The idea of Good vs Evil, hero triumphing over the villains, good guys winning, the black and white of characters – these have all come to define Bollywood movies at their most basic. Many films have that one force of evil that must be defeated and destroyed. It could be one person, a group of people, society at large, or even fatal diseases (more often than not, however, the fatal diseases end up winning). With a long and exceptionally illustrious lineage in films, Bollywood villains are a genre of research unto themselves. Often reflecting the state of Indian socio-economic conditions, villains in films ranged from outright evil men, to sometimes the anti-hero, whose morals and deeds are questionable, but who still enjoys our support.
Team Incurato caught up with author Balaji Vittal, also the co-author of the National Award-winning book RD Burman: The Man, The Music who had taken up the task of documenting villains in Bollywood with his new book Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood.
Excerpts from the interview below.
Team Incurato (TI): You have had a prolific writing career that has delved into Hindi film music and now you are writing about villains. How did this switch or this idea come about?
Balaji Vittal (BV): Harper Collins India (HCI) had shared this proposal with me a few years ago. When Anirudha Bhattacharjee and I started writing the RD Burman book in 2009, we knew that we could write about varied topics pertaining to Bollywood, and not just about RD Burman. HCI was confident and gave us the contract for the Villains book. Later, another major contract came about, and we realized both of us cannot be working on two mega projects simultaneously. We decided to focus on one each, so he’s doing the other one, and I did Pure Evil.
I’ve been watching Bollywood since I was very young, I’ve grown up with it. I was an active participant in my college days in inter college film and music quizzes. There’s been that little bit of Bollywood DNA in me (laughs). I lost touch when I got into corporate life but picked it up again once I started writing the RD book.
TI: So why villains specifically?
BV: When HCI proposed this idea, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before (laughs). It’s very interesting and hasn’t been very explored much. It’s always about the hero. But the villain has a big role to play. He wilfully gets bashed up at the end of every show so that the hero may look good. There is so much to write on about Villains – the panorama, the various genres in the past ninety years, their emergence, the nuances. And, as far as I knew, no such book existed. And therefore, I was very excited!
TI: How did you go about mapping or structuring it (the book), considering there was no reference frame?
BV: I struggled big time with getting the story board because, save for autobiographies of actors who had played villains, there was no reference for me to draw from. When you’re writing a biography of an RD Burman or SD Burman, you know it has finite start and end points, but this one didn’t. Since I didn’t know where to start, I started by writing the mini biographies of actors. Then I realized what a foolish thing that was because this book wasn’t about the actors, it was about the characters they played. So, I had to press the reset button. I had a project guide, Kaushik Bhaumik. He told me to first segment the villainy by category – dacoits, smugglers, mafia, the ghar-ghar ki kahani wala (what happens inside a home). Then another friend of mine Prof. Amitava Chatterjee suggested I write down the synopsis of each chapter in 8-10 sentences and I’ll tell you how that helped.
When I started this book, I began with interviewing actors about their experiences of having done those roles. So, I had a lot of research material growing but it didn’t have a story to stand on. A book cannot just be pasting transcripts on pages. Ultimately a book has to be the author’s own story. As an author, what am I trying to say? In that context it’s not very different from a fiction book. Fiction comes out of the author’s mind. Even non-fiction is ultimately about story telling. The story of the Bollywood villains’ landscape may be told many ways and I had to choose what worked best for me and the readers. Once I got the storyboarding done, the interviews, transcripts started arranging themselves around the storyboard and that helped me flesh out the characters, create the nuances, do the segmentation, and connect the dots.
Balaji Vittal (right) with Bollywood actor Kay Kay Menon (left)
TI:Earlier we did mythological films, where there was a clear hero and a monster. Then we did historical films where the line between black and white was still very solid. Then you slowly had anti-heroes … now you see that an actor is allowed to have a 3D personality even if he is the protagonist like Ayushmann Khurrana in Andhadhun. How do you think this transition has occurred in Bollywood where we as an audience are sensitized and okay with our protagonists being grey and not just Purshottam Ram, so to speak?
BV: We are finally getting ‘real’. Because no person is completely good or bad. We all have shades of grey and it’s all situational colours of grey. Villainy is situational. It’s also contingent upon the point of view and who is concerned. If you look at Deewaar, all Vijay wants to do is shower his mother with riches and doesn’t care how it comes. But as far as his mother was concerned, she wanted an honest, law abiding, not so well-earning son. She wanted respect. This point of view matters a lot.
In the Hindi film landscape, there have also been films with a grey ensemble cast, like Jaagte Raho or Pyaasa – where there is a whole society of antagonists. This was also carried through brilliantly in Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro. Then Sudhir Mishra also brought in Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi or Dharavi which talks about the society in Dharavi. And then Hazaron Khwaishein Aisi or Matrabhoomi. In the book, I have delved into grey ensembles and how they are different from a bunch of similar looking thugs belonging to say, Shakaal’s gang.
TI: You also talk about Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.
BV: I wouldn’t really call it a grey ensemble because it is still that economically homogenous group of marginal people in that one small slum. In that little slum in the backstreet of Bombay you find people like Salim Langda and Ibrahim Malabari. Salim Langda was the reality whereas the story of Vijay’s overnight rags to riches in Deewaar was a fairy tale story, it was a fantasy. If things could’ve happened so easily, life would’ve been very different. Salim Langda looks up at the same big buildings in Marine Drive like Vijay, wishing that he could get there one day. And he keeps struggling all his life, but he gets on the wrong side of a gang and is stabbed to death. That is the reality.
TI: A very recent example of what a grey ensemble is maybe Shanghai.
BV: Definitely, because it’s a political system, industrial system. Even the bureaucracy is corrupt. Abhay Deol’s boss is also corrupt, he has to toe the line of the CM and they practically kick him out of India to some exotic location, which is supposed to be a promotion, but they’ve just taken him off the hotseat. It’s clearly a shunt out but the packaging is beautiful.
TI: Your book draws interesting parallels wherein the ambit of crime and criminals and their ilaka increases in area over time, and this is parallel to how cinema was growing in India, moving from black and white to Eastman colour. How do you think this created a bigger canvas for villains to play themselves in films?
BV: In black and white films there are only two colours. Black and white is good for showing romantic sequences, close ups, intimacy. But imagine a chase scene, cars moving, a lot of action, you require zoomed out shots. More camera work had come in, and colour makes a big difference. Remember the good old black and white photographs when colour processing was so hard and expensive. In B&W films, blood, which is an outcome of violence, is still black. But colour films can show blood in its true red, which optically makes an important difference. If you see the book cover of Pure Evil you would notice multiple colours. Red is for blood, yellow is for flames and violence, black is for the smoke.
TI: So, we have a conjecture, and you are free to disagree with it. In the 1960s, Bond films started to become a thing and they had fancy villains with grand ambitions. And maybe that grandeur in villains also came to India because it’s probably very attractive to have a lair on a faraway island. Like Shaakaal would make a great Bond villain. What are your thoughts on this?
BV: The influence of Bond was definitely there. There was a movie called CID 909 with Feroz Khan, and Rajesh Khanna in The Train. That was a typical Bond thing. Even Agent Vinod (1977) where Mahendra Sandhu played the titular role, there’s a scene – he throws the hat and flirts with the secretary – you know these tropes are from Bond. There’s Ravikant Nagaich’s films – Surakksha and Wardat with Gunmaster G9. And a film called Raksha where Jeetendra plays a Bond-like character. He loses his wife in a shootout and there’s another woman waiting for him. In Aankhen (1968), Dharmendra lands in Lebanon and tries to debug his hotel room, checks for any microphones. It’s very similar to what Sean Connery did in Dr. No. The Bond trope has been borrowed liberally and why not. Just that I don’t know if they had the right people to play those roles. Ardhendu Bose was the best James Bond, and he didn’t act, he didn’t play a Bond in Indian films. He was a model for Bombay Dyeing, if you remember those old ads. He was the perfect Bond. Check out the old Readers’ Digest in the Bombay Dyeing ads. He’s fantastic.
Ardhendu Bose in a Bombay Dyeing advertisement; Image Credits: Bombay Dyeing
TI: In your book, you mention that there’s a difference between mafia and gangsters. You spoke to S. Hussain Zaidi about it also who has a prolific history of writing on gangsters. But how would you define this difference, particularly say, in their representation in the movies?
BV: Yes, the difference between Mafia and Gangster was explained to me lucidly by crime writer and journalist Hussain Zaidi, and I explained it quite in detail in the book. But Bollywood doesn’t explore true-blue mafias to that extent. In some films, they talk about the abduction of the CM or the President of India or all that, but the ending ultimately ties back to a normal Bollywood ending. Bollywood doesn’t take it to the level where they let a mafia be a mafia. TI: Our understanding of what the police is supposed to be and do is shifting now. We have developed a negative attitude towards them. We have more and more cases of police brutality. So, while we see police as villains in real life, we are still lionizing them as mega cops. Do you think at some point the police will be seen as villains and not as heroes? Will this attitude reflect in Indian films?
BV: I think it is getting reflected. If you look at the point starting from Andha Kanoon (1982), police has gone from upright to corrupt to criminal to ridiculous. In Hum, they were ridiculous, even the moral values had been lost. Look at scenes from Chameli, in which this cop, an all-night vigilante, he’s got his legs up on the table, three buttons of the shirt are open.
TI: You’re talking about examples of a man who happens to be a policeman, not the police as an oppressive force. We mean maybe the misuse of the position of police, which is what’s happening in real life, that police in many cases is misusing their powers.
BV: Take the case of the corrupt policemen. For example, in Gangajal, the whole chawki is on the payroll of Sadhu Yadav. Same thing in Seher. One IAS who tries to do something and gets killed. Take the case of Drishyam. The IPS head, she flouts the rules. But there are also good people, good policemen, but what chance do they have in the face of a diktat from the top boss? There’s a system which tells the cop, “I’m bigger than you”. In Te3n, the police boss ticks off his subordinate, “Jitna kaha gaya utna hi karo”. The policeman faces the wrath if he crosses the line. Because remember, when a non-IPS senior constable or an Assistant Sub-Inspector loses his job for insubordination, what other career can he pick? Can he become a journalist like you, or a writer like me?
Balaji Vittal (left) with Hindi cinema actor Amol Palekar (right)
TI: So they all follow into the same pattern.
BV: They have to. They have no option. Have you gone to a police station? See how they stand up and salute when a superior walks in. It’s about how well and how properly you salute. It’s about how obediently you take orders and execute them. In a corporate world, you can disagree with your boss, and he can’t hold you up for insubordination. Rather, he would appreciate your for bringing in a fresh viewpoint. But not in this world. Look at Ardh Satya, this cop Anant Velankar is frustrated because someone snatches away from him the credit for the good work of apprehending a terrorist that Velankar had done. He misses out on an award. Anant Welankar is so frustrated that he apprehends a petty thief and beats him up brutally. There’s another constable watching Velankar with his eyes downcast. But this constable can’t step up and say stop Velankar because he could get suspended for insubordination.
TI: We haven’t really seen women on screen as villains much. Do you think it’s because they haven’t been given agency and it’s been a slow transition – first we have to give them meaty enough roles to be the ‘heroes’ and then they can become villains? Like, why don’t we have enough female villains? Because when you look at TV, there’s a stark contrast. When it’s aimed a largely women demographic, you see women as villains too.
BV: I think you’re answering your own question which is good. (laughs) There was a movie called Hunterwali with the actress Fearless Nadia, things could’ve gone very differently from there but didn’t. Because people wanted to shackle the typecast.
Bollywood has been a formula, an amazing formula which most often works. Why do producers keep making films after 5 flops? They know if the 6th one works, they’ll recover more money than what they lost. They believe this is a formula that works. That’s why women have played the vamps, the antagonists, dancers, or the saas, bahu, chachi, mami, those sorts of characters. If a woman plays an infidel wife, it couldn’t be one of the commercially popular leading ladies. There was an actor called Reshma, who played Lolita in Ek Naari Do Roop. She teams up with her boyfriend and asks him to kill her paralysed husband. Imagine a Hema Malini or Jaya Bhaduri playing that role. Impossible. It had to be some unknown lady. Leading ladies were the ‘good ladies’. The Helens and Bindus had to be the bad women. Lines were clearly drawn. So, it was the non-top draw ladies who had to play these roles. TI: Simi Garewal wasn’t marketed as the heroine as well in Karz.
BV: Right. Even Simi Garewal, when she played the murdering wife in Karz, wasn’t exactly known as a heroine. Imagine Tina Munim and Simi switching places. Could Tina Munim have played that role? No, because she was already a star.
With Shah Rukh Khan playing negative roles, it opened the doors for even established heroines to start playing negative roles. Which is why Kajol could play the killer in Gupt. The audience was fast maturing.
Simi Garewal in Karz; Akhtar Farooqui; Jagjit Khurana
TI: In if you have a favourite villain, whose work or oeuvre you’ve really enjoyed. And who according to you would’ve killed it on OTT platforms?
BV: I can give you the most obvious answers – Gabbar, Mogambo, Shakal. Let me tell you a few off-beat ones, the hidden gems you should check out. Dil Nawaz in 1947 - Earth played by Aamir Khan. I don’t know who else could’ve ever played that role. It’s brilliant and as scary as The Exorcist. Then there’s Dr Arti Mahajan played by Tisca Chopra in Rahasya. Another example is Yashpal Sharma in Gangajal. Prashant Narayan in Murder 2 as well, and Kay Kay Menon in Haider.
(Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood by Balaji Vittal is out now in bookstores.)