Ardh is a Fraction of What Rajpal Yadav Could have Been and Could still be

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Ardh is a Fraction of What Rajpal Yadav Could have Been and Could still be

Illustration: Arati Gujar

“Aap Mumbai nahin aa sakte,” goes the audition round rejection line in a popular Hindi music reality show. ‘You cannot come to Mumbai’. They might call it the ‘city of dreams’, but you can’t come to the city and give it a shot. Try telling that to the city itself, or to Shiva from Shahjahanpur. They know that the air of finality surrounding that line is a mere illusion, simply made-for-TV drama. The city is here, and it is ostensibly open to anyone who can just get here (including Pradeep from Pune). Everyone gets a shot. In time, reality might catch up. You might realise that all shots aren’t created equal.

Shiva (from Shahjahanpur) is the protagonist of Palash Muchhal’s Ardh. He’s a struggling actor running the hard yards, looking for his shot. Rajpal Yadav (from Shahjahanpur) plays the part. Ardh reminded me of how the brutal sheen of Bollywood tends to obscure genuine talent that resides in the shadows. Perhaps I’m looking for meta-commentary where there is none, because Rajpal Yadav has done an average of between four and five movies a year since his official debut in 1999. Not too many people can boast of such numbers.

I wonder how many more movies equal to or greater than Ardh

Then again, I wonder how many more movies equal to or greater than Ardh, Yadav could have done by now, had Bollywood not collectively decided one fine day that he was only good for a specific kind of performance. Never mind his strength with delivering dialogue, or the ultra-malleable physicality he possesses – usually expressive and ‘out there’ while performing, he could also contract it inwards and express with minimalism. While it is one of the strongest roles he has done, Ardh represents a mere fraction of Rajpal Yadav’s craft.

I vaguely remember a young Yadav’s first and only award acceptance speech, at the 2001 Screen Awards, for Ram Gopal Varma’s Jungle. ‘Best Villain’, was the category. The win was surprising, to say the least; he wasn’t even nominated for this role at other places, and you were more likely to remember Sushant Singh’s Durga than Yadav’s Sippa. (You would certainly notice Sippa, though. On the other hand, Fardeen Khan in the film is intolerable, completely undeserving of being there.)

Yadav was visibly humbled while receiving the award, perhaps still disbelieving that after just a few films, here he was, in the spotlight. The kind of spotlight he would never see again. Varma himself began casting him in roles that had him play only various hues of buffoon. Among the many crimes of Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag, Rajpal Yadav’s riff on the Soorma Bhopali character ranks high on the list. (If great artists are national treasures, then that film probably amounts to our loose Indian definition of sedition.)

It is worrying that one should find such sensitivity surprising,
but then that’s how low Hindi cinema has set the bar.

In Ardh, Yadav also plays Parvati. She is Shiva’s alternative life, the one he has to lead so he can sustain his family while he also does the rounds of auditions, looking for his one big break. Parvati is the breadwinner of the family. And she wins that bread by assimilating into a group of transgender women who bless people at signals, in exchange for a buck or five. Thankfully, the people involved with the film know the distinction between a transgender person and a cis-gender man dressing up as a woman. It is worrying that one should find such sensitivity surprising, but then that’s how low Hindi cinema has set the bar. While Shiva is the everyman, Parvati is no ordinary woman. She is, after all, Shiva’s greatest role. A con he pulls off so he can feed his wife and son. Parvati is just him, method-acting. Only his wife and best friend (played by Hiten Tejwani) are privy to this secret.

Everyman comes easy to Rajpal Yadav. We saw shades of it in Chandan Arora’s Main, Meri Patni Aur Woh. Unfortunately, in real life, his height is probably one of the main reasons that he is sought for all those comic parts. In Ardh, he is told this to his face. I suspect Rajpal Yadav had a large role in shaping this particular character. It feels like Yadav had to merely turn up and be. Perhaps that is why Shiva has tics and twitches that seem like default traits of the repetitive bit characters Yadav has played over the years.

As Parvati though, he unleashes something from within. His strongest scenes are the ones where she is silent – sometimes doing a quick reset of a plastered smile between vehicles at a signal. At other times, it is her thinking longingly about a life he desperately craves, contrasting with the life he currently leads. Almost the entire film is Rajpal Yadav in tight frames to various degrees, but he holds his end up and then some. In the Rajpal Yadav Cinematic Universe, a lot of his characters over the years have blended into one monolithic entity that’s simultaneously unique and still highly replaceable.

He did manage to pull off a gem or two within that framework

Despite being straight-jacketed, he did manage to pull off a gem or two within that framework. I can’t forget his creepy apple seller in one of the Darna Mana Hai segments. He’s playing a version of what he had already been typecast as, but his crazy eyes in that one are still a low-key, off-kilter delight. Yadav channels all of that experience doing versions of the same thing in his Shiva. Still, Parvati emerges the stronger character between the two. I had to keep reminding myself that Parvati is only a version of Shiva. The actor is the same, it’s not a competition.

That is reserved for real life, where it is often a competition for actors like Rajpal Yadav. You either wait endlessly for the plum parts, or you keep working because that’s still acting anyway. His character in Ardh even gives nepotism a positive spin. Producer wants his son in a role, that’s the way it is. He has to keep dreaming, keep acting and eventually he will make it big. Shiva openly expresses belief in the examples set by the likes of Irrfan Khan, Akshay Kumar, Shah Rukh Khan and even Sushant Singh Rajput, who made it big despite being ‘outsiders’. So what if Shiva himself has other impediments on his path? If they can make it, he can too. His wife supports him wholeheartedly in this endeavour. He, on his part, skips meals so his wife and child can eat. Rubina Dilaik makes a notable feature film debut here, as Shiva’s wife Madhu. Their scenes together, showcasing a rare, tender understanding that this married couple has for each other, are as good as some of Parvati’s meaty solo moments.

Perhaps there’s no greater sign of the ways of the world than the fact that everything that has come before this apart, Ardh was a fine little idea that needed a little more backing, in the form of its budget. You can instantly tell that the folks signing the cheques had only this much to spare for a film headlined by Rajpal Yadav. All the compromises show in the 83-minute charmer, which nevertheless manages to rise above its constraints and show us a version of Rajpal Yadav we deserve to see more of.