A film like Dirty Politics confirms how helpless senior actors are when it comes to choosing ventures when they do not have the benefit of many offers coming to them. Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Anupam Kher can be counted among the finest that Indian cinema has produced.

While the first two relied on their training at the Film Institute in Pune and the National School of Drama to begin their journey on the screen through the films of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, Anupam Kher stormed into Bollywood with a shattering performance in Mahesh Bhatt&’s Saaransh, where he played the grieving father after his son&’s murder (when he himself was barely 30). All three have excelled in their own way — Naseer and Om being considered primarily for characters grappling with poverty and injustice and Anupam branching out into the mainstream with a variety of colourful identities. In some cases, like Jaane Bhi Do Yaro, Ardh Satyaand Aakrosh, where Om was the central character, and Sparsh, Masoom, Mirch Masala, Nishant and Junoon, where the spotlight was on Naseer, the directors may have played a major role in revealing the natural talent that they possessed.

But it was also the time when a movement away from Bollywood was taking definite shape. Quite a number of films were being made on socially relevant themes in which these actors were automatic choices. They were not only given offers that allowed them the opportunity to look carefully at scripts but were driven to do justice to roles that had the potential of living in people&’s minds for a long time. Can one forget Goutam Ghose&’s Paar in which Naseer and Shabana Azmi play a lower caste couple compelled to find their livelihood by driving a herd of pigs across the river? The scene not only looked real. Naseer had to reinvent himself as did Om Puri in Ardh Satya and Anupam Kher in Saaransh.

That Anupam went on to do both Bollywod entertainers like Kuch Kuch Hotaand Hum Aapke Hain Kaun along with international productions like Bend It Like Beckham and Bride and Prejudice while producing a Bengali film, Bariwali, directed by Rituparno Ghosh and spending a lot of time in the theatre confirmed his versatile credentials. It is in this context that one is shocked that those who have done Indian cinema proud for nearly four decades are now persuaded to appear in one of the worst potboilers that, to make matters worse, pretends to be a reflection of the contemporary political scene.

A film like Dirty Picture, which was said to be loosely based on the tragedy of a seductive siren, had no pretensions. The popular ingredients were presented smartly enough to impress audiences that craved for entertainment and everyone chose to forget that Naseeruddin, who sang and danced with the protagonist (Vidya Balan), was actually the face of more meaningful films. Om Puri also had his share of popular films both in India and abroad but seldom did he reveal so glaringly that he was being forced to do something that was painfully inappropriate till Dirty Politics came along. Here he plays a politician who allows himself to be used by a dancing girl turned-political climber — with distressing results. Naseer plays a crusader while Anupam is the CBI officer — all drawn into a perverse ritual marked by incredibly shabby treatment.

The question that survives is how the three stalwarts were drawn into the mess. All this raises the question of what happens to actors who have passed the age when they can expect meaningful roles. Amitabh Bachchan is an exception in the sense that he still finds screenwriters cooking up roles that are suited for him. Even this didn’t work all the time — as Shamitabh proved. The Bollywood superstar has other ways of expressing himself – through commercials or a game show. The personality is still something to reckon with. This is also the case with Soumitra Chatterjee who, at 80, finds himself busy with narrations, recitations and the theatre. While Amitabh and Soumitra are in a class of their own, others of roughly the same age often have to decide whether they ought to take whatever comes their way or retire gracefully so that their past will survive and keep speaking for them. It is a difficult choice in the sense that Bollywood doesn’t see too many films with interesting roles for senior actors.

Surprisingly, a film like Lootera gave a fresh lease of screen life to Barun Chanda who played the landlord in a Hindi film after carrying the legacy of a company executive in Satyajit Ray&’s Seemabadh for nearly 40 years. On the other hand, Soumitra, even at his age, has a place in Bengali films that is difficult to fill. But, by and large, the present crop of films in both Bollywood and Bengal don’t throw up too many options for seniors who have the energy and will to go on working. That&’s where the dilemma lies.

The general idea is that, in the twilight years, one must know when to pause — before one is made to pause.