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Keval Arora's Kolumn



Too much of a likeness

After watching an actor who had played the role of an Assistant Commissioner of Police on stage, a friend casually commented the other day: “But, he’s so small. He doesn’t have the aggressive, masculine presence that one associates with an ACP.” My immediate response to that comment had been to question its veracity by pointing out that physical size is not a criterion by which candidates are selected for the Indian Police Service. They go through the UPSC examination process much like everyone else. It is of course possible that only hunks opt for the IPS, but that is to then assume that people actually opt for the IPS instead of coming to it by virtue of their rank in the merit list. In any case, what does aggression have to do with size? Hitler wasn’t exactly large, was he?

But, such nitpicking is beside the point. What was striking about my friend’s observation was the way it shaped the tone of her response to the actor’s ability, and prompted her to conclude that the actor couldn’t possibly ever do justice to the role. Coming as it does from someone with several years’ experience in the theatre, that comment (and its seemingly natural conclusion) throws up a host of interesting questions.

All actors strive to physically approximate the characters that they are to play. Or, to put it more accurately, all actors strive to meet a common expectation of what their roles look like. The aim is to thereby bridge the gap between themselves and their audience, between intention and reception. Simulating the character visually is half the work done, for the role is then brought to life far more easily.       

It is the director who casts the first stone in this process when he fastens upon a particular actor and speaks of his suitability for a particular role. Though the skill of the actor is arguably the most important criterion, an equally vital factor is the intuition of a visceral identity, an intangible connection between the physical aura of the actor and that of the character. When the second criterion comes into play, there is very little that the actor can do but honour the reason that led to his being selected in the first place.

Perhaps the only freedom allowed to the actor lies in whether he opts to confine the likeness to an external similarity, or whether he aims for a sense of the inner being as well. Thus, one actor playing a decrepit nawab may close in on the mannerisms associated with such an anatomy and such a class of person. Another, while playing a murderer, may studiously avoid imitating the outer shell and may concentrate instead on articulating the inner spirit of the role. However, in both cases, physical appearance (the body) remains the primary terrain in which the actor works out the likeness.         

At the heart of this approach to performance lies the assumption that likeness plays a crucial role in determining the truth of an enactment. But, is there such a direct relation between likeness and truth, as my friend’s comment seemed to imply? A likeness is usually nothing but an expectation that is commonly shared by actor and spectator – in other words, it works primarily as a stereotype. A likeness is made up of generalities, with little space left for the small but insistent truths of particular instance. That ACPs are expected to be aggressive and macho does not mean that all ACPs are so, but only that they are generally perceived to be so. What then of the actor who chooses to assay an ACP who did not quite come out of that great mould from whence most ACPs spring — does he thereby become an inattentive or bad actor in his refusal to re-iterate the stereotype? There is something to be said for statistical probability, but not in the realm of performance. Actors who set great store by likeness merely dabble in the lowest common denominators of meaning and are content to offer a bland litany of clichés.

 This is not to say that the stereotype is of no value in the theatre. Much of the power of popular and folk theatres derives from their intelligent concatenation of stereotypes. As a kind of shorthand through which the mass media today relate to audiences with short attention spans, the stereotype provides a powerful medium of communication. Bernard Shaw showed several decades ago that even in mainstream urban theatre, it is possible to use the audience’s expectation of stereotypical casting and characterisation to feed one’s own iconoclastic projects. In most forms of theatre, however, the stereotype, when used without irony, befuddles rather than clarifies, and becomes an enemy rather than an enabler of truth.          

If an unswerving commitment to honesty and experimentation is the sign of a serious art, what can one say of a theatre that relies inordinately upon stereotypes? Rather than re-enacting the tired stereotypes, isn’t theatre obliged to strive in precisely the opposite direction, even at the risk of becoming predictably contrary? The cliché is not just an enemy to the actor, but to most of us. What is the value of a theatre that writes itself in terms of the predictable and the cliché? Further, what does this reliance upon the cliché reveal of us and our way of looking upon the world around us? Do we too slot the various people whom we ordinarily encounter into tightly stereotypical categories, before apportioning them on our stage in carefully constituted doses?           

These are some problems of truthfulness thrown up by our easy belief that actors need to look like the roles they play. There are other problems as well. For instance, in the amateur as well as in campus theatre, actors are often chosen for the way they ‘fit’ the part rather than for any demonstrable acting talent. Such a ‘fit’ goes far beyond any ‘likeness’ that the actor is called upon to amplify through skill. In a scenario where rookie actors commonly lack the wherewithal to handle even simple roles, it is often easier to find people to animate characters with their own personality and ‘being’ rather than through that ineffable other-ness which we call ‘performance’. In fact, when the casting has been done with sufficient insight, the results can be quite gratifying.

This is why every now and again we come across performances in the amateur theatre that resonate with an unbelievable authenticity in tone and feeling. But, one has to be careful not to read too much value into such ‘performances’, for these are one-off achievements that depend primarily upon a happy overlap of the social profiles of the character and the actor. With both sharing a similar social space, such a performer is not really called upon to ‘act’ out a character but merely ‘be’ himself on stage. In such a case, acting mainly consists of the performer extending himself into similar roles and situations, rather than entering into other states of being. This becomes apparent the moment such an actor is cast in a different kind of role. That is when the truth of his (in)ability stands cruelly exposed.

An instance from the play to which I referred earlier illustrates this well. In that same play, the role of a Sub-Inspector of the Delhi Police was played by a Haryanvi actor whose brusque speech rhythms and regional intonation fitted the character so perfectly that many spectators were overwhelmed by the exact likeness on display. To the extent that even his hesitant and bumbling delivery of an emotional speech seemed perfectly in tune with the type of character he was playing. However, a visit backstage made it plain that the actor had taken only the tiniest of imaginative movements away from himself when playing the Sub-Inspector. It is therefore highly unlikely that this much-acclaimed performer is a better actor than the one dismissed perfunctorily in his role as the ACP — that is, if we understand acting to be the ability whereby we inhabit selves other than our own.           

Likeness in such a case therefore possesses a completely different dimension, for it now functions as a substitute rather than as an aid to acting. Implicit in this is a kind of trade-off between an actor’s talent and suitability, where physical resemblance tends to compensate a lack in acting ability. It is this tension that makes me wonder whether acting talent is best gauged in only those contexts where there is no physical resemblance between the actor and the role he is to bring to life. There is then no additional input, nothing to distract from the essential relation between the challenge and the craft. If the enactment still carries conviction, then we’d know for sure that credit is due entirely to the actor’s powers of representation. For actors learning the craft of acting, there can be no headier confirmation of their skill.

Our small friend, the ACP, is thus in a privileged position. The fact that his stature belies expectation has given him an opportunity to demonstrate his acting skills in as uncluttered an environment as possible — an environment where likeness or its absence will not confound the debate over what constitutes the art of the actor.

An earlier version of this article was first published in FIRST CITY (June 2006)