Although Arshad Warsi has been in the Bollywood for almost 15 years, he has yet to be fully appreciated as a solo hero. Most people know him as either Munnabhai’s comic sidekick Circuit or perhaps as one of the crazy crew from the seemingly endless (but always hilarious) low brow comedies with the catchy names: Dhamaal, Golmaal, etc. etc. But if digging just a little into his prodigious back catalog, a more nuanced performer reveals himself.
Ballu in Tere Mere Sapne (1996)
The esteemed Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Ltd (ACBL) put out its first film in 1996, Tere Mere Sapne, a modern update on classic mistaken identity tales like Ram aur Shyam. The twist in this update was that the main role was not a double one – instead the film debuted two new heroes: Arshad Warsi and Chandrachur Singh. While Chandrachur was all icy smoothness as the upper class Britsh-educated Rahul, Arshad radiated good-humored charm as the roguish middle-class Ballu and put his dancing skills to excellent use. Sadly, while the film was well received, Arshad’s career would take years to build upon the promise he showed in his debut.
Circuit in Munnabhai MBBS (2003) and Lage Raho Munnabhai (2006)
Although Arshad debuted as a hero in 1996 with Tere Mere Sapne, it wasn’t until 2003’s Munnabhai MBBS that his talents really came to the public’s notice with his portrayal of Munna’s comic sidekick Circuit. As Circuit, Arshad had the tough job of playing the comedic potential of the scenes to enhance Sanjay Dutt’s character instead of just stealing the scenes for himself – the usual Bollywood comedy style from old hands like Johnny Lever. While the old style worked fine for older films, Munnabhai MBBS ushered in a brand new genre of film and Arshad’s naturalistic comedy style was a both a perfect fit to director Rajkumar Hirani’s vision and a pleasant surprise to the public.
Puneet in Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II (2003)
Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II is an update on the eternal story of brotherly love that has touched our hearts from Deewar to Parinda to (most recently) Slumdog Millionaire, with Arshad playing the spoiled younger brother who disowns the elder. Although the indie film style lent itself to ironic detachment, Arshad was able to infuse his performance with just enough emotion that it made Puneet not only sympathetic but gave him an edge of realism, too. It’s a performance that holds the film together. He wouldn’t get a chance to show this much range for the next few years but WBHH is ample proof of Arshad’s talent as a leading man.
‘Ron’ Mathur in Salaam Namaste (2005) and Vicky in Maine Pyar Kyun Kiya (2005)
After his well appreciated performance as Circuit, Arshad spent some time playing the comedic sidekick opposite some of Bollywood’s hottest leading men, including Saif Ali Khan and Salman Khan. Both Ron and Vicky were total sleezeballs whose sole purpose in the film was to make the hero look saintly in comparison while generating a few laughs. Mission accomplished!
SSP Ajay Kumar in Sehar (2005)
Even while he was topping the box office in amusing but brainless romantic comedies, Arshad still took time to make serious films like 2005’s Sehar. The film, based on real life incidents, dealt with important themes of political corruption, justice, and the honesty of the police. Set in Uttar Pradesh, Arshad’s performance as SSP Ajay Kumar was not only authentic emotionally but also captured the rhythms and feel of UP. Looking back on the film in 2007, director Kabeer Kaushik (who has also directed Hum Tum Aur Ghost) said, “Arshad, in my estimation, is a complete actor – one of the best that we have around. Endowed with a perfect sense of timing, he has the unique ability to understand the sub-text of a script. His subtle nuances can give a different dimension to any scene.”
‘Champ’ Chaudhary/Anthony Gonzales in Anthony Kaun Hai? (2006)
While the film itself was not anything spectacular, devoting, perhaps, too much time to Sanjay Dutt’s extended cameo appearance, Arshad delivers a one-two punch of total masala hero and proves yet again that he is more than the buffoonish sidekick. Sadly, nobody was watching as he danced and romanced with a pre-bikini Minissha Lamba and engaged in some fairly standard Tour of Thailand chase sequences. While he did his best to make sure that our hearts were all fully engaged, the film failed to do justice to his performance.
Jai in Kabul Express (2006)
Based on the experiences of documentary director Kabir Khan, Kabul Express was shot entirely on location in Afghanistan. Arshad and John Abraham play Indian journalists who are trying to find a scoop. Jai began the film as a man who just wanted to have a good time and finished it with an emotional connection to the conflict he found himself in and Arshad brought the audience along with him every step of the way. It’s a masterful performance that shows that actors don’t need to go broad to make an impression onscreen.
Ballu in Sunday (2008)
Rohit Shetty’s comedies have been good for Arshad’s career, with the Golmaal franchise picking up even as Munnabhai draws to a close, but in Rohit Shetty’s Sunday Arshad delivered comedy and much more. As cab driver Ballu, Arshad whipped up the comedy with Irrfan Khan and then tugged at our heartstrings with what would have been a throwaway character from any other actor. The choreography from Ganesh Acharya also gave Arshad a rare opportunity to really show off his dancing skills.
Babban in Ishqiya (2010)
Ishqiya seems set to be another game changing film in Arshad’s career. His performance as the smouldering, kohl-eyed Babban made the men jealous and the ladies amorous. Reviews went as far to call it a ‘career best’ performance and certainly, as Babban, Arshad was given range to play over the entire spectrum of emotions in a way that previous roles never did. It’s not often that actors can hold their own opposite the great Naseerrudin Shah but Arshad proved to be up to the task and the their pairing should go down as one of the great male jodis in filmi history, right up there with Pran and Ashok Kumar in Victoria No. 203.
While we wait to see what effect Ishqiya will have on Arshad’s career, he is ready to go with his first home production: Hum Tum Aur Ghost (opens March 26th). In this full-on entertainer, Arshad stars as a man who can see ghosts – think a melding of Ricky Gervais in the clever Ghost Town but with a nice heartfelt dose of Rajukumar Hirani and some killer songs. And after this, Arshad will reprise the hilarious character of Madhav Singh Ghai in Golmaal 3. Rumor has it that this will be followed by a more serious film co-starring Kalki Koechlin which will showcase Arshad as a cop who needs to rediscover his sense of justice.
Whatever comes next, I know we’ll be watching!