Actors working in Punjabi films can be put into different categories when it comes to their backround. The lead male actors are mainly singers and the lead actresses are either NRI girls, models or Hindi tele actresses. The supporting male actors are veterans from 80s-90s films and most of the supporting/character actresses are from theatre backround.
Punjabi Cinema went through a roller coaster ride in late 80s-90s, in fact there were some films being made with nothing more than a jugaad.
If you look back at some of the old Punjabi films, an extra or a supporting actor was generally someone from the neighborhood or rishtedari. Makers would pick any gali di aunty or bhabhi for extra roles (Even in case of the classic Jee Aaya Nu - remember Harbhajan Mann's sister?), damaging the whole product (some makers still get away with such jugaadi stuff).
In earlier days of Punjabi Cinema, Mumbai based actresses such as Shammi, Kamini Kaushal, Veena, Mumtaz Begum, Manorama and Sudha Chopra would do character roles but soon Punjab based actresses also started getting roped in. Late Sangeeta Mehta was one of the firsts to get fame as a Punjab based character artist.
As mentioned above, most of the character actresses have come from theatre background, few of them went on to become school teachers, college lecturers, professors or even principals. Prabhsharan Kaur, Nirmal Rishi, Gurpreet Kaur Bhangu, Anita Devgan, Neeta Mohindra, Sunita Dhir are few of those who continued with their passion of acting through different mediums.
Nirmal Rishi is one of the most towering personality of Punjabi Cinema. Roles are specially written for her and at times she overshadows the leading cast of the film with her bravura performances. She joined Harpal Tiwana's theatre group and since then has acted and directed countless plays. From Laung Da Lishkara to Daana Paani, she has came a long way.
Jatinder Kaur used to be the most popular face of Jalandhar Doordarshan. When she started as a theatre actress, she faced flak from some of her relatives but her husband was very supportive and she successfully made a balance between her work and family. Later on, she made a successful team with Harbhajan Jabbal in many Jalandhar Doordarshan serials. Off late, she got to do some big films like Sardar Ji 2, Sardar Mohammad and the recent one being Ashkey but her film appearances are not frequent if compared to her contemporaries. She says that she always looks out for good roles, and good roles come rarely.
Gurpreet Kaur Bhangu is another busy character actress, who has national award winning films in her filmography. Her husband, a social worker & activist, encouraged her to continue with theatre and currently, she is one of the most sought after actress for character roles in Punjabi films.
Jaswant Daman started acting in plays with her husband Davinder Daman. She also theatre, serials and films. Apart from playing the loving grandmother in Punjabi films, she did some notable roles in Bollywood films too, for instance, that of Alia Bhatt's grandmother in Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhaniyan and the gun holding woman in Udta Punjab.
Sunita Dhir, one of the highly educated actresses of Punjabi film circle, started her career with Chann Pardesi in 1980. She returned almost after a decade with Badla Jatti Da in title role, and since then has played motherly roles of many major names in the industry.
Rupinder Rupi, married to actor Bhupinder Barnala, wowed the audience with her negative and postive roles in many Punjabi films. Her natural way of acting in serials, music video songs and films has never failed to impress. She was recently seen playing a very important role in Rana Ranbir's directorial debut Asees.
In spite of working in few films, Savita Bhatti is a big name. When its about comic roles, the men take a lead in Punjabi films and most of the actresses fail to pack a comic punch. But Savita Bhatti did it gracefully without going loud or over the board. She called herself an accidental actress, as once when an actress could not turn up for the shoot, Jaspal Bhatti could only think of her as a substitute. Ask her why she was not seen much outside her home productions and she says that working in her home productions gave her the liberty to work on her own schedule, and beside that she was involved with every aspect of filmmaking. Last seen in Punjabi film Dushman, she says she wants to do more films but seems like the makers can't really fit her personality into the period dramas of rural background, that are being made thesedays.
Rose J Kaur also has a similar opinion. Mother of famous TV actor Sangram Singh and sister in law of Hobby Dhaliwal, Rose joined acting field unexpectedly, and went on to do a couple of serials besides some Punjabi & Hindi films like RSVP, Ajj De Ranjhe and Akira. She feels there is groupism in the industry, and if you talk about more remuneration, chances are high that you will be replaced. In fact, she also blames line producers for wrong doings in artist payments. "Even if a filmmaker is keen to cast you, these line producers make some lame excuses to get someone else on board", she says.
There are three Anitas in Punjabi entertainement industry and all three are very powerful actresses. These women started with theatre and later on did serials with Jalandhar Doordarshan.
One of them, Anita Devgan, is popular face when its about character roles. Her husband, Harinder Gill is also an actor, and both started their acting career with theatre. She first got noticed in DD Jalandhar'sserial Panchani, and continued with more serials and films. Gradually, her roles kept increasing after her work in Angrez, Rabb Da Radio and more such films was widely praised. She brought forefront a very bubbly image of Punjabi mothers on the celluloid and soon got termed as 'Punjab's favourite bebe'.
Anita Meet & Anita Shabdeesh are two other actresses who started their career with theatre and Jalandhar Doordarshan. They went on to play important character roles in Punjabi & Hindi films. Meet, even got a compliment from Imtiaz Ali when she did his film 'When Harry Met Sejal'. Her role in the recent release Dakuaan Da Munda was praiseworhty. On the other hand, Anita Shabdeesh runs an acting school too, besides actively doing theatre. Ask her about her fame and she fondly mentions theatre veteran Gursharan Singh as her huge inspiration in life.
Neeta Mahindra did theatre for almost two decades, before doing films. About her choice of roles, she says at times one has to accept the role just for the sake of it. She has shifted her base to Mumbai now and was last seen in M S Dhoni in Hindi & Sardar Mohammad in Punjabi. She feels that there are variety of roles to do in Hindi films but in Punjab, there are stereotypical characters. Even then, if given a chance, she would love to do roles such as the one in Sardar Mohammad.
Once typecast in particular role or image and it gets difficult for artist to came out of it for a very long time.
Look at Razia Sukhbir for instance. She was typecasted in similar roles of a saree clad college teacher in most of her films and the moment when she came onscreen as a bhabhi, she was again flooded with similar offers.
Writer, singer, actress and folk dancer Sarbjit Mangat, popularly known as Gidhiya Di Rani, had her share of films too. She was seen in important supporting roles. Ask her about doing lesser roles and she says that she is mostly busy with her cultural shows and will only accept roles with substance like the one she did in Mera Pind.
In 90s, Kulbir Badesron, Neena Cheema and Gick Grewal used to fill the place for character roles. While Gick Grewal is doing theatre, Neena Cheema & Kulbir Badesron shifted to Mumbai, and are doing Hindi TV serials. Also a writer, Kulbir Badesron wishes to work in Punjabi films again.
Deep Mandeep, a single mother, is acting and producing short films and also raising her kid single handedly. She started with small roles in films and eventually got praises for her work in Vaapsi. Ask her is she not too young for playing mother's role to grown up heroes and she says that you can be choosy about roles with less importance but when there is substance, it hardly matters. Quite blunt, she is vocal about pay disaprity and lack of meaty roles. So, she is working in her own home funded short films playing variety of roles, and is satisfied with the work she is doing.
Soft spoken actress Arjuna Bhalla was a bright school student and got a chance to do Jalandhar Doordarshan's children program Jhilmil Taare. She continued her association with Doordarshan series and also radio plays. She had the central role in Eh Janam Tumhare Lekhe, and played important character roles in Punjab 1984, Rabb Da Radio, Stupid 7 and more. Her entire family is devoted to art. Her husband is a cinematographer, while her daughter is into art work of couple of Punjabi films; and her son is into music.
Bua of Punjabi cinema, Seema Kaushal, used to take part in all activities in her school and college. She joined Radio after marriage, and soon went on to do serials. She too gave full credit to her family for her success as a character artist, most known for her role in film Rabb Da Radio, Seema was a surprise element in Saab Bahadar & Daana Paani. She has also done Bollywood films like Luv Shuv Te Chicken Khurana and the recent one being Soorma.
Talking about family support, Satwant Kaur was not lucky in this case. As a young school student she watched Mamla Garbarh Hai and became a fan of both Diljit Kaur and Gurdas Maan. Who knew that years later she would work with both the legends whom she admires. Satwant Kaur wanted to get into singing but was discouraged by her parents. After marriage, she kept thinking about getting into the acting field. She started as sidekick model in Jalandhar Doordarshan's song based program but it resulted in a squabble at home. It was only when she worked in Gurdas Maan's song Pind Dian Galian when things got better for her professionally, and also personally.
Theatre veteran Harpal Tiwana's wife Nina Tiwana was always more devoted to theatre, and was always choosy about her roles in films. She was not happy by the way Punjabi films were made, without any proper script and planning. She last acted in Hindi film Udta Punjab. While her Canada based sister BalinderJohal is actively doing films and was seen in Jatt & Juliet, Jindua and other Canadian projects, Nina is content with her life.
Most of these character actresses are in the age bracket of 50 to 70 years. Ask them about late recognition and they throw various reasons in front of you to make you understand this point. Punjabi cinema revived a few years ago only, opening the door for more films and more work for actors. Beside that, most of character actresses were busy with their family life but now, with grown up kids, they have enough time to devote to films.
Praveen Purba, Balwinder Begowal, Raj Dhaliwal, Parminder Gill, Santosh Malhotra, Sukhi Randhawa are other few names in character roles category of Bhabian, Bhuas, Chachis, Dadian, Nanian etc. Besides them, Mumbai based actresses like Dolly Minhas and Navneet Nishan or Punjabi films' former leading ladies like Diljit Kaur, Rama Vij, Amar Noorie, Manjit Kular and Upasana Singh have also acted in supporting roles in recent Punjabi films. Even Preeti Sapru is making a comeback with a new Punjabi film.
Pay disparity is the most discussed topic, even in Bollywood. In Punjabi film industry, some lead actresses rue over the big difference in terms of remuneration. Now imagine what character actresses must be getting!
Some of these abovementioned actresses are directly approached by filmmakers & producers for films, and they don't complain much, but at times middle men play dirty when it comes to their final remuneration. So, some feel its better to shift their base to Mumbai, though it is not as smooth as it looks.
Some actresses and actors of both younger or older age group prefer to expand their reach by doing Hindi films, but an actress who recently did a Hindi film based in Punjab revealed to us that she never had any problem over monetary issues while working in Punjabi films but after doing that Hindi project, she has no idea whom to approach for her dues.
Another actress pointed out that we used to do theatre with no major money involved so compared to that it is still good that atleast we're getting paid well. She added that someone has to think about the producer too.
With the kind of films that are now being made in Punjab, a lot of characters are required and it is nice to see these actresses getting work in their reign eventually, its a welcome change. In fact, given the earthy roles they do, at times these character artists click more with the audience and manage to steal the show beside getting accolads for their work. They also earn respect from the audience though they might not be earning big money.