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Hero, anti-hero, zero
In Indian cinema, the male lead is the pole around which the entire story revolves. Notwithstanding the occasional Kahaani or Mahesh Bhatt's Arth, made exactly 30 years ago, films made from the woman's point of view are a rarity. The male is always the "hero" of the story, with hero-like attributes of individuality, bravery and nobility. The rest exist to prop him up and to allow him to shine.
Even so, over the last 60 or 70 years, beginning with the so-called Golden Age of Hindi cinema, the hero has undergone many changes, reflective of the zeitgeist and providing a good indication of where we are as a society. Today's Chulbul Pandey, with his tendency to bash up all and sundry and casually pocket bribe money. would be a misfit in the 1960s as much as Vijay of Pyaasa would be considered a loser in modern, shining India.
This is the age of the slackers (Wake up Sid, Delhi Belly, Vicky Donor), the buffoons (Golmaal, Houseful), the cops who bend the rules (Singham) and the thief (Dhoom). The hero today does not have to be goody twoshoes and the repository of all virtues;indeed, nice guys are no more than losers. Aamir Khan carefully cherry picks roles that make him look noble (Lagaan, Rang de Basanti) but even he cannot resist doing a Ghajini. Why, today's hero can also be effeminate and gay (Dostana) if only a pretend one;this would never have happened even 25 years ago.
The journey of the Indian hero has been a fascinating one. In the 1950s, the hero was from the masses;if not exactly low life, definitely not middle-class either. Raju in Awara or Madan in Baazi were both petty criminals, but had a code of honour and an innate decency which allows them to stand up to the powerful. In Shri 420, Raju quickly moves into high society but it soon becomes apparent that the rich are corrupt and decadent. Nehruvian India was socialist in its worldview and the film-makers were quick to latch on to the theme.
A decade later, though we continued to be a poor nation, the films turned colour and the mood was largely joyous. Shammi Kapoor, Dev Anand, Joy Mukherjee and Golden Jubilee Star Rajendra Kumar were all sweet and mischevious, wooing their lady-loves in snowy Kashmir or, soon enough, the streets of Paris. Romance was in the air and poverty, on-screen at least, took a back seat. The heroes belonged to big business families (Shammi Kapoor in Junglee), the armed services (Raj Kapoor in Sangam) or even royalty (Rajendra Kumar in Suraj).
Where the wastrels and underdogs of the '50s were solitary players, in the '60s the centrality of the family was established. Now the hero was a "maryada purshottam", the perfect being (did not smoke, did not drink, did the right thing and respected his parents. ) Occasionally he may have stood up to domineering and class conscious parents and even leave the family home (exile) but in the end came back to the fold. Rebelliousness had to be tempered with social reality. Chocolate heroes were in fashion - they were not going to fight the system. That was left to the '70s, when the angry young Amitabh Bachchan took on the establishment single-handedly.
Cynicism about the state was slowly creeping into the national psyche and Bachchan's screen persona reflected it. He played the smuggler in Deewar with aplomb and the audience rooted for him when he lashed out at the unjust system which humiliated his honest father. The film was released in 1975, the same year as the Emergency was declared after months of agitations. Sholay too came the same year. The hero was ready to flirt with the law, even break it, but had a heart of gold. Gabbar Singh was the more complex character of the film, but it was Jai and Veeru who were clearly the heroes.
The '80s are a dark period in Hindi cinema. The vigilante and the tight-pants wearing dancer in those southern atrocities - both the dominant heroes of the decade were a travesty of good taste and any meaningful analysis and are best left alone.
Post-liberalisation, in 1991, the Chopra-Johar combination grasped the new India well and understood the essential conservative character of the emergent middle-class. Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge and all other confections that followed from the house of Chopra-Johar faithfully adhered to the NRI worldview which essentially had remained time-warped in the 1960s, when many of the Indians had left. This fitted in neatly with the new, post-liberalisation Indians who were becoming prosperous and globalised but were sinking in deeper and deeper into what they saw as traditional family values. Nor did they want to be bothered with images of poverty and stories of misery;the world had discovered India, and it wouldn't do to spoil the party. Dil Chahta Hai, Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna, Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara have all pretty much stuck to that formula of lavish lifestyles and designer angst. The hero is now a yuppie and comfortable anywhere in the world, sipping the finest beverages and driving the best cars.
Simultaneously, almost as if reacting to this fake universe, a new type of hero has emerged - the Mofussil Man. Mofussil Man wears unfashionable clothes, swears and is in-your-face-macho (Ishqiya, Maqbool). But the canny film makers are still aiming at the multiplex crowd for which the antics of the country bumpkin are hugely entertaining.
Sensitivity is a long lost asset. It is tempting to relate this to the aggressiveness of Indian society, which seems to have lost its manners. For, in the end, what we see on the screen is in some symbiotic way, ourselves.
The writer is a film commentator
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