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Who is the new Amrish Puri or Pran? The era of Bollywood villains is over

Movies like Wake up Sid, Vicky Donor, and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani – to name a few – show how the Hindi cinema is devoid of iconic, over the top villains.

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Who are Hindi cinema’s new Amrish Puri, or Prem Chopra, or Danny Denzongpa? It’s hard to think of a big, bad Bollywood villain today. In the new movies, the villain is an idea, a circumstance, or a character flaw – not necessarily a menacing man mouthing sinister dialogues and doing unspeakable things.

In recent decades, many popular movies haven’t featured a villain that the hero had to defeat. Here’s one line-up. Wake Up Sid (2009), Rocket Singh (2009), Vicky Donor (2012), Band Baaja Baaraat (2010), Lakshya (2004), and Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (2013) are to name a few. Even in Brahmastra (2022), ‘good versus evil’ plot did not throw up a visible arch villain. Ranbir Kapoor’s character Dev is only a force trapped in a statue.

There are no new Amjad Khans in Bollywood. And is that even a bad thing?

The absence of a stock villain is also doing something unprecedented to the way the movie hero is sketched. There’s just more to the hero’s character now. And they are all the richer for it. 

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Without a villain to vanquish

Today, popular Hindi films are primarily aimed at made for the upper middle class, who can afford to pay for multiplex tickets. And for them heroic fights are not for means or revenge sagas for them! The hero now has to fight their own inner demons, inertia, desires from life, and be true to the purpose they seek for themselves. A phenomenon closely embodied by upper middle class youth of the, striving for off-the-beaten-path dreams off the beaten track because that is what they desire in their personal realities.

Heroes evolved from went beyond only being alpha males to soft more human versions of themselves. And women became heroes in their own narratives too. Wake Up Sid (2009), Yeh Jawaani hai Deewani (2013), Tamasha (2015) saw see Ranbir Kapoor in a dilemma of what he chooses – willingly giving up stability and comfort in the pursuit of a dream. Both Rocket Singh and Band Baaja Baraat (2010) liberated protagonists from external fights, to finding ambition and realising it – a reality of the youth of the time. Lakshya (2004) had a similar premise of a man wavering without a purpose, but fell into the trope of a hypermasculine trope of becoming a soldier.

Yet we saw emotions in heroes otherwise missed – of doubt, fear, uncertainty, sadness – rendering the heroes themselves more and more humane. 

With Vicky Donor (2012), Badhaai Ho (2018), and Bala (2019), Ayushmann Khurrana emerged as a hero, unconventional yet everyday, willingly fighting with societal prejudices in an everyday, joyful manner. Making ‘imperfections’ real, and insisting on the problematic patriarchal gaze on women. Rajkumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai series (2003 and 2006), 3 idiots (2009) and PK (2014) – all look at the hero in different various ways. Some are learning the realities of the worlds in which they live in, while otherssome struggle with self-doubt and fear, and some willingly abandon ideas of expectations from themselves while but strengthening very human values of compassion and empathy. And then, there was the return of Gandhi as a hero in Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006) fighting ideas of corruption, so entrenched in society and politics today.

A complete genre of the villain – so distinctive and memorable – has gone missing. Remember Pran’s sinister smile, Ajit’s ‘Mona Darling’, Amjad Khan’s ‘Kitne aadmi the’, Prem Chopra’s ‘Mera naam hai Prem’, Amrish Puri’s ‘Mogambo khush hua’ and there are so many others such as – Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Paresh Rawal, Ashish Vidyarthi, and Ashutosh Rana – formidable artistes and outstanding villains. Each of these villains had a signature style and look. They were celebrities unto themselves.

They were evil feudal men in villages, serial rapists, cut-throat businessmen, export-import smugglers or manipulative politicians. They represented the object of Indians’ anger over decades. The story of the Bollywood villains was also a story of India, and every era produced a new Raavan repertoire.

The names of villains then, were also grand. Mr Dawar, Mogambo, Lion, and Shakaal all had carried with them a certain tenor about them that came to define the villain with power. Villains began to become more and more apparent, as the 70s moved on – with distinct identifiers in physicality and settings. Lion (Ajit Khan), was always dressed in white with a cigar between his fingers, the persona of Mogambo with ‘Mogambo Khush hua’ as the identifying line, Shakaal with the bald head, and the sets that were dens of villains – replete with crocodiles, and hidden chambers – enabled the villains to seem impenetrable, and therefore their defeat, as much more rejoiceful.

These were villains who that were inherently feudal, drunk on power, and insisted on subjugating of everyone around them. Inflicting power, and terror of power at every stage, monopolising survivals of the proverbial hero and their associates. They were also deeply entertaining, as were their sidekicks. Who can forget Kaalia or Mona Darling or ‘Raabert’? Or the way Prem Chopra introduced himself, “Prem naam hai mera”.

Once the movie-watching Indians started becoming affluent and aspirational, much of their collective anxieties around wealth and accumulation of power waned. They coved wealth and power for themselves. This was the decade of Manmohan Singh and Kaun Banega Crorepati coupled with the NRI nostalgia for pure Indian culture. The room for anger shrank. 

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A shift in portrayal female actors

While the 1950s saw shades of morally ambiguous leads in Baazi (1951) and the cruel money-lender landlord in Do Bigha Zameen (1963), it’s really the end of those decades that launched the quintessential Hindi cinema villain. And Pran’s Raja Ugra Narayan character was born in 1968 with Madhumati. His evil was so deep that the woman had to take another birth to take her revenge. The 1960s also had more and more women villains, popularly called the ‘vamp’. She was often the gangster’s moll, the cabaret dancing, westernised counter to the sanskari heroine.

The 60s was a time of flamboyant romances. With Shammi Kapoor’s enviable dance moves and Rajesh Khanna’s unbridled charm. Professor (1962), Teesri Manzil (1966), Aradhana (1969). Yet the villains were slowly coming into their own. They were plotters and abductors, trying to steal the girl from the hero. There were also the patriarchs, keeping lovers at bay, in what is arguably India’s greatest magnum opus – Mughal-e-Azam (1963).

The angry young man defined the 1970s decade. Amitabh Bachchan’s larger than life persona on screen would forever be indebted to the villains he defeated, to emerge as the indefatigable hero. By that decade, the hopes from the Nehruvian nation-building years were beginning to fade, and Indians were questioning rampant corruption, cronyism, class, and criminality. He played the role of the negative ‘other son’ resentful of the legitimate family heir – much like the Karna character in Mahabharata. In his quest for legitimacy and parental love, he would also play a villain.

Bachchan’s iconic characters also erred on the side of morality, Deewar (1975), Don (1978), and Trishul (1979), whether pushed so due to oppressive circumstances, or just the love of crime, the character always met with a fated end.  Reformation was pined for, fundamentally telling viewers that the intent was always to stay in the realms of what was ‘right’, and that the end was justified, because that is the fate evil meets.

Even in such narratives, there was always a carrier of evil, Iftekhar in the case of Deewar, that lured the hero to become an anti-hero. What is important to note, is that in the 70s the villainy was two fold – systemic oppression that led to the angst for a better life. The hero protagonists that chose the path of villainy came from oppressed backgrounds, who played characters of labourers, miners, and coolies – occupations that mainstream Hindi cinema slowly eclipsed as India entered the phase of post liberalisation. 

Amjad Khan’s appearance as Gabbar in Sholay (1975) epitomised villainy. Mercilessly wiping out families, including a child, wreaking terror, and havoc in the village. Ably supported by the defining tunes that his presence on screen would be announced with.

Villains were not just men. Lalita Pawar, Nadira, Aruna Irani, and Simi Garewal played a spectrum of roles, from bahu-beating evil saases (mother-in-laws), to murderous temptresses! They propelled the idea of ‘aurat hi aurat ki dushman hoti hai’ pushing the female protagonist to be a hapless victim – either to be rescued by the hero, or liberate herself (very few instances).

The early 90s, when the economy was just opening up releasing unprecedented hopes and fears, saw villains becoming more violent, more threatening, and gruesome. Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s turn as Maharani in Sadak (1993) is unforgettable in its sheer fear that it induced. The definition here moves from alpha masculine of the villain to a transgender person running a brothel. The idea of the villain and their act remains intact in ever-tightened patriarchal morality, and subjugation of women. However, his performance as Maharani, brings to light the oppression of the transgender community, the need for survival, and therefore the justifiable turn (for the character) as an oppressor furthering the same realities.

Sanjay Dutt in Khalnayak (1993) was another film of the decade that looked at the ‘root cause’ of evil with a Ramayana-like script.

Ashutosh Rana’s character Lajja Shanker Pandey in Sangharsh (1999) and Gokul Pandit  in Dushman (1998) took the villain beyond the unreachable, to the real unreasonable. Set in everyday situations, even the heroes are the ‘imperfect’. The female protagonists have much more power than being reduced to hapless victims, as they actively seek to defeat the villain. Very specific mannerisms and unleashed brutality make both these turns unforgettable.

And yet there was something else happening in the 1990s. India had reached the stage of post liberalisation. And the cultural chasm between the upper middle class and the lower middle class was widening. The upper middle class had more means, and were spending more, with ambitions and aspirations increasing. The viewers sitting in the balconies became the key audiences for popular Hindi cinema. Shah Rukh Khan with his impish smile and oodles of charm had met the Yash Chopra magic of swiss skies and glorious landscapes. After Baazigar (1993) and Anjaam (1994) where Khan played the lead and antagonist, it was time to let the Indians feel good about themselves and where they are. He became the national heartthrob of romance.

Dilwale Dulhania Le Jaayenge released in 1995, and with that the upper middle class aspirations of being in London, a life of the rich, and yet deeply rooted in the ideas of values (and patriarchy) in India took centrestage. Raj became every man’s aspiration. And from then followed a spate of romance films with Shah Rukh being the proverbial hero. The idea of the villain was muted with oppression becoming more familial and the fight for love becoming the battleground. The opposition of the patriarch became the villain, that was defeated through time, values, charm, and the ability to convince. Harking back to the late 80s, with Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1988), where the villain became the strife between the families of the doomed lovers.

He acted in films like Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani (2000), which urged Indians to celebrate all their irrationalities and incongruities. Even an ambitious Raju in Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (1992) resented the predatory businesswoman who dragged him away from his chawl roots.

The battle of female heroes has been more complex – with ambition itself being touted as the reason for destruction, a patriarchal trap – Fashion (2008) and Heroine (2012). However, there was also a shift. Female heroes – Kareena Kapoor as Geet in Jab We Met (2007), Alia Bhatt as Veera in Highway (2014) and Sahmat in Raazi (2018) – are owners of their own story with agency. The absence of the proverbial villain is evident for the protagonists of both these genders.

This is when the villains really began to step back. The anger evaporated. There was a need for comfort food. The villain moved to the small screens in Ekta Kapoor TV serials – the one inside the family. Sudha Chandran was your evergreen villain. 

There are little or no stories of the oppressed communities in cinema – related to for farmers and labour issues. Mulk (2018) looks at the oppression due to religious chauvinism, and Article 15 (2019) reflects at the due to caste and class. However, these are films that are too few, far in between where the heroes are acceptingly unsure, and willing to grow.

Even Padmaavat (2018) had a traditional hero, Ranveer Singh, play the evil invader. The celebrity heroes are just not willing to cede an inch. 

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The new genre of mythical fantasy fiction

With the next spate of high decibel releases after Brahmastra – Hindi cinema’s much hyped foray into franchise fantasy like Pathaan (2023), Jawaan (2023), and Bhediya (2022), it will be interesting to see typical masculinity returns to the big screen. Whether it will be toxic and hypermasculine, and how the hero changes. What will be even more interesting, is to see the juxtaposition of women protagonists against these larger-than-life personas of the men. Here is to hoping that there will continue to be a school of Hindi films that write sensitive men and able women as their protagonists. And a representation of characters beyond gender binaries.

In a way, the disappearance of Bollywood’s bad boys also means end of rape culture, abusive language, and super masculine male heroes. But the success of Baahubali (2015) changed everything. The mythical fantasy fiction is a whole new genre that can launch a thousand villains once again.

We have the popcorn ready. And we are watching.

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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