Mogambo khush hua! Bollywood’s villains and vamps get their due in an interesting book devoted entirely to these magnificently mean personalities.
Book of the week
Villains, Vamps and Henchmen in Hindi cinema
By Tapan K Ghosh
Rs. 395 pp 213
A quick poll of the Bollywood character with the fastest recall value would throw up the name of Gabbar Singh. Really, a Hindi film viewer who does not know he was the bandit villain of Sholay would have to have just landed from another planet. In Gabbar Singh’s case at least, when it comes to popularity, no character certificate is required. Tapan K. Ghosh had the delightful task of putting together this rogues’ gallery of Hindi cinema, and he has done a fairly thorough job of going over the list of baddies from the early days right up to Agneepath (2012).
Full disclosure: This reviewer’s essay from the book Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema has been quoted with due credit. As Ghosh writes in his preface, “Villains are the unsung heroes of Bollywood…” and rightly so, since they have, in so many films, provided the masala to spice up the plot. Interestingly, he got Prem Chopra to write the foreword — an apt choice as he is the senior most living villain and counts among the top 10 Hindi film villains of all time along with Ajit, Pran, Amrish Puri and Amjad Khan.
In popular Hindi cinema, the villain is often larger than life, with comic shades — think Mogambo, Dr Dang and Gabbar Singh — which is why you wish the tone of the book was a bit lighter. However, Ghosh’s research cannot be faulted and he scores when he places the villains of each period within their proper socio-political framework.
He dips into mythology to examine ideas of the root of evil in India and elsewhere, and often brings to the fore a villain who was left behind when the film went on to become a classic — as in the instance of Jagga in Awara (played by the great KN Singh), who was the catalyst in what is now remembered as a father-son, nature-nurture story.
He also examines why some of the most powerful villains have been played by leading men. The problem of typecasting originally meant once an actor was branded a villain, he could never become a ‘hero’. Still, there have been cases of stars like Amitabh Bachchan and Shah Rukh Khan who crossed to the other side and returned, with no dent in their stardom. Hindi cinema is full of memorable villains, but vamps have been in short supply.
The ones that did shine moved within such a narrow range of evil that all of them could be fitted into a single chapter. Interestingly, actors who played henchmen also get a listing at the end of the book along with the actors who played the best (or worst?) villains (no Premnath, Paresh Rawal, Gulshan Grover?) with short notes on their films. The chapter on the most unforgettable baddies could have gone beyond the obvious choices.
But despite minor quibbles with Ghosh’s habit of addressing you as the ‘dear reader’ or using odd words like ‘crikey’, or translating satyanash as ‘what a violation of truth’, this is an interesting read. It is also a reminder of how changes in society are reflected through transformations in the characterisation of the villain — the hero remains heroic in the same way, but the villain finds new ways of being bad.
Deepa Gahlot is a journalist and Head Programming, Theatre & Film, National Centre for Performing Arts