The dictionary meaning of the word ‘act’ is not ‘to pretend’ or ‘to play different characters’ or ‘disguise oneself’ or ‘emote’ but quite simply ‘to do’. Those who aren’t aware of this (and that includes an astonishing number of actors I have met) will consider it paradoxical to talk of honesty in an activity that is naturally taken to be be an artifice. Yet, even they will admit that the elusive quality of truth is the holy grail of every thinking actor’s journey and of their own expectations from the actor.

Before attempting to define what makes for truth in acting, it is worth pondering whether there can be such a thing as a dishonest actor. Actors cannot plagiarise as writers or musicians can, nor can someone else do the acting for them. Actors can and do mimic and steal ideas from each other, as does any creative person, but unless in their work they employ ideas from life as well, the output will remain in the realm of mimicry or theft.

Then, there is no trick by which an actor can cheat and improve a bad performance – the narcissistic grandstanding frequently resorted to by insecure film stars who believe that being one-up on everyone else is a vindication of their own skill does not deserve to be included in any definition of acting, honest or otherwise. Because considering oneself more important than the film, though offensive, is not dishonest, it is indulgent – the star does it because he can, like the school bully.

‘Good’ versus ‘bad’ actors

The one dishonest thing actors can do is to refuse, through indolent unwillingness, to live up to their potential. Such actors end up harming themselves and any job they are entrusted with. The conclusion should not be drawn, however, that all actors are scrupulously honest in every way, rather it should be said that neither the actor (as against the star) nor the work he is in, stand to gain in any way by dishonesty.

Lumping all actors into either the “good” or “bad” category is unjust in any case, though doubtless there are some who should not be in the profession at all and even to call them bad would be a compliment, but we shouldn’t concern ourselves with those. There are lethargic actors and industrious actors, there are confident actors and anxious actors, there are selfish actors and generous actors, there are modest actors and showy actors, there are enthusiastic actors and reluctant actors, there are clever actors and plodding actors, just as all these categories of people exist in any profession and indeed in the world.

Anyone at any time can be transcendently wonderful or irredeemably rotten depending on many factors, not necessarily talent or intentions alone. But in our little pond, an actor’s punctuality and ability to speak on cue is enough to qualify him as “good” and being able to cry without the help of glycerine puts him in the league of “great”; as if acquiring and nurturing the superficial qualities of an honest craftsman were an end in itself or an achievement of some kind.

A ‘carrier of goods’

The title of the great Dr Shriram Lagoo’s autobiography Lamaan (the carrier of goods) is the most apt and concise definition of an actor’s job I have come across. An actor is a messenger entrusted with conveying something without distorting or damaging it. If he fulfills that condition, one cannot be judgmental about the approach employed and label it as honest or otherwise.

In other words, whether the goods are carried on the shoulder or the head or under the arm is immaterial provided they are delivered safely and in their completeness.

There is nothing remotely metaphysical about the craft of acting, it is all hard work. So is an honest actor one who, without thinking of rewards, goes against the grain in an effort to create something he considers significant?

Or is it the dutiful one who expends conditioned reflexes and invests a minimum of himself? Or someone who makes a public display of worshipping the tools of his trade? Or one who tries to imbue his creation with beauty while retaining its functionality? Or is an honest craftsman one for whom creation is all?

I do not know and I cannot with any certainty claim to have the answers, so I will dwell instead on what I feel is the responsibility of the actor; what is possible for the actor to do and what is not.

Can an actor better the role?

Whether an actor acts merely to showcase his entertaining abilities or there is another less specious dimension to his work and whether an actor can be assessed independently of the quality of the work he chooses to do, are questions that answer themselves. The reason someone performs splendidly in one job and is disastrous in another is quite simply because his output being largely dependent on factors over which he has no control. No actor can ever be better than the work he is in.

So, does honesty mean submitting to the conditions he finds himself in? Or is an attempt to guide them the way he feels they should go the honest thing to do? And is any perception regarding the integrity or otherwise of a person who is conveying another’s ideas likely to be an objective one?

The assessment must hinge upon the actor’s choice of work and the conviction with which he performs it. But if the material is regressive and reactionary, then is the actor’s honesty to be judged by his mastery of craft, or by his willingness to become a mouthpiece for such ideas?

‘Emotional honesty’

Crying is infectious just as laughter and yawning is, and in any case the audience does not care whether the tears they see are real or glycerine-induced. Thus the actor’s emotional honesty is not easy to judge. Fake tears also produce an emotional resonance, thus unabashed weeping always gets mistaken for good acting.

Mr Satyajit Ray, some 40 years ago, expressed the Utopian wish that “our audiences should be more demanding”. If he were alive he would be deeply depressed to find our audiences today even more dumbed down and fully satisfied with the brain-dead efforts that pass off as movies in our country.

The blame for that lies squarely with the very determined speculators who make these films and whose only purpose (now openly acknowledged by the vulgar display of zeroes in the box-office collections of films) is to milk the audiences’ gullibility and forgiving nature and multiply their investments a hundred-fold.

Having managed to bring general tastes down to their own levels, these charlatans would be hit by a crisis of Cleopatrian proportions if the audiences one day realised that the recycled rubbish they have been happily swallowing no longer satisfies, and began demanding fresh and original films. However, I daresay that too is Utopian thinking.

So in all this where does an honest approach by the actor come in? While everyone is busy worrying about the lowest common denominator, isn’t expecting the actor to be truthful kind of unfair? In this kind of scenario, would it not be honest if the actor simply took the money and ran? Or would it be honest to continue being taken to the cleaners by people making a “different sort of film”?

Minimalist versus maximalist

It has long been understood among the acting fraternity, by the way, that the term “different sort of film” is shorthand for “you are not getting paid”!

So is an honest actor one who, foregoing the money, continues all his life to hone his craft? Or should we call those guileless actors in Robert Bresson’s films or the emotionally transparent Renee Jeanne Falconetti of The Passion of Joan of Arc or the people in Bicycle Thieves, who had never acted before and never did again, honest actors?

Or is honesty what we witness in the acting required by Bertolt Brecht for his plays, where characters are not played internally but consciously represented? And can we dare say that the much larger-than-life performances in the Kathakali or the Kabuki theatre lack honesty?

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

The birth of stardom

The most winning performances in film invariably come from children or animals, neither of which species, while acting, have a clue as to what they are doing. The performances are tricked out of them; and yet they almost always appear natural. So is that what honest acting is?

If one goes into its origins, it is difficult to find a connection between what we understand as acting today and the ritual which, according to a fascinating (unproven but highly credible) theory, originated with primeval man’s need to plan the hunt. Those attempts at conveying the same idea to everyone present by having people and “animals” mock-killed, would gradually, out of necessity, have started to include something of a dramatic and emotional element as well. Surely there were some who played the hunter or the hunted better than others.

So we could say that’s when type-casting and the concept of the stock character took root. Religious connotations and an awed reverence attached itself to the theatre centuries later when religion was being aggressively marketed and complex texts, in order to be elucidated, had to be enacted in temple theatres for the benefit of largely illiterate congregations.

When theatre moved out of the temples and acquired its own space, actors must still have been judged by their ability to communicate not entertain. Thus the better communicators gradually acquired more celebrity and taking certain human characteristics for granted, competitiveness certainly resulted. Actors’ pay packets, one assumes, then became proportionate to their ability to hold audience attention, and thus was born the star.

Waheeda Rehman in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957).

I hate you like I love you

Being the most visible component of this activity known as ’theatre’, it was the actor who became the face of it, synonymous with it, representative of it and unwittingly got held responsible for its quality as well. Even today it’s mostly the actor who receives the encomiums or has to endure the taunts and not the people who are really responsible.

Sometimes, one hears the very same things said alternately about the same work because it is true that the audience’s resentment against a love for actors in general does not always have to do with the quality of their work; granted that in many cases the quality of the work is nothing to be proud of.

I am not referring only to the popular genre here. Very many films and plays masquerading as “serious” suffer massively from poorly etched and shoddily played characters as well.

And pre-empting the nostalgic baloney of “We made better films in the old days,” let’s recognise that this dreadful acting and writing in our cinema is not a new phenomenon and the argument that “this was the style of acting at that time” is nonsense; if this was indeed the style of acting then, how on earth did some of the central actors achieve the refined cinematic restraint they did?

We don’t need to have magnifying glasses on our noses to notice the vast gulf between the acting in “our films and their films”, so let’s just admit that it was and is the sensibility which controls the making of most movies in our country that is responsible for our by and large shoddy output.

Iconoclastic as it may sound, it has to be said that even some of our wonderful filmic works, Do Bigha Zamin, Kabuliwala and Pyaasa contain some performances that are on the verge of grotesque. These films were made at the same time or even later than Bicycle Thieves, Citizen Kane and Rashomon. I need hardly issue a testimonial to the level of performance achieved by the actors in the latter three.

Toshiro Mifune.

We are just in the habit of keeping our heroes on pedestals, they’ve gotten lonely up there. It’s time we got to know them for what they truly were and started to learn from their strengths and their weaknesses instead of just wallowing in reflected glory and continuing to stoutly defend even their flaws.

Maybe that way instead of just worshipping them we can begin to engage, and even prevent the pigeons from defecating on their heads – or at least wipe it off when it happens, but let us not prostrate ourselves without learning the right things from them.

The influence of early theatre

A casual glance at the history of filmmaking in India informs us that the first ones to venture into it were Bengali, Maharashtrian and Parsi entrepreneurs, all three communities with more than a passing acquaintance with the theatre. Most of the earliest male stars in these silent ventures were light-eyed Maharashtrian or fair-complexioned Parsi gentlemen whose possibly Aryan or Caucasian antecedents helped them pass off as Western looking, cinema then being considered a Western medium we had embraced.

On the distaff side there were, naturally, European or fair-complexioned Saraswat Brahmin ladies – a woman performing on stage was by then no longer taboo in Maharashtra.

Our earliest cinema was an amalgam of myth and Western films. Then came the talkies and the large-scale plundering of theatre, precious little of which was original in the first place, began. Despite the fever of aspiring to be white in every way being then at its zenith, what we neglected to borrow from the West was an indigenous form for making films, something which despite the efforts of an intrepid few, we have still not really achieved.

Instead of treating cinema as a new medium with new rules, a different aesthetic and different possibilities, we resorted from the beginning to what was immediately available: the folk theatre, the Parsi theatre, the Nautanki, and of course mythology, which lent itself wonderfully to cinematic illusion despite the over–the-top acting, melodramatic presentation and emphasis on music and choreography.

It would be difficult to distinguish those early films from theatre performances filmed around the same time, in fact some of them were filmed plays. Little did anyone suspect that these “pioneering” efforts were not only creating what would become (over 100 years, as we keep tom-tomming) an irreversible cinema language but an incurable malaise besetting our films even today.

Bicycle Thieves (1948).

Stuck in a moment

What the early talkies also did was suck out from the Urdu theatre all the talent that had kept it alive. No one from the theatre, whether actor, singer, writer, dancer, musician, poet, choreographer or set designer, could resist the lure of better money and bigger audiences. They all got drawn into the cinema, bringing with them sensibilities marinated in mythology or plagiarised William Shakespeare or musical melodrama or broad comedy of the folk theatre or Arabian Nights fantasies.

All this was completely at variance with what was to become the nature of cinema all over the world in the future. But we started with it and remained stuck with it because it kept the audiences on familiar ground.

The advent of talking pictures in the 1930s caused theatre audiences to flock to the cinema instead. Filmmakers made sure bums stayed on seats by peddling them stuff as close as possible to what they saw in the theatre. The rest were fed a steady diet of mythological fare or action films “inspired” by the West.

If such was the setting against which our films started being made, what was to be expected from the actors but that they should thoroughly conform? The era of the talkies spelt the end of the road for the Parsi, European, Maharashtrian stars who were unable to handle Urdu, in which language many of the films then, not surprisingly, were being made and speaking which had become de rigueur for film actors. It was also a time when there was no animosity between Hindi and Urdu, nor was Urdu considered a Muslim language and Hindi a Hindu one, but that is another story.

The importance of writers

The quantum leap that occurred in film acting in the USA in the 1950s was made possible by the tradition of writing passed on by people like Eugene O’Neill and Clifford Odets to the Arthur Millers and Edward Albees; by the perceptiveness of directors like Elia Kazan, Frank Capra and Billy Wilder and, strange as it may sound, by TV, which apart from its usual confection brought interviews, real-life happenings, conversations, arguments right into bedrooms.

The difference between false and truthful behavior became apparent when real incidents began to be viewed in a frame, just like a film. This had to have a huge impact on the future of acting and writing in that country. That many of the more celebrated actors of the naturalist school became known and delivered arguably the finest performances of their careers in 1950s American cinema was a lucky coincidence.

The actors do not deserve sole credit, they got to work with written material that blended with and embellished their psychologically driven style of acting. They were directed by people to whom form in presentation mattered as much as the dynamics that go into creating a moment of performance truth. Those actors for all their originality would have been ineffective had they to engage with inferior writing or faulty guidance.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950).

The need to communicate, which many writers, not only American but in Europe as well, seemed to feel strongly at that time blended with technical wizardry and authentic skill to generate a creative energy, resulting in significant innovations in the writing and creating of both their plays and films and the acting in them,

We in India, long after the arrival of TV, are still regurgitating centuries-old fables. The viewers’ ability to distinguish, instead of getting sharper is blurring; a real-life calamity is observed with more impassivity than a Bollywood film, values that need to be vehemently opposed are being reinforced and a style of writing and acting that should be defunct is being celebrated.

We just can’t seem to break free of the proscenium tradition, and the ‘theatre as illusion’ conviction in both our theatre and cinema.

The mystery of the missing c

While the output of a screenplay writer is often guided by external factors, the reason for such sparse writing by competent playwrights in India is puzzling. The total number of performable new plays in any language except Marathi and perhaps Kannada escape notice. The past efforts of Badal Sircar in Bengal or Vijay Tendulkar and Satish Alekar in Maharashtra, or Girish Karnad in Karnataka notwithstanding, there are very few others willing or capable enough to follow their example.

Actors therefore have a Hobson’s choice of either working in plays written by people who would rather write films and end up writing neither, or working in films written by writers who look down on the theatre and wish to write bigger films. Most modern Indian plays have a tendency to turn incomprehensibly arcane a la the European absurdists of the 1950s-1970s.

Our films adhere unabashedly to formulae which were already fossilised when used by the 19th-century playwrights Betab, Ahsan, and Agha Hashr, all of whose writing was “scrawled in greasepaint”, as Zia Mohyedin puts it in his wonderfully concise book Theatrics:

“These plays were heightened melodramatic pieces with crude appeals to the emotions and usually a happy ending… actors were not afraid to project themselves, there was no mumbling… no attempt at psychological probing… actors acted to the hilt and nobody called them ‘hams’, the word had not arrived yet… the conventions of melodrama were rigorously followed; disguised husbands remain unrecognized by their wives, reprobate heroes repent in the end, characters burst into song every now and then, villains always meet their comeuppance. 

The theatre in which Hashr’s capabilities were sharpened grew almost entirely in imitation of the decadent Victorian theatre of the mid-nineteenth century. The difference being that in the West by the close of that century the ‘theatrical’ theatre found itself embattled by the theatre of ideas, whereas the spectacular Urdu theatre in Bombay had no such challenge to contend with. It is ironic that when the Urdu theatre was wallowing in the bombast and bluster of Ruritanian surroundings, Moscow was producing ‘Seagull’.”

This analogy applies perfectly to the once and future state of filmmaking in our country. The poor quality of acting in our films and theatre is a reflection of the quality of the writing and the vision determining it. Where is an actor to search for truth when smothered on all sides by falseness?

Konstantin Stanislavski’s experiments themselves would have perhaps yielded no result had Anton Chekov not been around to distill that vision into the right words. Some of Marlon Brando’s later films give us an idea what kind of actor he might have been had he started with bedroom comedies instead of engaging with Tennessee Williams and Elia Kazan. Would Toshiro Mifune have been the same actor he was without Akira Kurosawa, or Klaus Kinski without Werner Herzog, or Soumitra Chatterjee without Satyajit Ray, or Waheeda Rehman without Guru Dutt?

A couple of final questions which bother me quite a bit. Is it not a shame that the capability of Marathi theatre giants Shriram Lagoo and Nilu Phule will, in the future, be assessed only by the films they acted in, most of which were thoroughly unworthy of them? And should the great Utpal Dutt, despite his prolific and committed theatre output, be labelled as not honest, simply because he simultaneously also chose to act in some of the worst films ever made?

There are many other examples, but I leave these questions hanging in the air and rest my case.

This essay was delivered as the Satyajit Ray memorial lecture in Kolkata in 2015. It has been reproduced here with Naseeruddin Shah’s permission.