The year is 1998. India-Pakistan cricket rivalry is at its peak. Karan Johar has just made his directorial debut with Kuchh Kuchh Hota Hai. Soaring onion prices have sent the Indian middle class into dismay.
Some struggling artists think it’ll be a good idea to make a movie about the underworld in Mumbai. A story of violence, narrow lanes and the overall grim reality of the city. Satya, the rebellious child of Bollywood pulp, is born.
18 years later, Kallu Mama continues to echo in the minds and hearts of everyone who witnessed 1998. Pop culture contributed to the legend of Kallu Mama and the actor behind the legend. The character of Kallu Mama established Saurabh Shukla in the mainstream, much like Saurabh Shukla established Kallu Mama in our memories.
And if the audience remembers your character 20 years after you played it, you’re doing something right.
That is the great divide between an actor and a star. Sometimes actors become stars and sometimes stars are unable to become actors. Unfortunately and unforgivably in the case of Saurabh Shukla, the actor did not become a star. Funnily enough, Saurabh Shukla never set out to become an actor, or even a star for that matter. He set out to tell stories, in his own way, molding various mediums to suit his style as he went.
Along the way, Shukla met and befriended a lot of his contemporaries. One of them was Sudhir Mishra. Known for his neo-realistic take on story-telling, Mishra cast Saurabh Shukla in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin.
Years went by and Shukla kept defining himself on the big as well as the small screen. But it was Satya that, other than the immense public attention, gave Shukla an opportunity to write a film; something he always wanted to do.
As Satya found its place on the cult-shelf, Saurabh Shukla’s craving for telling stories only grew bigger.
Unfortunately for Shukla, the curse of being a good actor got to him and the next several years saw him play some unimportant and some uninteresting characters. The prevalent Indian cinema failed to challenge the actor in him and as a result, this actor found himself giving in to establishment. His filmography tells the story of an over-used, under-appreciated actor.
The monotony of flexing the same acting-muscle over and over again discouraged him to carry on. Like most underrated artists, Saurabh Shukla bore the brunt of the mainstream. It was, however, a phone call from Anurag Basu that redeemed and challenged the actor in Saurabh Shukla. The result was a disgruntled yet lovable police inspector in Barfi!.
Life came a full circle for Saurabh Shukla next year when he was awarded the National Award for the Best Supporting Actor for his role in Jolly LLB.
However unlike Manoj Bajpai, Irrfan Khan or Sanjay Mishra, we are yet to witness the grandeur of Saurabh Shukla’s acting abilities. His on-screen presence is second to none and his dialogue delivery is dynamically reassuring. After all the attention that PK got, no one stopped to realize that it was Saurabh Shukla’s effortless portrayal that was pivotal in getting PK the success and attention it got.
Our audience and filmmakers continue to count on Saurabh Shukla to maintain balance in an otherwise loud and dishonest world of films. For as long as Saurabh Shukla exists, Bollywood will have something to be guilty about. But that hasn’t deterred Saurabh Shukla’s faith in continuing to sow life into stories. One wonders what keeps him going despite facing enormous imperfections of the industry he has selflessly devoted himself to.
The answer is theater. His love for stage and its power to perceive stories continues to pose challenges to the likes of Saurabh Shukla. If you were to locate Saurabh any day of the week, chances are, he’ll be on the stage rehearsing or performing one of his plays.
The world of stage knows him differently than the world of Bollywood does. In theater, he assumes responsibilities on and off the stage. It would be a different world of movies if Saurabh Shukla assumes his theater persona in Bollywood, if Bollywood takes the leap to trust talented artists with creative responsibilities, if Bollywood breaks away from its money-distribution pattern to make way for Saurabh Shukla and the likes.
As we spend the future years of our lives chasing stars, Saurabh Shukla continues to chase producers to fund projects. As an empowered and educated generation, the least we can do is bring out some worthwhile change in our cinema.