He sent a chill down your spine and kept you on the edge of your seat. That was then. Today, as the distinction between the hero and anti-hero gets blurred, the quintessential villain exists only in nostalgic conversations.
On January 26 next year will release Dharma Productions’ new film, Agneepath. It’s a remake of the production house’s 1990 film of the same name. Then, the film’s villain (Kancha Cheena) was played by Danny Denzongpa, a lifelong Bollywood baddie. In the second edition, the role is played by Sanjay Dutt — big, bald, menacing and lecherous. Dutt has played underworld Don many times, but the Bhai always had a heart of gold. This is Dutt’s first attempt at full-blown on-screen villainy, and he seems to be enjoying the attention it has fetched him. Also, Rishi Kapoor, the plump lover boy who became a plump “senior artist” some years ago, plays a negative role for the first time in the film.
Agneepath could well be the last nail on the coffin of a special Bollywood breed — the villain. In the last few years, mainline heroes have turned to negative characters: John Abraham in Dhoom, Hrithik Roshan in Dhoom II, Saif Ali Khan in Omkara, Arjun Rampal in Om Shanti Om and Ra.One. Next year, Vivek Oberoi plays the villain in Krissh II and Aamir Khan in Dhoom III. You could call it the breakdown of the caste hierarchy in Bollywood. No longer are actors slotted in watertight stereotypes: heroes, comedians, stuntmen or villains. Those barriers are down. Anybody can surround himself with guns, girls, goons and gizmos, rape and get kicked at the end.
The Bollywood of the past always had a king of villains. The first to make his mark was K N Singh, with his drooping eyes and urbane persona, in almost 250 films. “As a villain, I saw to it that my entry brought an air of unpleasantness and bitterness,” he once proudly said in an interview. A suit, overcoat, hat and cigar would complete his attire. Singh played strong roles in Howrah Bridge, Chalti Ka Naam Gaadi and Awara.
His successor was Pran (Madhumati, Jis Desh Main Ganga Behti Hai, An Evening in Paris, Brahmchari et al.). So popular was he in the 1950s and 1960s (he turned to positive roles in the 1970s, only to return to villainy in the 1980s) that the credits at the beginning had a separate slot for him. His biography, written by Bunny Reuben, is aptly called And Pran. Pran, at times, got paid more than the film’s hero. He was followed by Prem Chopra, Ajit, Ranjit, Amjad Khan, Amrish Puri and others. Two actors who started out as baddies — Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha — morphed into heroes. And today there are none.
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When I tell Prem Chopra how I hated him as a kid, he begins to laugh. The shudder that runs down my spine is the same which I had felt as a kid while watching Bobby. “That’s a job well done,” says he. “We need to perform convincingly and being labelled ‘a bad guy’ is our success story.” Now 76, Chopra has mellowed down and plays lovable roles like Ranbir Kapoor’s grandfather in Rocket Singh: Salesman of the Year. “The times have changed drastically. Indian cinema has added a whole new dimension of ‘how’ and ‘why’ to every character. Movies are much more realistic, and roles more intriguing and character-driven. Now, the distinction between the hero and the anti-hero has blurred,” says Chopra who is best known for his villainous acts in Teesri Manzil, Woh Kaun Thi and Kati Patang.
Film expert Anupama Chopra agrees: “Hindi movies are no longer over-blown melodramas in which good and evil are identified — earlier it was so evident that certain actors were instantly identified as bad. So, all Prem Chopra had to do in Bobby was walk on screen and the audience knew what to expect.” Now, the narratives are more complex, and increasingly the bad man and the good man have merged into one. Or, there is no villain at all and circumstances play the party pooper, she adds. That perhaps reflects the change in the worldview. That was when the perspective was almost invariably divided into two: the capitalist world and the communist bloc (nobody took the non-aligned movement seriously), the rich and the poor, the farm sector and industry. So were roles in films. There was no place for shades of grey. Now, there are no permanently good or bad worlds — values have changed and you inhabit the world that suits you best.
Villain-turned-buffoon Shakti Kapoor, who came to the limelight with Feroz Khan’s Qurbani, says villains went out of fashion because heroes started playing villains; similarly, vamps went out because heroines started to play the vamp. “It might have started with movies such as Shah Rukh Khan’s Darr and Baazigar, and with Kajol’s anti-hero role in Gupt. It is the age of heroes with a shade of grey, which creates greater buzz,” says Kapoor , interspersing the conversation with his trademark ‘Aauus’. Adds Apoorva Mehta, CEO of Dharma Productions: “The gimmicks and catchphrases as well as the style and aura of villains belong to the past. Actors now cross the good-bad divide and experiment.”
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Gulshan Grover, who marketed himself as Bad Man in the 1980s and 1990s, says the trend of heroes playing negative roles was precipitated by the organisers of award shows. “In 1994, when I was nominated in the Filmfare Best Villain Award category for Sir, Shah Rukh Khan was nominated for his role in Anjaam. He refused to accept the award for the best villain,” says Grover. The award shows have now done away with the ‘best villain’ category, and have introduced ‘best actor in a negative role’. “With the emergence of electronic media, the degree of belief that a reel-life bad guy is bad in real life too is gone,” he adds. This has finished the mystique of villains. According to Grover, out-of-job heroes play villains and villains are reduced to playing comedians. For the record, Grover’s biggest claim to good acting is a straight role in I Am Kalam.
Still, there are newfound villains like Prakash Raj (Wanted and Singham) and Sonu Sood (Dabangg). “The caveat to this trend (of heroes playing the baddie) is the resurgence of the simpler black-and-white plot in loud action movies such as Dabangg or Singham, which almost seem like a throwback to the 1980s and do have archetypal villains,” says Anupama Chopra. Still, it could be the villain’s last hurrah.