The passing away of AK Hangal marked the end of the kind of characters he played—he was so often in the khadi kurta and Gandhi glasses of the upright Masterji. The man who stood for idealism, honesty and Gandhian values. He must have played masterji, guruji, school principal in at least 25 films—among the fathers, grandfathers, uncles, Ramu Kakas and Rahim Chachas of typical Bollywood cinema of a particular period.
Later films made such a caricature of the Master Dinanath ‘type’ that Hangal’s appearance on screen, with his distinctive drawl and morose expression, often drew laughter; not because he wasn’t a good actor, but because the new audience had no respect for the part he played. When a materialistic and cynical society scrapped simplicity and honesty as virtues to aim for, there was no need for the poor Gandhian to exist.
In fact, in the cool, young films made for the fashion-conscious youngster patronizing multiplexes in urban India and the Diaspora market, have no place for benign grandfathers, uncles or loyal family retainers. They would deign to include fathers, only if Amitabh Bachchan could play the part.
Hangal followed in the tradition of actors like Nasir Hussain, Manmohan Krishna, Om Prakash, Asit Sen, Iftikhar, Satyen Kappu, Leela Mishra, Dulari and others who were not stars, but did so many films in similar roles that after a point it became difficult to distinguish one part from another. They used to be called character actors, a term that has gone out of favour, being replaced by ‘supporting’ actor. But in many films, the character actors were just there to fill the frame, their parts were not substantial enough to qualify for supporting actor awards. But they were not meager enough to be called extra or junior artistes either, so they fell into a grey area of typecasting, which was unfair on the one hand, on the other it provided a steady stream of employment to these actors.
Films today have done away with these characters altogether, so there is no great need to keep on that tradition of typecasting actors as just servants, peons, drivers, uncles, aunts, neighbours, money-lenders, fishwives or constables. Because 100-crore megastars need no human props… maybe just an item girl or two.