No longer a stereotype: how reel villains turned real

  • Tavishi Paitandy Rastogi, Hindustan Times
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  • Updated: Feb 02, 2014 12:22 IST

When Supriya Pathak slices her daughter, Deepika Padukone's ring finger as casually as she cuts her betelnuts, in Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Ram Leela - Goliyon Ki Rasleela, you are stunned at her inhumanity. But somewhere you understand her mindset.

You realised she had to protect the honour of her community!

Every time Nikitin Dheer walks into the frame in the 300-crore Chennai Express, you pray fervently that Shah Rukh and Deepika manage to run away from his clutches. And yet you can't help but ogle at Dheer's rippling muscles and to-die-for body.

Ronit Roy's pure cold blackness in Boss was accentuated by his back story where, as an eight-year-old, he cuts the brakes of his parent's car simply because they didn't get him the toy he wanted. You wince and cry 'How could he?' But then you let it pass. After all, you realise that people as dark as Ronit's character do exist in real life.

You fear these men and women. But you're fascinated by them. On occasions, you actually look forward to seeing what they will do next. "That's because today's villains aren't really villains. They are real guys with just a higher degree of negativity," says actor Manoj Bajpayee "You hate their deeds but not them." 

The bad man has seen various avatars over the years in Hindi films. From conniving munimjis to smugglers and drug lords, from dacoits to the enemies of the country like Mogambo and Dr Dang. And today, the corrupt cop-politician nexus. But there's a difference.

Now the audience has started to accept and understand their 'badness'.

What has helped their cause is the fact that most villains today are not cardboard cut-outs or caricatures. They seem like real people. Be it the rough, tyrannical father of Udaan or the ruthless Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur who didn't think twice before killing a foe or using women for sex, each 'bad' character comes with his own story.

As actor Vidyut Jamwal, who made a stunning debut as a villain opposite John Abraham in Force puts it, "Traditionally villains were the quintessential bad guys. Their roles did not allow an emotional connect with the audience beyond that of disgust. It was almost a stereotype. But with time, the definition of a villain has evolved to encapsulate elements that allow for a backstory and that connects," he says.

Shah Rukh Khan: King Khan made the anti-hero stylish with his obsessed-killer-lover trilogy, Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam. The Don franchise brought back the badshah as the bad guy.
Ajay Devgn: The brooding hero turned into a killer cop in Raj Kumar Santoshi's Khakee.
Sanjay Dutt: He made his big comeback on screen post his jail term as an underworld don in Vaastav. Be it Khalnayak or the recent Agneepath, Sanju baba hasn't ever shied away from playing negative roles.
Vivek Oberoi: He made his debut as an underworld don in Company and then also did Shootout at Lokandwala. Most recently he made a comeback as the killer Kaal in Krrish 3.
Hrithik Roshan: The Greek god of India turned into a handsome but conniving thief for Dhoom 2
Akshay Kumar: Having played all kinds of games, playing the villain was the only thing left for this Khiladi. With Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobaraa he did that too.
Rishi Kapoor: He was the sweater-clad lover boy for nearly three decades till he retired. But when he decided to come back, it was as the menacing Rauf Lala in Agneepath and Dawood in D Day.
Aamir Khan: He tried hard to be the bad guy in Dhoom 3 but the sincere Khan's efforts didn't really pay off.
Saif Ali Khan: This nawaab was dismissed as a poor actor till he did the villainous role of Langda Tyagi in Omkaara. He went on to play the bad guy in Ek Haseena Thi.
Amitabh Bachchan: The shahenshah of Bollywood has played many negative roles, from Parwana in his early days to Kaante or even Aks. And most recently in the forgettable Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag.

But why?

Why the villain is so different today is the result of a combination of factors - smart scriptwriting, screen presentation, audience exposure to the outside world.

The changing face of the Hindi film villain has more to do with the changing face of society - from morals to ethics to entertainment.

Calling it an evolution, lyricist and scriptwriter Javed Akhtar feels the villain has always emerged from the times in which the films were set. Earlier there was a strong demarcation between good and bad. Anybody who stood for morality and aspiration was hailed as the hero. Anyone against him was the villain. "In the 1980s, the mafia don became the hero, because of people's disillusionment with law and order and the role of the state. Then politicians were made villains, followed by Pakistanis. Today it is the business tycoon, the banker, the guy next door!" says Akhtar who co-wrote many stories of good vs evil, such as Sholay, Deewar, Shaan.

"Cinema today has grown tremendously," says Soumik Sen, director of soon-to-be-released Gulaab Gang. "And so has our sense of looking at it." He adds that cinema is now an amalgamation of various nuances that exist in a far more developed, aware, savvy society.

While earlier, films were more of a play between fantasy and reality, tilting towards fantasy, today's films are just another mode of entertainment among many others. 

Juhi Chawla plays a negative character in Soumik Sen's Gulaab GangFilmmakers insist it is no longer possible to make a film with a character like Mogambo unless it is clearly stated to be a sort of fantasy. Even a Gabbar may not fit in today's scenario. So a Paan Singh Tomar takes over. "Both were dacoits. Think about it, Gabbar's character, if studied deeply, had many layers," says Soumik Sen. "He didn't lead a lavish life. He was perhaps a victim of a casteist society where the Thakurs would have ruled. So he became a dacoit to get to a position of power. But at that point, Gabbar's back story was not spelt out. So he was this larger than life villain. Now, Paan Singh Tomar too was a dacoit. But one empathised with him because you saw his back story and realised why he did what he did."

This is the kind of story-telling which humanises the villain. "Not just that, often it endears the bad character to the audience," insists Bajpayee who feels it was only because of the way Bhiku Mhatre lived and laughed with his loved ones that - in spite of him being a cold-blooded gangster - the audience cried when he died in Satya.

The human touch
Much of the credit of this humanising process goes to the scriptwriters and filmmakers. The way the character is written and presented makes all the difference. "The fact that today most scripts are written in a way so as not to alienate the villain but weave a story around him and present him as a mighty opponent instead of just a bad man, makes the villain a formidable and acceptable character," says actor Sonu Sood.

Though the villain remains a feared character and can be bloody and brutal, often he has quirks which also make the audience laugh with him. Sood remembers how a few funny dialogues and the item song Munni Badnam Hui in Dabangg made his character of Chedi Singh work.

These subtle nuances have also made sure that the villain's role is no longer taboo for actors - not even for a top hero or someone used to playing 'good' roles. "It's definitely intriguing. To play a character you can't relate to naturally becomes a challenge," says actress Juhi Chawla who will be seen playing the negative lead for the first time in her career in Gulaab Gang.

But isn't playing bad tough? After all, as believed commonly, he or she is not naturally you! "Of course it is tough. And it takes guts to be out there and stick your neck out, knowing fully well that it is bound to get cut publicly," says Gulshan Grover. Most actors playing the villain agree, but also point out that it gives them a sense of versatility. The bad guy is often a complex, convoluted character. Most actors find that fascinating. "It gives you an edge," says actor Ronit Roy, who feels that Hollywood films where stalwarts like Robert De Niro play villains is also a motivation.

Accept the black
For a lot of actors though, audience acceptability has made it easier to play the villain. With moral and ethical guidelines now becoming more and more blurred, audiences seem to be happy with a 'not so holier than thou' hero. Scriptwriter Niranjan Iyengar feels grey is becoming more real than black or white. "Our moral guidelines have become much less rigid today. What was considered blasphemy earlier is quite okay today," he says. The villain was always relative to the hero. So, with the hero changing, the definition of the villain has also changed. All white and pure is rather boring."

Actor Gulshal Devaiah who has played a baddie in all of his three films, Hate Story, Shaitan and Ram Leela, says the audience accepted the characters. "After the first film, it became easier for me to accept the role of a villain when it came my way," he says. Today, actors are no longer scared of getting labelled as a 'villain'. "It is much easier to shift from one garb to the other. As an actor, I can choose to play what I wish to now," adds Devaiah.

It isn't just the characterisation that has changed, even the way the villains look has changed. Forget the sleazy, unkempt Shakti Kapoors or Ranjits, even the suave Ajits would be put to shame by these deadly hunks. Fit, with six pack abs, villains are often as hot as our heroes. Vidyut Jamwal matched John Abraham, rippling muscle for rippling muscle, in Force. Every time Salman took off his shirt, so did Sonu in Dabangg. Whoever said that villains looked creepy? "But that has to be," says director Sujoy Ghosh. "If we want to show the might of the hero, the villain needs to be mightier. The victory of good over bad is celebrated only when the bad seems invincible. So be it looks or character presentation, the bad has to look bigger and better," he adds.

But there is a deeper philosophy at work: today, people seem to be actually enjoying the bad. There is no real villain in our society today, says Javed Akhtar. "Because the villain has become the ideal," he laughs. "Everyone wants the power, the show and the good life. Everyone wants to be a millionaire."

Black is also so fascinating. The element of danger, the aura of unfettered power make for greater attraction. As actor Ronit Roy says it's because we're living in Kalyug. "Today, we all find a little good in the bad!" he laughs.

The 1940s and '50s: The lalas, munimji and zamindars ruled. Every peasant had his land and his self-respect up for grabs at the hands of heartless moneylenders and landowners.
The 1960s and '70s: This was the era of dacoits and smugglers: From Gabbar to Lion aka Loin, from the Chambal ravines to the 'dens' of the urban baddies and from gaon ki goris to molls.
The 1980s and '90s: Mogambo, Dr Dang, Shakal or Azgarjurrat… India was fighting a battle against foreigners and traitors who wanted to destroy the nation.
2000s: With liberalisation, money became the new magnet pulling in the fraudsters, drug dealers, and scamsters. They could be anyone - the police, the mafia, the underworld don or the politician, all often joined at the hip.

From HT Brunch, February 2

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