Villains in Indian Cinema
Pran Kishan Sikand dreamt of becoming a professional photographer. Little did he know that a measly, humble ‘paan’ (betel leaf) would change his life and set him on his destined path. It was 1939 or thereabouts. Pran was at a ‘paan’ shop at Lahore, enjoying a munch with his friends when a stranger approached him and asked whether he wanted to act in films. Pran was amused and asked his name. Stranger introduced himself as Muhammad Walli, a renowned film maker in the flourishing film district of Lahore. He said he was making a Punjabi film and Pran looked a perfect fit for the role of a villain in the film. Pran just brushed him off. Walli kept insisting that he pay a visit to the studio, and pushed a piece of paper with his address into Pran’s hands. The film was Yamla Jat (1940), a runaway hit that year. Pran, the villain, was born.
In one of his very interesting and insightful talks on Secularism in Indian Cinema, Javed Akhtar once said that if one were to make the list of the villains of Hindi Cinema, one can write the socio-political history of India for the last sixty years. Nothing could be more apt.
In the two decades following the first ‘Hindi’ film, Alam Ara (1931), most of the films produced were either historical or mythological fables. In the 30s-40s, we come across the incredibly flamboyant and awe-inspiring Chandramohan, in films like the bi-lingual Amrit Manthan (1934), where he plays a cold-blooded, maniacal High Priest of a ‘Chandika’ cult, or Amar Jyoti (1935) where he is ‘Durjaya’, the arch-nemesis of Pirate-Queen ‘Saudamini’, played by Durga Khote, even the early socialist drama Roti (1942) – in which he is a tramp who is picked up to step in the shoes of a millionaire look-alike. This causes immediate transformation into a ruthless monster that tramples anything and anyone on its way. By 1941, he was one of the busiest villains and the highest-paid star in India. As fate would have it, no one knows him today.
Another name that emerges in any discussion of villains of that era: Krishan Niranjan Singh, popularly known as K.N. Singh. Hailing from the Bishnoi community of Uttar Pradesh, young Krishan, son of a Bar-at-Law from Dehra Dun, harboured dreams of participating in the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and was selected to represent India in Javelin and Shot Put events. But fate played spoil-sport and he was summoned to Calcutta to attend to his sister who was to have an eye-surgery. In Calcutta, he bumped into Prithviraj Kapoor, and thus started a long lasting friendship, till much later when K.N. Singh had fallout with Raj Kapoor. K.N. Singh started working in films, making his mark in films like Baghban (1938), Jwar Bhata (1944), Humayun (1945),Barsat (1949), and many other films throughout the next five decades. The man just had to raise an eyebrow, and one got a hint of his sinister intentions. Known to be a gentleman in real life, KN Singh played the dapper villain – wearing a complete suit, cigar/ wineglass in hand, saying his signature “bakwaas bandh karo…” pointing one brow to the sky.
The 50s brought the Hollywood-Film Noir-inspired urban gangster. Besides K.N. Singh, the other two actors who could pull this off with remarkable grace were Madan Puri and Pran.
In his early years, like everyone else, Madan Puri did mythological and historical roles. But over time, through films like Howrah Bridge, Jeet, Nau Do Gyarah, China Town and many others, he established the image of the cigar-toting, smooth-talking, urbane crook in a suit. In later years, he was seen in a variety of roles as pivotal characters, many of them in positive, quite likeable roles.
But the one actor who left an indelible imprint as a baddie for generations to come was Pran. They say, those days, no one named their children Pran, the very name had such a negative, scary context. So much so that a couple of years back, when his Biography …and Pran was announced, his family declared a worlwide ‘Hunt for Pran’ contest wherein the oldest man bearing the name ‘Pran’ was to be awarded the first copy of the book.
After Yamla Jat, there were a few more films in quick succession, including his only outing as a hero, Khaandan (1942) – though this one was a hit as well, Pran decided against doing any more leading men roles, as he found the ‘running around trees’ routine downright boring and uninspiring. Instead, he chose to be the one who would scare the heroine and make the hero run for cover!
In 1947, liberty from oppression came with the end of British Raj, but with it came the searing pain of Partition. One of the worst affected cities was Lahore, Pran’s adopted hometown, also where his films were being made. He shifted base to Bombay, and to an industry which didn’t really know him. For the next few months, he struggled to make ends meet, switching hotels every few days depending on how his finances fared him. One day, acclaimed Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto took him to Bombay Talkies, and Ziddi (1948) happened. The film, a huge hit, also launched the careers of two other young men – Dev Anand as leading man and Kishore Kumar as his singing voice. With Badi Bahen (1950), Bahar (1951), Aah (1953), Munimji (1955), Halaku (1956), Tumsa Nahin Dekha (1957), Pran struck terror into people’s hearts with one villainous adventure after another. His bad guy persona was so convincing that while shooting for Johar Mahmood in Hong Kong (1970), when Aruna Irani was asked to spend the night in the same hotel with Pran, she was deeply terrified that he’d break into her room and try to rape her! It was when Pran asked her to be careful and bolt her door properly and inform him in case of emergency, she realised, to her embarrassment, the true gentleman that Pran was. In later years, Pran too turned to character roles, notably in Upkar (1967), Zanjeer (1973), Parichay (1972) and excelled there as well.
In the decades post independence, Indians dreamt of a resurgent, progressive nation under the aegis of a Socialist, agrarian economy. There were talks of phasing out the Fedual System and pushing Agrarian reforms. From this evolved the new villain: the blood-sucking moneylender and the Zamindar. And no one played the moneylender to as much perfection as Kanhaiyalal did.
Pandit Kanhaiyalal Chaturvedi had come to Bombay from Benares, in order to try his hand at theatre. He worked on a number of plays, including his own Pandrah August. He acted in a couple of films too, but his big break came when Mehboob Khan was scouting for an actor to play an evil priest cum moneylender in his upcoming production Aurat (1940). Kanhaiyalal played Sukhi Lala with much aplomb and gained immediate recognition. Seventeen years later, when Khan was to remake Aurat, the only man he could conceive of playing Sukhi Lala was Kanhaiyalal. This time, Chaturvedi endowed Sukhi Lala with as much evil and menace as he could possibly muster – the very mannerism and speech reeked of lust and greed. Needless to say, the film was Mother India(1957). The next two generations were to see Kanhaiyalal play evil Lalas, Munims and Mahajans with effortless ease in film after film.
With the advent of the 70s, the country was faced with a new set of challenges and with it, arrived a new generation of villains: the smuggler. The new breed was crueler, greedier, but equally suave and urbane as his 50s counterpart.
Hamid Ali Khan, born to a family that served the Nizam of Hyderbad, is said to have ran away to Bombay to act in films. Rechristened as Ajit, he was markedly unsuccessful as a leading man in a string of flops in the 1940s, only to be granted a new lease of life through the character of Durjan Singh in Mughal-e-Azam (1960). But his most successful stint was in the ’70s, playing the stock ‘smuggler’ persona. His ‘Lion’ character was immensely popular, and long with the supporting Robert and Mona characters, has spawned an entire sub-culture of online humour, referred to as ‘Ajit jokes’. His dialogue, “Sari duniya mujhe Loin (Lion) ke naam se jaanti hain…” is still quite popular and an oft-repeated ‘filmi’ quote.
Another actor that made a career out of playing smugglers and scheming uncles and step-fathers was Jeevan. He was born Omkar Nath Dhar (credited in some early films as O.K. Dhar) in Srinagar. His most successful role in 40s-50 was as Narad, in films such as Bhakta Dhruva (1947) and Har Har Mahadev (1950). Ironically, in twenty years, he was to play men who were as evil as they come, in Roti (1974), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Dharam Veer (1977), Chacha Bhatija (1977), Surakksha (1979)
Since times immemorial, caste-related strifes and rural unrest have been commonplace in Indian villages, particularly in the northern states. Over time, this coupled with a widespread cynicism and lack of trust on the authorities, the phenomenon of the Indian Bandit, the Daku, emerged. It reached its zenith with two names, Man Singh and Phoolan Devi, in the mid-20th Century. In the late 60s and 70s, this evolved a new grammar in Indian Cinema: the Indian equivalent of the Western genre in Hollywood, the ‘Curry’ Western, if you will. Noteworthy films of this genre were Jis Desh Me Ganga Behti Hai (1960), Ganga Jamuna (1961), Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) and Kuchche Dhaage (1973).
The ‘curry’ western and Hindi Cinema in general reached its highest watermark with Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975). Whatever there is to say about this film has already been said many times over, so any such attempt will be an exercise in stupidity. However, within the scope of this discussion, one can say that through this film, Hindi cinema was gifted with one of its most prolific baddies: Amjad Khan. Son of an acclaimed character actor and villain in his own right, Jayant, who was active from 1930s through to the 70s – Amjad was, so to speak, born into films. He debuted as a teenager with Ab Dilli Dur Nahin (1957). As is well known, Sholay‘s Gabbar Singh was offered to Danny Denzongpa, another rising actor-villain those days. Upon Danny’s refusal for lack of dates, this literally landed on Amjad’s lap. He read up as much as he could on the Chambal Dacoits, especially Abhshapt Chambal, a seminal work on the subject by Tarun Bhaduri, veteran journalist and Jaya Bachchan’s father. This gave rise to a wild, visceral monster, unmatched to this day, spouting dialogues that became inseparable part of our national identity, in a way. Whatever he did in the following years (he even worked with the great Satyajit Ray in Shatranj Ke Khiladi), could not, at any level, overshadow Gabbar Singh.
The sexual revolution, ‘free love’ and counterculture of the 1960s, at a subdued level, reached the Indian shores only by the early 70s. In the urban landscape, sexual mores were fast changing. This scenario gave rise to a breed of bad guys that existed for generations after: the sexual predator, the rapist. Two landmark actors from the 70s who raised this to the level of an art form were Prem Chopra and Ranjeet.
Prem Chopra hailed from Lahore. Ironically, Chopra started off as the firebrand revolutionary Sukhdev in Shaheed (1965). He started essaying baddies since Upkaar, which attained him popular fame and recognition. He was the quintessential womaniser of Hindi films of the 70?s-80?s – with the trademark cheeky grin and lustful eyes fixated on the heroine. The past few years, he’s been busy doing comic roles. He’s one of the very few actors in Bollywood capable of making fun of his own screen persona, like the one in Golmaal 3 (2010) where he plays the heroine’s-nasty-father-with-a-cigar routine, repeated the famous retort,“Prem naam hai mera – Prem Chopra!”, originally delivered in Bobby (1973).
Ranjeet, affectionately known as ‘Goli’ among the ‘filmwallahs’, was born Gopal Bedi in the undivided Punjab. He was training as an Air Force cadet when he was asked to leave, for having a fling with the instructor’s daughter (irony?). An NRI filmmaker and producer spotted him and offered a role in his upcoming venture. Gopal flew with him to Bombay and was introduced to industry big shots of the time. The film never got made, but Gopal stayed back in the hope of a better shot. After debuting with Sawan Bhado (1970) he was recommended by actress Rakhee for the role of a “molester” in Sharmeelee (1971). Rest, as they say, is history. Legend has it that when he invited his family for the premiere of Sharmeele, they walked out of the theatre when they saw him trying to rape the heroine. When he went home that night, he was reprimanded severely, with the lament that they did not have the face to go back to Amritsar to neighbours and friends.
And then came the 80s. By that time, Hindi cinema had branched out into two broad categories – the realistic, art-house ‘parallel’ cinema, and the musical ‘masala’ variety that had existed since inception of the medium. This decade saw the emergence of a generation of actors who straddled both worlds with ease.
In public life, the innocence and exuberance of a young independent India was long gone. Political upheavals, among other things, had resulted in widespread cynicism. The impact of this on art and culture was that a stark, distinct demarcation between brutal realism and banal escapist fantasy emerged. And so our Bad Guy had two avatars: the underworld gangster and the garish, larger-than-life crime lord.
Let’s revisit one of our screen baddies of the 50s. Madan Puri kept working as a villain well into the 70s, with a gradual leaning towards character roles. His brother Chaman Puri, had also made a name for himself in character roles. Their younger sibling, Amrish Singh Puri had reasonable grounds to expect that he would get a smooth entry into filmdom. He appeared for a screen test – but as one might expect, success did not come to him on a platter, despite being related to a major star of the time – Puri failed the test miserably. Determined to stick around, he joined theatre, later to become one of the doyens of Indian People’s Theatre Movement. Satyadev Dubey, a veritable giant in the theatre scene of the time, took the young Puri under his wings. Over time, he performed in such landmark plays as Sakharam Binder and Yayati. During the staging of one of these plays, he was spotted by Sunil Dutt, who offered him a role in Reshma Aur Shera (1972), along side another youth who was trying to make it big in Hindi cinema, with little success – Amitabh Bachchan.
Over the years, through films like Hum Paanch (1980), Mashaal (1984), Meri Jung (1985), along with some hard-hitting films by Shyam Benegal like Nishant (1975), Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977), Amrish Puri secured his position as a major actor in the industry. But what clinched the deal for him as a bad guy was a film by a talented but lesser known film maker named Shekhar Kapur, who by then had only one film to his credit – Masoom (1983). Kapur was making a science fiction film, with a villain that was a cross between Dr. No and Hitler. Thus was born Mogambo, the supervillain of Mr. India (1987). That character, with the looks and mannerisms and the cheesiest phrase ever: “Mogambo…khush hua!” uttered in his inimitable style, was an instant hit with the masses.
Sadashiv Amrapurkar, a prolific actor of Marathi cinema and stage, was launched by Govind Nihalani as Rama Shetty, a local don in Ardh Satya (1983). With a peculiar way of throwing dialogues, a style very much his own, Sadashiv soon started gaining popularity in the stock ‘mafia/gang boss’ character. One of his most (in)famous roles was as ‘Maharani,’ a eunuch who’s the ‘madam’ of a brothel in Sadak. Again, it was his mannerism and dialogue delivery all the way that won the day. Along the way, he even tried a Mogambo clone in an abomination of a film called Farishtay – as the ‘atyachari Raja’ who’s terrorising his own people. Lately he has also been appearing more in comic roles.
Kulbhushan Kharbanda, another Shyam Benegal regular, played a career-defining baddie as Shakaal, and Indian avatar of Ernst Blofeld – a James Bond supervillain – in Shaan (1980). Shakti Kapoor, Paresh Rawal and Gulshan Grover filled in the shoes of Prem Chopra and Ranjeet by being the ‘rapist’ villain of the new era.
The march of the villains went on well into the 90s. Then, with the arrival of candy floss romances, it experienced an abrupt halt. And then there was Shahrukh Khan. Khan did a number of ‘negative’ roles with Baazigar (1993), Darr (1993) and Anjaam (1994). Though not an entirely new concept (Ashok Kumar did a number of ‘gray shade’ heroes including Kismet – 1943), this created a substantial impact. The coming of the multiplex in 2000s and its own genre of films dealt another severe blow. No one needed a villain now. The age of super-specialisation was past – this was the era of versatility and experimentation. The heroes themselves started playing ‘villains’, John Abraham in Dhoom (2004), Hrithik Roshan in Dhoom 2 (2006), Abhishek Bachchan in Yuva (2004) and Raavan (2010), and more recently, Sanjay Dutt in Agneepath (2012) as Kancha Cheena, a role originally played by Danny Denzongpa.
There is a strong buzz surrounding the Dutt’s turn as Kancha Cheena and how it could bring about the era of the supervillain once again – a truly ‘evil’ bad guy who is seemingly bigger and stronger than the hero. I respectfully doubt it, since we are yet to witness a new generation of actor ‘villains’ who will be known as such. Villainy, after all, is not child’s play.