Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Villains are Dying in Hindi Cinema?

Stars should be dead, leaving the world lightless and pointless in the 21st Century, according to the stardom theorist Richard Dyer. However, in the world of Bollywood, we are experiencing a phenomenon of a different kind. The villains are dying.

Gone are the days when cinema was larger than life, shocking the audience at every unexpected turn of the larger than life villain, be it a comic book Mogambo in Mr India (1987), a very rough edged Gabbar Sing in sholay (1975), or a simple psychopath Gokul Pandit in Dushman (1998). In post-2000 Bollywood, such out and out bad men are vanishing out from the silver screen. The question is why this is happening.

If we think closely, the slow erasure of stardom and the death of the villain are connected. An audience is composed of common working people from all strata of the society. Howsoever differences might be between two individuals, the common man is always driven by a typical quest – a quest regarding existence. He wants to know how anything in society is made, how making is organized and understood, and what their own relation to making is.

The complex ways in which we make an explanation of the world around us involves the ways in which we separate ourselves into public and private persons – into producer and consumer. And we always make sense of the world this way, in terms of contrasts – differences. We can not realize the good unless we also know what a not-good is. So, in a way, good and not-good define one another for us. Which one is accepted as morally or legally good and which one bad, depends on the nature of our society, our position in the power hierarchy and our own education.

Dividing all choices into black and white like this is known as binary opposition to social theorists and practitioners. This works fine when society is going through a troubled or developing phase, when the logic of we and they is functional, when the enemy is defined and is at sight. For Hollywood, the enemy was the erstwhile USSR, at the time of cold war. Rambo movies, a lot of apocalyptic science fiction, war movies and specially the Spy movies ranging from 007 to the ‘90s Schwarzenegger flicks like Red Heat (1988) and True Lies (1994).

In India, the enemy was rarely named. But, he was there, both inside the border and outside. In the days of nation building, after the Independence, the enemies were shown as general categories, like the black marketer, the gambler, the conning middleman, or the usurper in the city, and the land-owning  zamindar or his stooges in the village. The gullible hero of the ‘50s Bollywood – Raj (as he is known in many of his films) in Raj Kapoor’s movies who is from village and comes to the city to get shocked at its open corruption, City-bred marginal heroes played by Dev Anand who knows the world of corruption as the palm of his hands (eg, Kala Bazaar, 1960), and even the silver screen tragic hero played by Dilip Kumar – all of them were defined sharply in contrast with dark opposing characters – exploiters of common people. Thus, being a counter force to the enemy of the common man, the hero got recognized and identified by the mass of viewers who thronged the cinema halls after a murky day of work and survival.

Villains were needed to implant dreams in the spectator. The dreams were the goals, the hero the active virtual agent through which the spectator would reach the goals, and the villain the necessary barrier – who blocked the hero from reaching the goal(s). The pattern was epic in structure, as the ultimate goal was always connected to the nation building, in the post-independence cinema. The Indian mind accepted it, in relation to practical sentiments in real life.

The situation changed in late ‘60s and early ‘70s. Neighbouring enemy was specifically named after two wars with China and Pakistan. Also, the insider enemy was spotted and shown more precisely before and during emergency period. However, the villain became more of a personal, than a social, villain at the time of emergency and ever after. During the Angry Young Man’s rule in Bollywood, be it Amitabh or Vinod Khanna or some other less successful actor in that role, the villains were much more flesh and blood, less metaphoric – personal enemies. Those films were driven by a spirit of family vengeance. With rising figures in unemployment, uncertainty in work and social life and a nation caught up in unstable politics (Congress was successfully challenged and thrown out of power for the first time after independence in 1977 election), more personal stories were required for the dream on the silver screen.

 Even after Congress came back in 1980, the scenario remained more or less the same until it changed for a return of the lovers in the later half of the ‘80s. The villain was still a personal one. But he was more of a mixed type, not only a professional bad man like those played by Ajit, Prem Chopra or Amzad Khan, but someone like Gulshan Grover or Shakti Kapoor who is also interested in the heroine. Facing these heroes were less like a vengeance, and more of a challenge or competition. A good example of such a villain is Shekhar Malhotra (played by Deepak Tijori) in Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (He, who wins, is Alexander, 1992). However, the older traits did not vanish. The villain of Hindi cinema matured. And now he comprised all the older villains in him, from time to time flanked by his female counterpart, the vamp.

Two new types appeared in Hindi Cinema at the turn of the decade. The first was the very real, cold blooded, chilled out villain successfully played by Nana Patekar in the role of Anna Seth (Parinda, 1989); the other was the two-faced hero of Baazigar (1993), Shahrukh Khan. While the first type got worked, reworked and mixed with the second one in films like Krantiveer (1994) or Satya (1998), to become a stereotype in the end, and to gradually evaporate, the second one slowly became the norm, in a little dilute condition.

Today’s films are less like epic, and closer to reality. Today’s youth knows how a society runs. Moral values have changed with a feel good economy after India opened a large section of her market to the world. So, the concept of black and white villains and heroes are dated today. In today’s list of coterie movies, the ambivalence is yet more prominent. The Badmaa$h Company (2010) hero Karan (played by Shahid Kapoor) or the Delhi Belly (2011) hero Tashi (played by Imran Khan) could not be considered good even by the standard of ‘90s in Bollywood. Today they are considered normal. Cheat the cheaters – that is the motto.

When the whole world is in competition, and the best cheater gets the crown, how can a godly good hero be pitted against a totally dark-faced villain? Such villains do not exist anymore as the heroes have changed themselves. Today’s society does not need such villains, because it has dispensed with the idea of such heroes. Today’s society lacks a hero, a model figure, in the classical sense. Hence, it is only normal that it should lack the contrasting figure of the villain too. Gone are the days when the blood hungry Gulshan Grovers romped the screen!
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