From Suniel Shetty to Bobby Deol, how OTT is helping Bollywood actors reinvent themselves

Where else would you watch the yesteryear’s action star Suniel Shetty in a leading role doing what he does best (Hunter), Sushmita Sen delivering a solid punch (Aarya) or Bobby Deol reinventing himself and surprising everyone with his intensity (Aashram and Love Hostel)

By Yasser Usman

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Published: Thu 27 Apr 2023, 5:25 PM

Recently, JIO studios unveiled a content slate of 100 new films and TV shows. Though it includes their big theatrical releases including Shahrukh Khan’s Dunki, the other announcements (films-webseries) reveal a fascinating trend — many stars ignored or ‘discarded' by Bollywood playing leading roles on OTT. So, in this teaser you have actors like Arshad Warsi, Nana Patekar, Arvind Swami (Roja/Bombay), Zayed Khan (remember him?), Raveena Tandon, Sonam Kapoor, Genelia D’Souza, Vaani Kapoor, Randeep Hooda and even Shakti Kapoor. They are instantly recognisable owing to their famous performances on the big screen but now ignored, largely due to their diminished saleability, age or new stars on the block.

While too many discussions have already happened about OTT, creatively it has definitely given a new lease of life to the ‘has-beens’. By using this term, I am not trying to demean the talent of the former stars, just underlining the fact that they were forgotten because they stopped pulling crowds to theatres. But all that has changed now with fabulous roles being written for them, their ‘comebacks’ announced with a bang and their interviews are flashed in the media. It is as if the ‘has-beens’ are being relaunched with added grandeur. It's a win-win situation for the audience too. Where else would you watch the fabulous Sharmila Tagore in the same frame as Manoj Bajpai (Gulmohar), the yesteryear’s action star Suniel Shetty in a leading role doing what he does best (Hunter), Sushmita Sen delivering a solid punch (Aarya) or Bobby Deol reinventing himself and surprising everyone with his intensity (Aashram and Love Hostel). Seeing veteran actors like Naseeruddin Shah (Bandish Bandits, Taj) and Amol Palekar (Farzi) getting author-backed roles and taking us on nostalgia-seeped rides has been a remarkable experience in the last few years.

Actor Suniel Shetty went on record to accept the dejection that had followed him after his films started to flop and he stopped getting acting offers for years. Then the web series came, “Suddenly this opening comes and you doubt yourself and say ‘really? You want to cast me? Such a big character?’” OTT also gave actors like him the edge to be able to play their age without the pressure of the box office. The biggest example is the grand success of actor Manoj Bajpayee in multiple films and web series on various OTT platforms be it the superb Family Man, the national award-winning film Bhonsle or the recent Gulmohar. Roles and success at par with his big screen career.

I spoke with a leading casting director in Bombay who told me that the main reason for this trend is definitely the ‘recall value’ and the emotional connect these past stars have with generations of viewers. It gives the new projects an instant recognisability without the expectation of a multi-crore ‘weekend opening’. Actors are also lapping up leading roles they have got no chance to get in Bollywood movies. Even actor Sanjay Kapoor is an OTT darling doing more than ten projects for various platforms. There’s also big money and exposure. The casting director says many reigning stars have had meetings regarding OTT projects in recent past. While some superstars still believe they should stick to theatrical releases, actors Ajay Devgn and Shahid Kapoor are perhaps the only two stars getting the best of both worlds. Ajay gave the big theatrical blockbuster Drishyam 2 and the hit series Rudra: The Edge of Darkness in the same year. And the runaway success of web series Farzi encouraged Shahid to do the upcoming film Bloody Daddy for OTT (JIO).

Stars like Saif Ali Khan (Sacred Games and Taandav), Abhishek Bachchan (Breathe), Manoj Bajpayee (Family Man), R Madhavan (Decoupled), Anil Kapoor and Aditya Roy Kapoor (The Night Manager) may not be major crowd-pullers in theatres anymore but their stardom made sure that millions of viewers were glued to their shows on OTT.

For the leading ladies of the past too, OTT platforms offer tailor-made roles where the story is really about them. You have Madhuri Dixit delivering a solid comeback performance in The Fame Game (2022), Shefali Shah hitting it out of the park with the Emmy award-winning Delhi Crime (2022) and the tip-tip girl Raveena Tandon crushing all previous stereotypes in the intense thriller Aranyak (2021). Infact, our international export Priyanka Chopra got a media coverage bigger than any big budget Bollywood movie when she recently came to promote her ambitious Hollywood series Citadel.

There have been misfires too. The comeback of Juhi Chawla’s Hush Hush (2022), Sonali Bendre’s Broken News (2022), Kunal Kapoor-Dino Morea’s Empire (2021), Lara Dutta’s Hundred (2020) and Pooja Bhatt’s Bombay Begums (2021) were major disappointments reiterating the fact that the presence of a yesteryear star may get you recall value and media coverage, but the show will ultimately be tested on its content.

Actors who had quit the industry are now waiting to make a comeback with streaming platforms. Yesteryear stars like Kabir Bedi, Raj Babbar, Reena Roy, Mumtaz, Bindu and Meenakshi Sheshadri have expressed their desire to be a part of exciting roles in different interviews. While old stars are reborn, the formula comes with a disadvantage too. After most of these ‘comebacks’ the star goes back to the oblivion again as a new series needs a new name to excite the viewers all over again.

Not just old stars, OTT has also plotted the revival of many wonderful actors like Manoj tripathi, Shefali Shah and Jaydeep Ahlawat who would have never got such layered characters and exposure on the big screen. The coming year too will witness many veteran Bollywood stars making their coveted comeback and pushing their boundaries the big screen denied them. This time with their performances reaching all over the world in multiple languages. A log lost hug with fame and the charm to become relevant again can certainly be infectious.

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