It was the summer of 1980. We were bang in the middle of summer vacations, a heady time for kids in those days, for it meant indulging in guilty pleasures like watching an endless number of Bollywood hits on the new-fangled machine called the VCR. Quite unlike the kids of today, we were allowed that liberty only in the summer vacations. Parents were strict those days.
I was lounging around in my pyjamas, enjoying yet another Bollywood movie, this time of my brother’s choice. We were seven kids in all, including cousins come down for the mandatory summer stay-over. We were in my darkened living room, curtains carefully drawn close to simulate the cinematic experience. The movie was Sholay, and all of us were laughing and enjoying the antics of Amitabh Bachchan and Dharmendra, until suddenly, an eerie silence descended upon the screen.
Even as the kid in me wondered, ‘eh, what’s up’, the silence was broken by an unnerving, melancholic tune, followed by the crunch of gravel being crushed under unforgiving shoes, and a man’s footsteps – harsh, unhurried, purposeful footsteps, as he brandished a spiky belt with malicious intent. The eerie theme music continued to play in the background ominously; and then, for the first time ever, the six-year-old me came face to face with Gabbar Singh, and listened intently, as he declared with menacing truth in his eyes – “Yahan se pachas pachas kos door gaon mein … jab bachcha raat ko rota hai, toh maa kehti hai bete soo ja … soo ja nahi toh Gabbar Singh aa jayega.”
A frisson of fear and delight ran up my spine, and I watched, awe-struck, as the man – with a ring in one ear, dirtied, tobacco-stained teeth and chilling sneer – proceeded to shoot the three men dead with cold precision. The eerie tune was a Cello piece, I learnt later, and it has stayed in the deep recesses of my mind ever since, evoking the same fear and delight even now when I happen to hear it.
That was the effect and impact that Gabbar, played by newcomer Amjad Khan, had on my young impressionable mind. And I admit it, with no regret whatsoever, that no other villain of Bollywood films has managed to affect me in the same way since, not then, not now; me – self-confessed movie buff, who troops down to the cinema hall to watch almost every Bollywood flick that releases – yes, even Sanam Bewafaa.
The Bollywood villain, as embodied by these consummate characters, was loved by audiences. He had the coolest lines, romanced the hottest babes, got the most claps, whistles and coin tosses, and pulled in the crowds, and more importantly, made the hero look good. We loved to hate him with a satisfied sense of schadenfreude
I also remember that for the rest of the vacations that summer of ’80, I unfailingly played Gabbar in our Sholay play-acting, fighting tooth and nail with my siblings and cousins for the honour, gloating with feigned menace, “Yeh haath mujhe de de Thakur”. Gosh, was that fun!
Those certainly were heady days for the Bollywood villain. It was an era when villains earned as much, some may say more, popularity as the hero. The heroine, of course, was there solely to add glitter to the goods. And much as our glorified Bollywood heroes would hate to hear it, it was the villain that ultimately made a movie memorable.
Take Shakaal, villain of another Bachchan starrer, Shaan. The movie turned out to be a turkey at the box office, despite big names in the star cast. Come to think of it, I don’t even remember the entire cast of the movie, save for Bachchan. But if there’s one character that remains etched in my mind, as clear as though I had watched him only yesterday, it is the sleek, sophisticated, bald-headed villain of the piece, Shakaal. And this, when the actor that played Shakaal was a relatively unknown name in Bollywood – Kulbhushan Kharbanda, of all people. Huh, imagine that!
And yet, the character struck the sweet spot with audiences. His distinctive style of talking, his mannerisms, his dressing and that crocodile-infested island he called home….brrrr, each nuance is seared in memory, not only of mine, but of millions of movie buffs. No one remembers what the heroes or…err…..heroines did in that flick, but everyone remembers Shakaal and his eccentricities. Jeez, the guy even had a signature tune dedicated solely to him, which played with energetic abandon whenever Shakaal came on screen. Shakaal………Shakaal……..it went, with Usha Uthup’s molten caramel voice adding dynamism to the upbeat tune, much to the delight of the front row of cinema-goers.
From then on, larger-than-life villains became de rigueur in Bollywood. The trend continued, with the comically villainous Mogambo (Amrish Puri) in Mr India, the slick Kancha Cheena (Danny) in Agnipath, the devil incarnate Maharani (Sadashiv Amrapurkar) in Sadak, and the ferocious Anna (Nana Patekar) in Parinda. The last was particularly distressing, with his psychopathic character and Macbeth-esque fetishes.
“Saara sheher mujhe Loin ke naam se jaanta hai”, went Ajit as diabolical villain Lion in Kalicharan, to the howls and whistles of his elated fans.
“Thapad Ki Goonj” reverberated in our ears, as the deeply unsettling Dr Dang (Anupam Kher) in Karma locked horns with a flummoxed Dilip Kumar.
Ashutosh Rana put the fear of the devil in us with his portrayal of two characters that were pure, unadulterated evil – Gokul Pandit in Dushman and Lajja Shankar Pandey in Sangharsh.
All of these portrayals had one thing in common – while the actors that played the roles did a fabulous job, undoubtedly, the fact is that each of these villains became immortal in Indian cinema because of the way they had been written – carefully and devotedly, with a lot of thought going into the nuances of each. The result – these epic villains outshone the heroes of their movies to carve their names in the annals of cinematic glory, never to be usurped by upstarts, courtesy the singularly unique fandom they enjoyed.
The Bollywood villain, as embodied by these consummate characters, was loved by audiences. He had the coolest lines, romanced the hottest babes, got the most claps, whistles and coin tosses, and pulled in the crowds, and more importantly, made the hero look good. We loved to hate him with a satisfied sense of schadenfreude.
All this changed, however, with the advent of a star called Shah Rukh Khan, and his villainous turns in Baazigar, Darr and Anjaam. Here was the quintessential hero who wasn’t afraid to test his boundaries by playing anti-hero. That all three movies were an unqualified success and audiences loved his villain more than the hero in each, set the ball rolling for the spawning of a new class of villains in Bollywood – the established hero as the anti-hero – who almost always outdid the hero in the popularity stakes.
Our beloved heroes took on the mantle of the antagonist with even more gusto, putting their heart and soul into the role, much more than what they did when they played the protagonist. After all, as heroes, they did what every hero in every movie in every film industry has done since times immemorial – play the holier-than-thou, white-as-a-lily, Satyawadi-Harishchandra-ki-aulad Mr Goody Two Shoes. Come to think of it, heroes are pretty one-dimensional characters – all sugar, no spice.
But as villain…..now that was another milieu altogether. As villain, they got to unleash their inner devilishness, show off their real acting skills, let themselves go – the sky was the limit. And Hindi cinema saw one outstanding turn after the other of villains played by heroes that cemented their place in the ‘wickedness hall of fame’. Sanjay Dutt as Kancha Cheena in Karan Johar’s version of Agnipath, Arjun Rampal in Ra.One, Saif Ali Khan as LangdaTyagi in Omkara, Riteish Deshmukh in Ek Villain, Akshay Kumar as an elaborate Pakshiraj and the greatest of them all – Ranveer Singh as the brutal, bloodthirsty Alauddin Khilji in Padmaavat, are all exciting evil turns by megastars that are legit nightmare fuel.
In that sense, Shah Rukh Khan can be called the iPhone of the cinematic verse. Just as the arrival of the iPhone sounded the death-knell of the point-and-shoot camera, voice recorder, watch, hand-held game console, calculator and MP3 player, Shah Rukh Khan’s villainous turn killed the quintessential Bollywood villain, along with his eccentricities, the cool lines, the quirky gestures, everything.
But, would you believe it, it just isn’t the same thing. There’s something missing. You can’t love them and you can’t hate them, and you’re left hanging in mid-air, saddled with a love-hate relationship. So give me my Loin and Shakaal and Gabbar, I’ll be happy. Need no Pakshiraaj and Khilji and Abdali, coz say whatever you will….they just don’t make it like ‘em anymore.