘actor’. It is a phenomenon that has helped sustain an entire industry of publications and entertainment channels that thrive on such frenzy and idolisation, deserving or not.

Film academicians have frequently tried to probe the characteristics that constitute this phenomenon and have come up with explanations as to what differentiates a star from an actor, apart from the intense curiosity that the star evokes beyond his screen persona.

First, the star is more important than the character he plays. When Salman Khan strides across the screen in Dabaang, it is not the police officer the audience cheers for, but their Sallu bhai. Amitabh Bachchan in Coolie is ‘Amitabh Bachchan, the star’ and not the character he plays; and when Shah Rukh Khan takes it upon himself to train a disunited women’s hockey team in Chak De India, it is Shah Rukh Khan that the audience roots for, not Kabir Khan, the character he plays. A film with no romantic female lead could only be pulled off by King Khan — because he is a star — and not any other actor, no matter how gifted he is.

This identification with the star at the expense of the role is carried to its extreme in Kaho Na Pyaar Hai, Hritik Roshan’s debut vehicle where his character is killed in the first half, but reappears in the second half as an entirely different character for whom the heroine falls and subsequently overcomes her grief, just because he resembles her dead beau; and the audience also heaves a sigh of relief. And a star is born!

Similarly, in the two versions of Don, a duplicate Amitabh/Shah Rukh replaces the original character who is killed in the first half, and the audience hitches a ride with the replacement in the second half, identifying with the star till the end!

In his voluminous autobiography Timebends, celebrated playwright Arthur Miller reminisces how, in the ‘50s, he came across real-life cowboys in the Nevada desert, who styled themselves on screen cowboys like John Wayne, immortalised in countless John Ford Westerns. Talk about life imitating art!

Real-life gangsters all over the world have drawn inspirations from Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and closer home, Amitabh Bachchan. In fact, the fashion industry and haircutting saloons in every mohalla draw sustenance from filmstars: Rajesh Khanna’s guru-kurta, Bachchan’s sideburns and Rekha’s double braids from Khubsoorat became the rage in the ‘70s and 80s.

Suresh Chabria, the ex-film appreciation professor from FTII had once brilliantly summed up the difference between a star and an actor: While the actor is a part of the film’s mise-en-scene, the star is the mise-en-scene! No doubting that.

(Ranjan Das is a Mumbai-based filmmaker, instructor and writer)


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