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Changing face of villains

Published Dec 6, 2015, 12:00 am IST
Updated Mar 26, 2019, 8:23 pm IST
There was a time when we needed not just heroes, heroines, but also villains, and comedians.
A still from Chennai Express
 A still from Chennai Express

The clear demarcation between hero and villain in Hindi movies is blurring as protagonists now have negative shades, and the villains mostly reside within — inner demons (Piku), prejudices (Bajrangi Bhaijaan), low-self esteem (Queen) or wrong choices (Titli)

Pick a recent film, any film that you loved — Queen, PK, Piku, Bajrangi Bhaijaan — and plonk into its story that devious and delicious plot device of yore: A villain or, better still, a vamp. Think Helen, Ranjeet, Bindu, Ajit, Amrish Puri, Shashikala, Danny� Anyone. So, a fiendish, obsessed neighbour stalks Piku as she, her irritating father and Irrfan Khan drive to Calcutta, giving us, at every stop and turn, the heebie-jeebies about sweet Piku falling prey to the malevolent man’s evil designs.


Next, think of a buxom siren in sequin who, obsessed with Hanuman-loving seedha-saadha Bajrangi, keeps thrusting her ample stuff at him, to attract and waylay him. But he troops on and onwards on his mission, unaware, unsullied, cutie pie in tow. Frustrated, the vamp, in true Snow White’s sauteli ma style, hands Bajrangi’s adorable, innocent, silent companion a scrumptious looking but actually poisoned tangri kebab. She opens her mouth to� Doesn’t work, right? Feels as if Ekta Kapoor’s aatma has gone berserk and is taking a dump in every favourite film of ours.

But there was a time when all this was par for the course for Bollywood heroes and heroines. Mainstream, commercial cinema has always been an escape. But it has also always been a reliable thermometer. It truthfully, faithfully reflects the tastes, preferences, mood and temperature of the majority. Our cinema tells the stories we want to see, and our films retain only the characters we like. The box-office ensures that.

There was a time when we needed not just heroes and heroines, but also villains, vamps and comedians. In our post-Independence, post-Partition imagination, man-made or natural calamities separated families so that we could feel and vicariously live the joy of conquering all odds and uniting with our families. That crisis needed catharsis.

In the nation-building, Nehru era, our heroes were too serious and suffering to joke. That was the time when virtue had to have a socialist, sulking pout. So every sullen Guru Dutt, brooding Dev Anand and agitating Dilip Kumar needed a Johnny Walker, a Rajender Nath or an Om Prakash. As the mantle passed, from Nehru to Indira, our heroes got angry and Amitabh Bachchan needed Mehmood. Lesser actors got Kader Khan. So loveable and talented were some of these comedians that they became stock characters with a track of their own — Jagdeep, Asrani, Johnny Lever� There was, for example, no need for Asrani’s and Jagdeep’s tracks in Sholay. It’s the kind of “flab” directors today would happily prune.
Same with villains.

Ram-Ravan, Duryodhan-Draupadi, Kans-Krishna — good and evil, hero and villain have been alliterative not just in letter but spirit as well. To burnish their hero credentials, everyone — from Dilip Kumar to Amitabh Bachchan, Rajesh Khanna to Dharmendra, Rishi to Anil Kapoor — needed a Jeevan, Pran, Ajit, Prem Chopra, Amrish Puri or, well, Danny Denzongpa, to thrash and defeat.

Those were the days when we ordered and enjoyed the thali, guilt free. “There was a time when writers would concentrate on every character. At that time there would always be the three main characters — the hero, heroine and the villain� But with time the villains began to overpower the heroes as their characters would have more impact. Gradually, the heroes began to take on negative roles to become more versatile. Now the focus is only on the hero... Writers are not creating newer characters, routine roles are being churned out, no larger-than-life roles are being written,” says Prem Chopra.  

Shabana Azmi sees that as a good sign. “Because,” she says, “our heroes and heroines are no longer the archetype taken from our mythology where Ram and Sita were seen as the ideal man and ideal woman. Today our protagonists are flawed with shades of grey and the audience seems to be accepting them. So the stark divide between madonna/whore or hero/villain is blurring. I find that a welcome change.” Thali out, small, single dishes in.

The villains, so to speak, still lurk, but now they mostly reside within. Juhi Chaturvedi, writer of Vicky Donor and Piku, says: “Stories have gone beyond the confines of a classic hero-villian format. Stories are based on newer subjects, exploring newer relationships... where characters display their inner/emotional strength rather than their muscle/physical power� In films like Piku, Highway, Masaan there is no scope of a villain or a vamp. Characters fight their inner battles and come out as winners. Heroism isn’t relevant anymore, therefore, villains aren’t relevant either.”

So the villains now are ego and inner demons (Piku), prejudices (Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Ek Tha Tiger), collective stupidity (PK, 3 Idiots), low-self esteem (Queen, English Vinglish), debilitating circumstances and wrong choices (Titli). Kanu Behl, the director of Titli says, “The typecasting of human beings in character specific roles has been done with� In our lives we are all heroes, villains, comedians. I’ve never met a person who is a total comedian or complete villain. We all have shades. So, our films are getting more realistic.” But there’s also commerce. Stars these days hardly leave any money for another good actor to be part of their films.

Writer-director Anees Bazmi says, “Back then, filmmakers could afford to have dedicated comedians and villains as the leading men wouldn’t be paid so much� (Today) the hero gets paid the most. So for filmmakers, it makes more sense to make the hero double up as a villain or a comedian.” According to an insider, “Salman Khan, when he started his journey, took approximately Rs 5-10 lakh for a movie whose budget was under Rs 1 crore.” That was 10 per cent of the film’s budget. Now his fee is not less than Rs 30 crore. And in today’s time, when you have a big star the budget of the film is not less than Rs 100 crore.” That’s 30 per cent of the budget straight to the hero.

“Today the leading actresses charge anywhere between Rs 5 crore and Rs 10 crore, like Deepika Padukone and Kangana Ranaut,” says the insider. This mathematics means that A-list heroes and heroines have to also carry films on their shoulders. Not every hero has the comic timing of Govinda or Amitabh Bachchan, who had comic skits written into each role. But they all have to try and do their bit. So Salman Khan’s Chulbul Pandey will dance to caller tunes, Akshay Kumar will grin and be goofy, Hrithik Roshan, Shah Rukh Khan and Aamir Khan will sing and dance, and Ajay Devgn will do crazy stunts at the slightest provocation.

The heroines have to add a bit of glamour and sex appeal to their goody-two shoes Bharatiya virtue. Aruna Irani says, “Nowadays, if there is a requirement for a negative role they’ll still cast a heroine instead of someone who is known to have played the vamp.” True. The vamp is gone for sure. And our heroes and heroines’ godliness now has a mild tadka of villainy.

Bazmi sees all this as an outcome of plain economics, but Prasoon Joshi reads a depressing message about us and our times in this change. “The times we live in has confused morality. There is no absolute right or wrong, and as a result heroes in our films too have shades of grey in them and the place for archetypical villain is muddled up�

Pehley jo chupta tha woh shaitaan
Chalta hai ab khul ke seena taan
Jo achcha hai wohi bura hai
Koi nahin mahaan
Badal gaye mayeene sach ke
Badal gaya insaan.”  

Joshi is not alone in yearning for clarity, for wanting a comforting separation between the glowing, godly good and the hideous, horrendous evil. Year 2015, in fact, has seen a tentative comeback of the villain — flamboyant in both dress and dialogue. We are a long way from “sara sheher mujhe loin ke naam se jaanta hai”, but we have seen some strange sights this year. There was Karan Johar’s campy Khambatta in Bombay Velvet, complete with girly giggles. But there were also some old, reassuring evil mates: Bhallala Deva (Rana Daggubati) in Bahubali and, most recently, sautela bhai (Neil Nitin Mukesh) in Prem Ratan Dhan Payo.

Fact is that the villain, as in evil incarnate, has never really left our screens. They are kept in reserve, to be taken out for big outings — when heroes need big hits, when directors need to up their game, when producers need big profits. Or when iconic characters need to be created: Dabaang, Ghajini, Bahubali, Krrish or, well, Rajini Sir.
Or, perhaps, when we are losing too many battles in real life, and need a victory on the screen.

2016 looks like it’ll be that kind of a year. With Salman Khan’s Sultan, Aamir Khan’s Dangal, Sunny Deol’s Ghayal: Once Again, Priyanka Chopra’s Jai Gangajal, Ajay Devgn’s Shivay and Shah Rukh Khan’s Raees slated for release, it promises to be a year of big villains and even bigger heroes. Our cinema will once again show us what we, perhaps, don’t even know we are craving: Big battles and big, reassuring wins.