Whither the villain? The 'bad men' of Bollywood could well be a disappearing breed
Before the release of the Salman Khan blockbuster Sultan this year, there were reports in the media that the gifted actor Nawazuddin Siddiqi had been enlisted by the producers to play a part in the film as a ‘dangerous villain’. Later, it was announced that Nawazuddin would not appear in Sultan — but more interesting was the fact that the film had no place for a ‘dangerous villain’ at all; for all the blood and brutality Sultan promised, it was about the lives of professional wrestlers — with blood donation as a benevolent central motif. It would seem that the extravagant art of ‘villainy’ has faded from Bollywood even as it thrives in South Indian cinema. Since Bollywood is the closest we have to a pan-national cinema, one finds oneself even wondering if there are social factors making portrayals of wickedness in Hindi cinema ‘nationally’ outmoded.
The villain (or the anti-hero) in any narrative is a character who does harm to people (or opposes ideas) that the audience is in sympathy with; a character thus defined could even be the protagonist as in Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Since what/who the audience sympathises with would be supported by an ethical framework we may suppose that the villain acts against accepted ethics. The reach of an ethical framework is itself largely local and as an instance, one would find infidelity in marriage treated more gravely by Hollywood than by French or Italian cinema.
All popular films address recognisable communities and in most cases, the community is a national one. This sense of nation-as-community therefore engenders historical responses towards right and wrong — creating a ‘situational ethics’ historically.
As an instance, while white soldiers who killed natives were heroes in the films of John Ford (The Searchers, 1956) they were portrayed as villains by the counter-culture a decade later (Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, 1970). WWI and WWII are also treated very differently in American/European films although both were world wars. Popular films, in denoting villains, therefore need to address a general ethics depending on social and religious practice and another one owing to the historical concerns of a national community; the latter is usually associated with dominant views which could also be opposed to state action. In the 1950s, we recollect, policemen had high moral stature in Hindi cinema (Raj Khosla’s CID, 1956) but such a portrayal would be anomalous now although the police in Hindi cinema still embody state authority as in the 1950s.
Mainstream Hindi cinema (or Bollywood) is the closest India has to a national cinema consumed by a widely distributed public. Where regional language cinemas address local/language identities within India, Bollywood has tailored itself – through the use of a basic Hindi and by avoiding subject material which might cause annoyance – to be accepted widely.
If one were to invoke a system of ethics which might be widely acceptable in India, it would be the code of dharma which is singular in being contextual, i.e. dependent on one’s station in society. Dharma might have been the ruling ethical framework but colonisation has had its effect; its impact was thus evidenced much more clearly in (say) the earlier Kannada cinema than in the Hindi film since the territory commanded by the former was the princely state of Mysore, where the colonial interface had been small. It is only in Kannada cinema until the 1970s in which the father is unquestioned ‘lord and master’ of the household. In Hindi cinema, as early as the 1930s, the wife could rebel against her husband as in V Shantaram’s Duniya Na Mane (1937) and this may be attributed to the reformism of the 19th Century which transformed Hinduism, trying to do away with its most reprehensible practices.
By and large, dharma may be identified in narratives through the motif of people doing their duties righteously; wrongdoers are, accordingly, those who do not — like fathers who ill-treat their children (PC Barua’s Devdas, 1935). The authoritarian father is a common figure in cinema of the period and may be taken to allegorise heavy-handed colonial power. The equation with colonial state authority is made more explicit in Mehboob Khan’s Taqdeer (1943) in which the father is also a judge. Other film villains in the 1930s and 1940s include deceitful Brahmins (Damle and Fatehlal’s Sant Tukaram, 1936), hateful mothers-in-law (Damle and Fatehlal’s Sant Sakhu, 1941), indifferent husbands (Mehboob’s Aurat, 1940) and heartless industrialists (Mazdoor, 1934), all categories which may be associated with ‘dharmic impropriety’. It may be noted that in films like Mazdoor (scripted by Munshi Premchand) it is not capitalism which is attacked but the bad industrialist, since a good counterpoint is provided.
The state and independent nation make characteristic entrances after 1947 with the state (in the shape of the police and judiciary) becoming objects of reverence. It is only after 1947 that the courtroom scene comes into Hindi cinema as a sacred site in which the truth cannot be denied. At the same time, the sacred mother appears as allegory of the land or the nation, earliest in Mehboob’s Anmol Ghadi (1946) and carried forward into Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951). Awaara has a professional criminal (Jagga played by KN Singh) as the nominal villain but one suspects that this is to distract us from an uncharacteristic wrongdoer — Prithviraj Kapoor as Judge Raghunath who unjustly accuses his wife of infidelity and casts her out. Such a negative portrayal of a judge — an emblem of state authority — as early as 1951 is radical. But since the judge himself stands trial at the end we could interpret it as servants of the state not being above the law.
A key issue in the cinema of the 1950s is modernity and it has good as well as bad sides. Good modernity is represented by the doctor and the bad kind by the nightclub and the modern dance. The film to actually bring both into conflict is Baazi in which the protagonist chooses the doctor over the club dancer. Films of this period are often located in the city (emblem of Nehruvian modernity) and it is only natural that the urban gangster should feature prominently — Aar-Paar (Guru Dutt, 1954), Howrah Bridge (Shakti Samantha, 1958) with KN Singh often being the natural choice for the role, as in Baazi. There was also an agrarian side to the cinema of the 1950s since the Telangana insurgency made land reform an issue needing to be addressed. Mother India (1956), Mehboob’s remake of Aurat hence had a new message about the punishment of the well-intentioned rebel who breaks the law. Dev Anand, one of Hindi cinema’s greatest anti-heroes (Guru Dutt’s Jaal, 1952) also benefited in the 1950s though an amoral persona most comfortable in the confusing ambience of the big city; his roles suggest someone adjusting quickly to new moralities brought to the surface by modernity.
On studying the displays of moral wrongdoing in Hindi cinema one detects a correlation between wrong conduct and national concerns as perceived by an Indian audience — from colonial tyranny in the shape of the authoritarian father to the threats of modernity as emblemised by the shadowy urban gangster. An aspect of importance is that there is little corresponding to ‘evil’ — i.e. the propensity to cause harm out of mere perversity, as opposed to self-interest, greed etc, which can be associated with ‘artha’.
The correlation between the national ethos and ethical wrongdoing is a measure of the responsiveness of cinema to the nation but it becomes less responsive after 1962, when the debacle of the Sino-Indian war put an end to the optimism of the Nehru era. The first thing we notice about Hindi cinema after 1962 is its tendency to be ‘escapist’, with foreign countries and hill stations as locales. Instead of dealing with national issues, Hindi films retreat into fanciful stories with resolutions effected anyhow – chiefly through ‘dishoom-dishoom’ fight sequences. The villains are also not aligned against any social ethic and the character played by Pran in Kashmir Ki Kali (1964) is more versatile in his ability to do harm than those he had played earlier (Sheesh Mahal, 1950). This kind of villain goes along with the gadgetry on display in films like Farz (1967) and Jewel Thief (1967), which bear the influence of James Bond.
Mrs Gandhi’s first term as prime minister is generally recorded as a period of social upliftment but Bollywood sees it (rightly) in cynical terms through its extravagant villains, especially those played by Ajit (Yaadon Ki Baraat, 1973). The foreign smuggler transporting idols to the West and the drug-takers of Hare Rama Hare Krishna (1971) can be associated with Mrs Gandhi’s ‘anti-western’ rhetoric. The villains coming to the fore in this period are even more arbitrarily wicked than those in the 1960s and the villain in Bobby (1973) bearing the same name as the actor (Prem Chopra) is indication of the film’s lack of faith in his credibility as fiction. The greatest villain in Hindi cinema Gabbar Singh (Amjad Khan) from Sholay (1975) is one of these villains whose acts exceed any behavioural logic. My own interpretation of Gabbar’s success is that with his khaki uniform and his impersonal treatment of human fates (‘Tera kya hoga Kaliya?’) he mimicked the arbitrariness of state authority during Mrs Gandhi’s Emergency.
The villains of the 1980s go along with those of the 1970s except that they are usually also rapists. Rape is equated with dishonour of the nation in Insaaf Ka Tarazu (1980) and since it is coupled with the portrayal of the police/judiciary as weak, one can see in films the reflection of the nation under siege from divisive forces — like those then running rampant in Punjab.
One of the most important moments in Indian history was the economic liberalisation of 1991 under PV Narasimha Rao since it signalled the demise of Nehruvian socialism. It announced that the state would progressively withdraw from intervention and the film to first register this was Baazigar (1993) which can be interpreted as a tussle between two families for control of a business empire; the men eventually battle it out with axes while the police stand at a distance, as if declining to intervene! There was apprehension among the public about the nation’s moral fabric after the abandonment of Nehruvian socialism, and the anti-hero of the film (Shah Rukh Khan) gave voice to it.
Anti-heroes and villains in Hindi cinema, as we have seen, are related to concerns created by the nation state (like good and bad modernity in the 1950s). When the state announced a policy of gradual withdrawal from the public space in 1991, it therefore implied that Hindi cinema would eventually be left without villains — since it was state action which had engendered them in the first place. This is perhaps why Hindi film entertainment became ‘clean’ with HAHK (1994) and DDLJ (1995). Possible villains in Hindi cinema could now only be the British (Lagaan, 2001) and Pakistan (Border, 1997) who were outside the scope of state action. The other villains still perhaps lurking around would be remnants of the state — like corrupt politicians (Rang De Basanti, 2005) and the police (Masaan, 2015). As cinema became more preoccupied with itself there could also be a place for film-land villains (Om Shanti Om, 2007, The Dirty Picture, 2011).
It is easy to lampoon Bollywood’s villains but, despite their colourfulness, they pointed to an ethical framework kept in place through the actions/policies of the state. With the state progressively leaving society and its upkeep to private enterprise, the paucity of villains suggests a weakening of society’s moral fabric, which is perhaps why fraudsters and thieves with no obligations except to themselves (Bunty Aur Babli, 2005, Dhoom 2, 2006) are seen as heroes by Bollywood rather than as villains.
MK Raghavendra is a Swarna Kamal winning film scholar and author of The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)