Shunned into cold storage along with other inexplicable miracles, the “double role” finds itself abandoned by a new, upmarket Bollywood. Bundled off with the poor kaboortars who ferried love messages and the ever-faithful canines who’d kill for the hero, the double role might have few takers today, but once upon a time, it was a ritual that every actor looked forward to. In many parts of the world, it might be a gimmick or an actor’s indulgence at best but in Bollywood it was nothing less than a rite of passage.
Like most useful things in the world, the double role, too, owes its creation to necessity. Eons before it became Bollywood, the early days of Hindi cinema weren’t like how we know them to be now. Back then, films were looked down upn and although much might not have changed, at least previously it used to be very difficult for actors to come along and make a mark. So in 1917, Anna Salunkhe ended up played the first double-role in Indian films. No, this wasn’t the tale of good brother/bad brother, or the meek one saved by the braver. Salunkhe actually set the bar very high by playing both the roles of Ram and Seeta in Lanka Dahan (1917). While the popular belief is that B.R. Chopra’s Afsana (1951) is the one where Hindi cinema witnessed double role for the first time, it had a different kind of first attached to it. Not only did B.R. Chopra’s debut feature the biggest star of the day, Ashok Kumar, in the twin roles of Ratan and Chaman, brothers who fall for the same girl, it also created the formula which would go on to become the very template that would define double roles.
No one cared about the cookie-cutter-like treatment of the films that featured stars in double roles. The star liked it as it double-the-pay-and-no-competition, the audience liked it as they got two-for-the-price-of-one and the producer was happy, as there would be no starry tantrums. Multiple roles also give actors an opportunity to portray different characters in the same film but very few managed to remember this while portraying double roles. Barring Sivaji Ganesan and his nine roles in the Tamil film Navarathri (1964), which was later remade as Naya Din Nayee Raat (1974) with Sanjeev Kumar in Hindi, most of the dual roles were portrayed in extreme shades of blacks and whites. It’s hardly surprising then that such films ended up becoming vanity projects or event films that every actor would indulge in. At the height of his stardom Dilip Kumar played twins in Ram Aur Shyam (1967), a film that enjoyed the same success in two other languages from which it was inspired- the Tamil Enga Veetu Pillai (1965) with MG Ramachandran and the Telugu Ramudu-Bheemudu (1964) with N.T. Rama Rao. The Ram Aur Shyam model of twins-separated-at-birth-bought-back-together-by-fate has been used by the biggest stars of every generation to announce their arrival- Hema Malini’s Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) was a testimony of her status, Sridevi’s Chaalbaaz (1989) left little doubt about her prominence and while it didn’t enjoy the same success Anil Kapoor’s Kishen- Kanhaiya (1990) was a similar effort.
Like emperors who did most things with the intention of leaving their indelible mark, the bigger a star gets, the crazier the things they do. In 1976, there was nothing left for Dilip Kumar to prove, so someone thought of a triple role in Bairag to get his attention. The lackluster response to the film marked a milestone in his career and Dilip Sahib switched to character roles. Some, like Amitabh Bachchan, who has played double role 12 times, used the idea of multiple roles to wipe off competition. No other actor has played his own son or father as many times as Bachchan, something that partially justifies the one-man-industry tag that was bestowed upon him.
The whole concept of double roles is amusing to begin with, but very few films have been able to go beyond the usual trappings of the genre. Shakti Samata’s The Great Gambler (1979) could have escaped the twins-separated-at-birth track and made good with the basic premise of a gambler who’s mistaken for a secret agent. One of my favorite double role films, The Great Gambler had enough Hitchcockian McGuffins in the plot, along with some fantastic locations like Cairo, Lisbon, and Venice to transcend the bichade-bhai theme but with each passing minute the film just sank further. David Dhawan’s Bol Radha Bol (1993), Guddu Dhanoa’s Aflatoon (1997) and Mahesh Bhatt’s Duplicate (1998) are three films that stand out in this business and somewhere almost act as the turning point for double roles. The one film that has truly turned this genre around is Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey (2009). In spite of twin brothers at the core, Kaminey takes Bollywood’s love for the double role and spins it around so much that the result is unlike anything ever seen. Could it be that Kaminey was based on a story idea of Cajetan Boy, a short-filmmaker from Uganda that made it same-same but different? Irrespective of they reached this point, Kaminey has forever changed Hindi cinema and double role’s affair and sad as it may be, it’s time the two went their separate ways. For a while at least.