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FIFTY SHADES LIGHTER THAN GREY
- How women and anti-heroes, crusaders and policemen have fared in around 100 years of Bollywood

Critics and fans of the Hindi film industry — Indian cinema reportedly turns 100 this year — have often wrongly credited Shah Rukh Khan with pioneering the concept of the anti-hero in such films as Baazigar and Darr. Khan plays a murderer and a slightly unhinged lover, respectively, in these two films. This error could be attributed to their poor reading of Bollywood’s history and its cultural politics. Even if we were to set aside Guru Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan, and just take Dev Anand and Sunil Dutt, these two luminaries had popularized the man with grey shades much earlier in a string of films in the 1960s and 1970s. For instance, in Teen Deviyan (1965), Dev Anand romances three women in a clever depiction of a man exercising his choice in a society, which, while retaining its feudal mores, was entering an era of unabashed consumerism. In Reshma aur Shera, Zakhmi and Paapi, Sunil Dutt, like Bachchan in the iconic Deewaar, portrayed the figure of the crusader — a strange amalgamation of the good and the bad — who takes on the mantle of fighting the establishment from the margins.

The anti-hero has, in keeping with India’s changing social, cultural and political landscapes, remained complicatedly fluid. But there is an important difference between the roles essayed by Shah Rukh Khan in the 1990s and the earlier depictions of the anti-hero. The men portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan, Sunil Dutt and Dev Anand were products of a cinematic imagination that continued to remain under the shadow of Nehruvian socialism. Hence the hero, often a resident of the periphery — a migrant, a dacoit or a member of the underworld — chooses to retaliate against State and society to bring justice to other, equally unfortunate, members of the underclass.

In contrast, Khan’s characters have managed to free themselves from the baggage of a socialist crusade. Their concerns, in a decidedly globalized India, have become narrower, darker and more inward. Thus, in Darr, a stuttering, obsessive Khan torments and terrorizes the heroine, much to the delight of an audience which, while feasting on the fruits of economic liberalization, remains firmly entrenched in patriarchal practices.

However, what limits Bollywood’s attempt at exploring flawed characters to a discerning audience is the inevitable historical and sociological contextualization of such characters. More often than not, the anti-hero is seen resorting to devious means to avenge past injustices. In Baazigar, Shah Rukh Khan manages to throw Shilpa Shetty off the terrace to get even with the villain, who had usurped his father’s business empire. Bollywood thus remains distinctly uncomfortable about creating and accepting figures with innate traces of darkness. This anxiety, which has led to laboured attempts to explain the psychological traits that challenge the chaste and the desirable, indicates Bollywood’s aversion to deeper, richer explorations of the recesses of the human mind and its deviant streaks (Abhishek Bachchan’s portrayal of the ruffian who feeds off his own rage and avarice in Yuva showed glimpses of promise in this respect).

Of course, with a few exceptions, there hasn’t been a memorable anti-heroine yet because it is inconceivable for mainstream Hindi cinema to believe that women can have a mind of their own. Those who do are conveniently eliminated. Dimple Kapadia’s Tara, successful, separated and an alcoholic, in Dil Chahta Hai cannot possibly be made to live when a much younger hero falls in love with her.

What is worrying is the gradual receding of cinematic space for the anti-hero in the face of the onslaught from conscientious and conservative beefy men. (The characters of Manoj Bajpai in Gangs of Wasseypur I or Emraan Hashmi in Shanghai are, of course, exceptions). This can only indicate that at a time when much of world cinema is experimenting with unconventional ideas, India’s disapproval of depictions of greyness has got deeper.