The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Epitaph to the Bollywood villain
- Celluloid evil makes way for flawed hero as national enemy disappears

Mumbai, May 13: Is evil dead'

If contemporary Hindi cinema is any indication, it is. For, how long ago is it that a proper, blood-spilling, gut-ripping, roaring, rampaging, avenging monster of a “villain”, who could casually feed his pet sharks with bits and parts of the “heroes”, last appeared on the big screen' Why memory ' even Google would falter.

The villain has been bled to death, slowly, till ' let alone the figure of a Gabbar Singh or Shakaal or Mogambo ' even the kind of baddie that Shakti Kapoor or Gulshan Grover used to play looks ridiculous.

The new hero, who is no longer afraid to don darker shades of character (as he is not to shed clothes), is the obvious suspect. But perhaps the Indian foreign policy is also complicit'

The hero and the villain are not only the embodiment of the easy opposites of good and evil. They are also the nation and its enemy. The hero is the defender of the nation and the villain symbolises “threats to the nation at the moment of the film’s making”, as Jyotika Virdi suggests in her recent The Cinematic Imagination.

Or they used to. Flashing back, there is Raj Kapoor/ Raj/the common man often pitted against the corrupt businessman, a man symbolising a decadent, dubious, opulent world in the early Nehru era when possession of money was attended with guilt.

Amitabh Bachchan/Vijay/the subaltern/the illegitimate son was pitted against the corrupt business tycoon/smuggler/the biological father, or the foreigner/smuggler, in the turmoil of the disillusionment since the Emergency through the eighties, when the unemployed youth felt a loss of legitimacy and when “smuggling”, aided by the rise of a figure like Haji Mastan, allegorised anti-national activities.

Then there was the terrorist ' and the ubiquitous, neurotic, tyrannical father who would sacrifice his son/daughter at the altar of the marriage he prescribed. Amrish Puri could not recall how many such roles he played in the eighties.

Cut to now and it’s a graveyard for the villain. Most of the recent big films ' K3G, Kal Ho Na Ho, Devdas, Black, Hum Tum, Saathiya, Lakshya, the list goes on ' were villain-free. Or the “hero” was the “villain”, as with John Abraham in Dhoom, still showing, or Akshaye Khanna or Ajay Devgan in several movies.

“Hindi cinema is maturing,” says film writer Dinesh Raheja. “Previously, if a hero was to commit any ‘evil’, someone else would have to pay for it. In Talaash, Rajendra Kumar was about to be seduced, but after this moral ‘failure’, he found his mother killed by lightning. Today, the hero and the heroine don’t have to wait for rain to have sex before marriage.”

With the same logic, Bachchan in Aankhen, Devgan in Khaki or Akshay Kumar in Ajnabee can play “baddies” without straining the audience’s conscience, says Bharati Pradhan, writer and former editor.

But the hero is only the agent. The real culprit, who has commissioned the villain’s killing, seems to be zeitgeist. The idea of the nation’s enemy has changed.

The smuggler is not there any more. The foreigner is no longer a suspect ' globalisation and the exposure to the world has killed that fear. The tyrannical, distant father, especially of the heroine, is conspicuously absent, diminished considerably by women’s empowerment.

The terrorist, too, presumably from Pakistan, has been rendered powerless by the new India, new Pakistan, Indian IT and George W. Bush. Which is why Pakistan-bashing films like LoC Kargil are bombing at the box office despite the chart-topping success that Gadr and Border once tasted with the same formula.

Geopolitical changes have also hit the Hollywood baddie. The end of the Cold War has robbed scriptwriters of their assembly line of evil characters from beyond the erstwhile Iron Curtain. The villains in recent Bond films like Die Another Day and Tomorrow Never Dies ' one a North Korean arms racketeer and the other an ambitious media magnate -- are pale shadows of Karl Stromberg (The Spy Who Loved Me) and Red Grant (From Russia With Love).

Where does one look for villains, though' On the small screen, says Akhila Sivadas of the Centre for Advocacy and Research, New Delhi, a media research agency.

“In TV serials, the dichotomy between good and evil, between daughter-in-law and mother-in-law, between ‘mature’ woman and ‘ambitious’ woman has been placed within the site of the family. The latter is unmitigated evil,” says Sivadas.

“Tulsi of Kyunkii Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi is actually the former Hindi film hero in female garb. Her detractors are the villains.”

Is evil dead' No ' there are always sequels.

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