Noomi Rapace plays seven characters in What Happened To Monday, which can be streamed on Netflix from August 18. Rapace stars as identical sisters named after each day of the week. They have to dress up as a single person every day to avoid the eyes of the Child Allocation Bureau in a world in which a couple is allowed to have only one child. Things go haywire when Monday goes missing.
The conceit of a single actor playing multiple roles is exceedingly familiar in Indian cinema, where double and triple roles are common enough. When actors play multiple roles, it becomes a “Look ma!” opportunity for stars, especially those with some kind of control over their projects.
One of the earliest instances of actors playing multiple roles was DG Phalke’s Lanka Dahan (1917), in which Anna Salunke is both Ram and Sita. One of the earliest talkie films to make double roles popular was Gyan Mukherjee’s Kismet (1943), which catapulted its hero Ashok Kumar to stardom.
Double roles have been fairly common over the years: Amitabh Bachchan (Don, Aakhree Raasta, Sooryavansham), Dev Anand (Hum Dono), Dilip Kumar (Ram Aur Shyam), Hema Malini (Seeta Aur Geeta), Sridevi (Chaalbaaz), Kamal Haasan (Appu Raja), Shah Rukh Khan (Duplicate) and Varun Dhawan (the upcoming Judwaa 2) .
Triple roles are less frequent. Stars of different eras, including Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan, attempted the triple role in Bairaag (1976) and Mahaan (1983) respectively. The set-up is the same – a father and his twin sons with diametrically opposing characteristics in a lost-and-found story.
While Bairaag and Mahaan flopped, Rajinikanth’s triple treat, Moondru Mugam (1982), was a smash hit. Rajinikanth’s role as the hard-boiled police office Alex Pandian in the movie even inspired a 2013 Karthi-starrer with the same title.
In between the double and triple roles lie the double sets of double roles seen in the Bengali superhit Bhranti Bilas (1963), inspired by William Shakespeare’s play The Comedy of Errors. Uttam Kumar and Bhanu Bandhopadhyay play identical sets of masters and servants leading, to immense confusion among the other characters. The hit film was adapted twice in Hindi – first as Do Dooni Char, starring Kishore Kumar and Asit Sen, in 1968, and then as the very popular Angoor (1982), starring Sanjeev Kumar and Deven Verma in the lead roles.
Six years after Do Dooni Char’s release, its star Kishore Kumar wrote, directed and starred in Badhti Ka Naam Dadhi (1974), which featured the versatile performer in five different roles. The nonsensical comedy, filled with trademark Kishore Kumar gags, revolves around a rich man Seth Bandookwala (IS Johar) leaving his wealth to the man with the longest beard. Kumar plays one of the two top candidates (the other being played by KN Singh, in a rare comedic performance), alongside the bit roles of a police commissioner, his constable, a havaldar, and a filmmaker with a toothbrush moustache.
Years later, Madhuri Dixit played five roles in painter MF Hussain’s Gaja Gamini (2000). Dixit stars as the titular timeless woman – an inspiration for artists across generations and cultures, including Kalidasa (Mohan Agashe) and Leonardo Da Vinci (Naseeruddin Shah). Even Kaamdev (Inder Kumar), the Hindu god of desire, descends from the heavens to court her. Dixit plays four other incarnations of Gaja Gamini: Sangeeta (a blind woman in Benaras), Shakuntala (the heroine of Kalidasa’s play), Mona Lisa (the inspiration for Vinci) and Monika, a contemporary, westernised woman.
Sivaji Ganesan attempted a record nine roles in the Tamil superhit Navarathri (1964). The characters were inspired by the nine rasas. The film was remade in Telugu (Navarathri, starring Akkineni Nageswara Rao) two years later and in Hindi as Naya Din Nai Raat, starring Sanjeev Kumar, in 1974. Kumar is particularly good in three roles; the fugitive on the run for vengeance, an effete theatre artist, and a conniving godman.
Kamal Haasan, who has always pushed the envelope when it comes to altering his looks and accepting unusual roles, took up the challenge of doing one better than Ganesan in Dasavathaaram (2008). In the out-and-out vanity project, Haasan stars in 10 minor and major supporting roles. Besides playing the hero and the villain (an American intelligence agent with terrible white paint and prosthetics), Haasan plays, among others, an old woman, a Japanese martial arts master, a really tall Muslim man named Kalifullah, a black-faced Dalit social activist, a Punjabi pop singer and even former American president George Bush.
Priyanka Chopra beat Haasan’s record the following year in Ashutosh Gowariker’s epic-length romantic flop What’s Your Raashee? (2009), co-starring Harman Baweja. Chopra plays 12 women corresponding to the zodiac signs. Yogesh (Baweja) meets each of these women to select a prospective bride from among them. What could have been a breezy and brisk entertainer is stretched to 211 minutes, but Chopra aces all her roles even though she enters the screenplay 40 minutes into the film.
However, you don’t always need a star to make multiple roles work. The one Indian film that uses an actor in three roles not as a gimmick but as an organic necessity of the screenplay is Dibakar Banerjee’s Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). While Abhay Deol plays the titular super-thief, Rawal plays Lucky’s father, don Gogi Arora, and Handa – three men who are father figures to Lucky for a while before they backstab him. These three characters transform Lucky from the boy into the man he eventually becomes. The triple roles deserved one single actor of immense talent, and Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! is certainly Paresh Rawal’s finest moment in his career.