Death of the villain: Where have the iconic Bollywood bad guys gone?
What made Shah Rukh Khan a star also pushed many producers to not go for established actors in negative roles as Khan’s success almost bridged the gap between the hero and the villain. They called it the arrival of the anti-hero.
Starting from KN Singh and then moving on to actors like Pran, Prem Chopra, Amrish Puri and Gulshan Grover, the trend of presenting a really powerful villain in Hindi films started to fade with Amitabh Bachchan who was interested in playing characters with a grey tinge. But it was Shah Rukh Khan who popularised such characters in the beginning of the ‘90s. The commercial success of films like Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam made him a force to reckon with in Bollywood.
It was paradoxical to later see Shah Rukh Khan emerge as an iconic romantic hero through films such as Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. He was readily accepted. Something that wasn’t possible in the ‘70s when the character graphs of the hero, heroine and villain were perfectly chalked out.
So, what exactly happened there? How come those evil characters paved the way for the so called anti-heroes? Gulshan Grover, probably the last of the villain superstars, explains, “Reel reflects real. The directors try to picturise what they see around them. Earlier, characters were black and white from the beginning. They took pride in being a bad guy. Now, the characters want to talk like normal people. That’s why you don’t see the typical villains anymore.”
He talks about the change in the thought process. “There was a time when gangsters called the shots. You walked into a party and found a smuggler or a gangster. Even in the villages, you met the thakur’s son or an eve teaser. Those demarcations are not present now.”
He adds, “Some of the heroes wanted to challenge themselves by playing a grey character. Then there were some who were not doing well as the lead guys, so they also moved towards playing a villain. Sometimes, the casting was also done to create sensational news. Some directors started to play the negative characters as well. For example Karan Johar in Bombay Velvet and Nishikant Kamat in Rocky Handsome. That was also to create news value.”
Gulshan Grover suggests that filmmakers try to be more realistic now. His own choice of films reflects a different mindset. “In Toilet: Ek Prem Katha, the father’s thinking is the villain. In Bareilly Ki Barfi, the hero is scheming. I found I Am Kalam a more challenging role, so I went for it.”
He makes a strong point when he says that actors are also afraid to be typecast. “It’s difficult to be a star by just playing a specialised villain. The era of such villains will end with me not because I am brilliant, but because it’s really difficult to be a household name by just playing negative characters.Today’s actors don’t have the courage to play only villainous characters. Initially, I refused positive roles and it worked very well for me.”
But hasn’t this taken the charm away from films with traditional storylines? “It has. That’s why many films don’t work. Many of the earlier subjects and thoughts are repackaged now. If one of these films become a hit, people will come up with more such films.”
Prem Chopra, another superstar in his own realm, goes back to the times when Salman Khan hadn’t popularised Prem as a romantic name. He was ‘Prem, Prem Chopra’ back then. He opines, “Kya hai na ki zamaane ke saath saath har cheez badal jaati hai. People change, environment changes, faces change. In our era, people didn’t need to be told about the characters as there were only three: Hero, heroine and villain. Bobby is an example of this. All I need to do is to say my name for claps. I never had to explain the reasons behind my works.”
Prem Chopra, who is still doing important character roles in films such as Rocket Singh Salesman of The Year, has seen the changing times. “Filmmakers were more passionate about their work. Be it Raj Kapoor or Manoj Kumar, they were ready to put everything on stake for their films. It’s more materialistic now. In those days, the only entertainment was cinema. Now, you have so many channels and that have left people wanting for more. The audience is ready to accept the performance now rather than the actor.”
He further says, “Nobody wants to invest time. It’s the time of instant products.”
And then he says something really important about old classics. “Maybe the people won’t accept those films now (laugh). Take Mughal-E-Azam or Shantaram’s films for example. They might not be accepted in the same form today.”
In today’s times, actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Jaideep Ahlawat and even Sidharth Malhotra are trying to display the shades of grey. Among them, a new actor Tahir Raj Bhasin, has secured an enviable place. His work in Mardaani and Force 2 was instantly recognised. He represents the new crop that both Chopra and Grover talked about.
He begins with what inspires him to go for such roles. He says, “I don’t know whether it’s the death of the villain, but it’s definitely the age of the anti-hero. This trend has been around for some time now. Irrfan Khan played a grey character in Haasil, and of course, Shah Rukh Khan was seen in Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam. They were dark personalities with certain amount of charm. There was a connection. In Force 2, my character has a motive, it’s on a revenge mission. In Mardaani, his father gets killed. Basically, you know the back-stories of these characters.”
The filmmakers are also under-pressure to deliver world-class content. Tahir Raj Bhasin says, “Some of the hit shows like House Of Cards, Narcos and Breaking Bad present characters with ambiguous morality. Films reflect their times. A lot of it has to do with the maturity of the audience. They are looking at actors who can play other roles too. There is something human about the grey roles. You think maybe I would have done the same thing in similar circumstances.”
These anti-heroes are as suave as the heroes. “I am doing Manto with Nawazuddin in which I am playing Sham, a film star. It opens up the space for the actor,” adds Bhasin.
The game has changed for the actors aspiring to play the negative characters for sure, but what hasn’t changed is the audience’s thirst for witnessing a terrifying bad guy. The new-age anti-heroes might be sophisticated and more resourceful than their predecessors, but they still need to work for years to see the kind of stardom their seniors enjoyed.
The old villain might be dead for now, but he may return with much more vengeance. All they need is a blockbuster that can bring them back in fashion.
Interact with Rohit Vats at Twitter/@nawabjha