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Sympathy for the devil: We have come a long way from ridiculing villains to celebrating anti-heroes. But is a villain a really bad person or a flawed human being? A search down history and across the world. Devdutt Pattanaik elaborates.

art-and-culture Updated: Jun 19, 2010 23:08 IST
Devdutt Pattanaik
Devdutt Pattanaik

Every story needs a villain. The Jain Chronicles are very clear about this.For every Vasudeva, they say, there must be a Prati-Vasudeva. Against Ram stands Ravan, against Krishna stands Kansa. In fact, the villain comes first, justifying the existence of the hero. The villain’s villainy props up the hero’s heroism, justifies his adoration and worship.

Though villains must be looked down upon, there is always something fascinating about villains, something almost seductive, a primal charm that appeals to us. Initially we hate them, but gradually we start adoring and admiring them, trying to understand them, and sometimes even emulating them. Not surprisingly therefore, many silver screen heroes switch over to the other side, transform into dacoits and smugglers and terrorists and bank robbers, to our greatest pleasure.

In medieval times, Catholic priests frightened people out of having sex with strangers by telling them tales of incubus and succubus, male and female demons who suck out sanity. These tales inspired the vampire stories and today vampires constitute the most adored romantic hero for American teenage girls leading to success of films such as the Twilight and teleserials such as True Blood.

In the 1989 Tim Burton version of Batman, the role of the Joker played by Jack Nicholson earned critical acclaim; the audience loved him, as he overshadowed the lead character. The same character was revisited in the 2008 film Dark Knight. The role of Joker was played very differently by Heath Ledger. It was darker, more psychotic. And the audience gave him a standing ovation.

In Bollywood, the dacoit Gabbar Singh and the smugglers played by Ajit, those who said lines like ‘Mona, darling’ and ‘Smart boy’ and ‘Lily, don’t be silly’ have become part of modern folklore. A film flopped if these villains were not part of the masala. Stars became superstars when they blurred the line between hero and villain, as in case of Amitabh Bachchan who from the upright police inspector of Zanjeer became the angst-ridden smuggler in Deewar. The outlaw became the impressive anti-hero when Sanjay Dutt played the villain we loved in Khalnayak, and Amir Khan played the determined terrorist in Fanaa. By the time of Dhoom, the villainy of the villain no longer mattered; what mattered was the style.

Increasingly, thanks to permission granted by post-modern thinkers, we want to explore the mind of the villain, understand his perspective. We are ready to believe he is misunderstood. We want to enter the heart of darkness.

But who is a villain? In ancient Mesopotamia, villains were forces like Tiamat who created chaos; heroes were one such as Marduk who brought order. In Greek mythology, villains were fathers and uncles and gods who sent heroes like Odysseus and Hercules on impossible quests where they had to fight many monsters. In Biblical narratives, where God put down rules, heroes were those who upheld the law despite the odds, and villains were those who submitted to temptation and broke the sacred laws. In Hindu and Jain narratives, villains are people who act for their own self-aggrandisement, deluding themselves that this matters in the vast infinite cosmos.

But in nature, there are no villains. The leopard chasing the deer is a predator but no villain. If she does not kill the deer, she will starve. For the lion hunting the deer, the monkey that warns all animals of his presence is a villain. Villainy is a human construct, an output of cultures. Villains are created by stories. The Devil is constructed by stories found in the Bible. Asuras and Rakshasas come into being from stories in the Puranas. In the Jatakas, those who reject the path of the Boddhisattva, are the villains. Villainy is always a cultural construction, dependent on what a civilisation considers, and informs through stories, to be appropriate behavior.

Many a terrorist today believe that they are following a sacred rule book. To them, the victims of their violence are actually the villains, and they are the heroes. In Palestine, the Israeli soldier is the villain; in Israel, Hamas is the villain. The outlaw is created depending on which law one subscribes to.

But at a human level, what is villainy? What is the darkness that tempts us? We must not forget that humans are still 99 per cent animals. There is only 1 per cent that makes us different from animals — that makes us human. That is our larger brain, our ability to imagine, to think beyond ourselves, beyond the here and now. This ability is a double-edged sword: it can make us worse than animals, exploit, be cruel, or better than them, empathise, be generous. The former provides us with the thrill of power and domination, the latter demands great effort and detachment. We would rather be predators than prey. Animals become predators for survival. When humans become predators, not for survival, but to feel significant and validated and powerful, they turn into villains.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a mythologist and the author of The Pregnant King

First Published: Jun 19, 2010 23:06 IST