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How a new book salutes the baddies who made the classic Hindi-film villain everlasting

The early years of Hindi movies saw a mellow period in villainy, which became more shock-inducing in the ’70s, with technical advancements, and as films became realistic, the villain was an Everyman

Written by Alaka Sahani |
Updated: January 15, 2022 5:06:02 pm
villainsAjit, Bindu, Amjad Khan, and Amrish Puri

The primary task of a hard-boiled villain in a typical Hindi movie is to make the hero appear strong and righteous. After a prolonged conflict, the villain gets beaten up, faces humiliation while the hero walks away with the heroine and the do-gooder tag,” says author Balaji Vittal, 53, whose newest offing is Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood (HarperCollins; Rs 399). With the triumph of good over evil as a dominant theme, “villain” and “vamps”, as they whipped up drama, dread, excitement, and catharsis for a total paisa-vasool (value for money) experience, have been imperative to Indian cinema, especially in Hindi films.

To trace “the most magnetic and memorable” dark characters on screen, Vittal browsed the decades since the silent era. “Every era created a certain kind of villains. In the early days, there were chhota-mota (petty) thugs. Then entered suave villains like KN Singh and Pran. Small gangs entered the scene next; Footpath (1953) and Kala Bazar (1960) were about black marketeers, who were enemies of the society,” he says. The suave KN Singh “was handsome and carried off dinner jackets wonderfully. The only thing wrong was the intent of the characters he played. For instance, behind the facade of a hotel, he ran a smuggling den in Howrah Bridge (1958).”

amol palekar Amol Palekar (right) too played a villain

Baddies come in different shades of grey as the stories and the times demand. “From the ’60s onwards, criminals with international nexus made their presence felt in Hindi cinema with movies such as Jewel Thief (1967), Johny Mera Naam (1970), Yaadon Ki Baaraat (1973). Ankhen (1968) focused on the international terror mafia. The focus shifted to local dons in the ’80s and the ’90s as Mumbai became the cauldron of crime. This was captured in Ardh Satya (1983) and Parinda (1989), too. Many others jumped on to this bandwagon, such as Satya (1998), and Vaastav (1999),” says Vittal, who has previously co-written the much-acclaimed R.D. Burman: The Man, The Music (2011), and S.D. Burman: The Prince-Musician (2018). Certain types of villains, such as evil relatives, fraudsters, backstabbers, outlaws, sexual offenders, and anti-heroes are common to every era.

The epitome of pure evil, Gabbar (Amjad Khan) in Sholay (1975) doesn’t hesitate to slice off an honest police officer’s arms, wipe out his family. As a menacing brother-in-law, Pran, in Ram Aur Shyam (1967), cracks the whip on Dilip Kumar, as the latter cowers. Moneylender Sukhilala (Kanhaiyalal) exploits the poor remorselessly in Mother India (1957). In 1947: Earth (1999), the slighted Dilnawaz (Aamir Khan) passes on the whereabouts of his love interest to the rioters looking for her. At other times, negative characters would bare their roguish side for the laughs, like Mehmood’s comic villain in Padosan (1968), vying for Bindu’s (Saira Banu’s) love.

Women were thought of in dark terms, too. Lalita Pawar, Shashikala, Bindu, and others, have played shrewd and shrill women going about their wicked ways. Aruna Irani’s evil stepmother-in-law in Beta (1992) tries to poison Madhuri Dixit. “Gold-digger” Kamini (Simi Garewal) in Karz (1980) kills her guileless husband and inherits his wealth. In Gupt (1997), Kajol’s possessiveness and anger issues turn her into a serial killer. “Our culture has always portrayed women as a sati-savitri (virtuous) who can never do anything bad. The truth is that there is a vamp in every home,” says Bindu Zaveri to Vittal, in the book. In Do Raaste (1969), she did what was considered “unthinkable”; she deserted her debt-ridden in-laws to lead a luxurious life with her husband. Generations of femme fatales took shape because sassy actors like Nadira paved the way. “Never has the cigarette held between a woman’s fingertips looked so menacing as Nadira made it look in Shree 420 (1955). She would have made a terrific Bond villain.”

The wide canvas of sinister characters — villains, vamps, molls, henchmen, and anti-heroes — posed a huge challenge for Vittal. To navigate better, he applied an engineering technique. “I created a rough coordinate plane with X-axis mentioning the timeline, while Y-axis had the various categories. Certain types of villains, such as Britishers, appear across periods. Their portrayal kept evolving over time, as one can see in Navrang (1959), Kranti (1975), Lagaan (2001), and Rangoon (2017),” says Vittal.

Manorama Manorama

The early years of Hindi movies saw a mellow period in villainy. “In the ’40s and ’50s, blood was black on the screen as movies were black-and-white. Villainy was muted and the negative characters had a bit of goodness in them,” says Vittal. In spite of playing roles with shades of grey, Ashok Kumar in Kismet (1943), Raj Kapoor in Awara (1951), and Dev Anand in Jaal (1952) walked away with the audience’s love. Villainy became in-your-face, just like romance, on screen. “Earlier, on-screen romance meant giving flowers and holding hands. Today, it is more physical,” says the author.

Villainy became more shock-inducing in the ’70s, as the industry witnessed technical advancements. The badmen’s newfound flamboyance, mannerisms, and trademark dialogues added to the drama. Sporting stylish suits and accompanied by glam girls, Ajit Khan languidly delivered iconic lines such as “Lily, don’t be silly” in Zanjeer (1973) or “Sara sheher mujhe Loin ke naam se jaanta hai” in Kalicharan (1976) as he puffed at his cigar. “Leading a lavish life, Shakaal (Ajit) of Yaadon ki Baaraat (1973) owned a big hotel, lounged in a massive ornate bed, and wore expensive suits. The advancement in departments of colour, sound, and cinematography complemented the depiction of Shakaal, Gabbar, and, later on, Mogambo in Mr. India (1987),” he says. The ’70s also marked the rise of Prem Chopra with the success of Bobby (1973), Ranjeet in Sharmeelee (1971), and Madan Puri in Deewaar (1975).

book Book by Balaji Vittal

And yet, the limited real-estate of a book couldn’t possibly cover the entire ambit of the dark world. Among the absentees are the sidekick villains, such as Shetty, Mac Mohan, Bob Christo, Yusuf, and Dan Dhanoa, whose individuality added fun and drama to the badmen at work. The author also regrets his inability to speak with Shakti Kapoor, who “brought in a cruel sort of comedy”, Pran, who was unwell, and Prithviraj Sukumaran, the cold-blooded killer Mikhail with a calm veneer in Naam Shabana (2017).

Traditionally, villains reflected the sociopolitical reality of their times. “Smugglers became part of the storyline during the Licence Raj. Mere Apne’s (1971) gang war had its roots in frustrated youths in the country. Interestingly, till the ’70s, there weren’t many corrupt policemen in the movies. As the years went by, they went from being corrupt to getting involved in criminal activities. Ditto with politicians,” he says.

Boman Irani Boman Irani

Certain villains have been by-products of popular culture. If “Gabbar is a collage of influences generously borrowed from the Wild West” though “Amjad Khan made it his own class act”, says Vittal, “Mogambo is like a character from the Mandrake comics. He’s pompous and crazy. No character in today’s time will wear that kind of bright, garish costume.” As films became less kitschy and more realistic, Everyman became the villain. In the mafia film Satya, the morally-complex titular character (JD Chakravarthy) is a helpful next-door neighbour in spite of multiple murder cases against him. Saswata Chatterjee’s Bob Biswas in Kahaani (2012) is just another face-in-the-crowd till he pulls the trigger.

Wherever the villains may rise from, they will remain fascinating, because, writes filmmaker Sriram Raghavan in the Foreword, “they needn’t follow any rules…Whereas the hero always needs to play by the book.”

The Hell-Raisers
Pran (Full name Pran Kishan Sikand) was “extremely eager” to play the role of dacoit Raka in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960). His look was inspired by a dacoit whose photograph appeared in a newspaper following his arrest.
Manorama (Aka Erin Isaac Daniels) as the cruel Kaushalya chachi in Seeta Aur Geeta (1972) had a comic veneer, accentuated by her physical characteristics. In this film’s remake, ChaalBaaz (1989), Rohini Hattangadi plays this role.
Danny Denzongpa Was the original choice to play Gabbar in Sholay (1975). He didn’t accept it as he had given his commitment to act in Dharmatma (1975) as Jankura.
Amol Palekar  Chose to play the negative character of Keshav Dalvi in Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (1977) after delivering three consecutive hits (Rajnigandha, 1974; Chhoti Si Baat and Chitchor, 1976), which captured his boy-next-door charms.
Simi Garewal  took almost 18 months to say yes to the role of Kamini in Karz (1980). “I couldn’t bring myself to do a role that is so mean,” she says to the author in the book.
Amrish Puri Stepped in to play Mogambo midway Mr. India’s (1987) shoot replacing Anupam Kher. “I would never have been able to manage those nuances because Mr Puri was a larger-than-life person,” Kher says to Vittal, in the book
Boman Irani Wasn’t initially keen on playing Virus in 3 Idiots (2009) because it was similar to Asthana in Munna Bhai M.B.B.S. (2003). For the ambidextrous, sialoquent Virus, he had to source a wig, white shirts, high-waist pants, and talk with a lisp

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