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No more Mr good guy
For a long time in Bollywood, wealth and integrity of character were very closely linked. The presence of one meant the absence of the other. The honest and poor battled the corrupt and rich. Villains lived in mansions. Heroes in huts. Admittedly Hindi cinema is not the best representation of any reality. Yet, Bollywood has always been roughly accurate as a mirror to aspirations and desires. Hindi cinema has seen some powerful hero archetypes over the years. At their best, the Nehruvian Dilip Kumar and the antiestablishment Amitabh Bachchan have transcended their films and represented the hopes, dreams and wishes of a country that was confronted with an uncertain future.
Today, India is less black and white and infinitely more pliable. There are grades of poverty, nuances in aspirations and greys in entitlement. Add to that the current political void and the soul-numbing carpet bombing of scams and moral ambiguities, and it is interesting to see how Bollywood is shaping that into its own sugarcoated escapist capsule.
Increasingly our heroes are donning the Robin Hood mantle and playing crooked characters whose morality is specious at worst or fluid at best. Dabangg's Chulbul Pandey, for instance, cheerfully took bribes and had his own definition of right and wrong.
But the actor who most embodies this tangential approach to good and evil does not belong to the Khan trinity or the Kapoor lineage. It's the unlikely Emraan Hashmi. Unlikely, because Hashmi has been called many things, few of them complimentary. A single screen hero. A serial kisser. A nonlooker. There remains a certain section of the population that doesn't yet want to acknowledge his tremendous popularity and seems constantly surprised by his appeal. Which is why news of crowds of his fans making a shoot for Shanghai almost impossible, was breathlessly reported. No such news is reported when it concerns a Shah Rukh or a Salman. But that this roundly mediocre package could command such droves was news to some. In the same circles both Emraan Hashmi and a while ago Himesh Reshammiya are successful question marks created by rickshaw pullers and truck drivers, who are deemed to have no idea of what good acting or singing is.
In the recent Jannat 2, Emraan Hashmi plays an illegal arms smuggler who justifies his trade by saying that if people didn't kill each other with guns, they would do so anyway with knives and sticks and, therefore, if everyone had a gun, it would act as the ultimate deterrent to senseless violence. In two sentences of dialogue, Hashmi's character (called Sonu Dilli KKC in the film) updated the Gandhian idiom of an eye for an eye making the whole word blind. The caveat being that the said eye should also possess a gun.
Hashmi's characters are tedha both by choice and by ambition (Jannat, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, Crook, Murder 2). There is no ailing mother, or wronged sister - Hashmi's character in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai is driven by pure ambition and in Jannat he becomes a bookie to get rich, period. Unlike Shah Rukh's anti-hero avatar in Baazigar, Hashmi is not out for vengeance. He is out for success. There is also something primeval about the characters he plays. They are jagged and all for instant gratification. In film after film, such as in Jannat and Jannat 2, which are amongst his greatest hits to date, Hashmi plays an upstart who has gumption and who navigates a society so riddled with problems that reforming it is not on his agenda. It's not the most inspiring of stories but at least morally, but it's more identifiable with real life.
Similar doses of reality have entered the story of how Dhirubhai Ambani made his empire. For a long time, the rosier version was that through sheer smarts a petrol pump attendant became India's richest man. Then came the book The Polyester Prince that shot some holes into that story and was banned in India. Later came Mani Ratnam's Guru which was supposedly inspired from Dhirubhai's story and which essentially said that it was the system that was inept and silently doffed a hat to the hero's guts. It's unlikely in today's times that anyone believes that Dhirubhai never arm-twisted a law into going his way, but that doesn't dent his legend. If anything, in contemporary India, it only adds to its allure.
And America has its Gordon Gekko who like Emraan Hashmi believes that "greed is good". In fact, Oliver Stone, when he directed Wall Street, was trying to portray Gordon Gekko as the bad guy. But his film entered the American culture at a time that Gekko was what everyone wanted to be like, by hook or by crook. Stone tried to paint a portrait of material excess in the 1980s and showed Martin Sheen's honest, working class trade unionist battling a powerful financial lobby that couldn't be won over. But if anything, Martin Sheen came off looking like a sweet dinosaur who had no ambition to back his integrity. A little like today's Anna Hazare perhaps - respected yet outdated. In later interviews, Stone, who has always been vocal about his disdain for capitalism, would constantly express his surprise as to how popular Gekko became without being deemed the bad guy.
It's likely that Hashmi selects his roles instinctively with a gut for what's likely to work at the box office. Indeed even Javed Akhtar has said that while writing Deewar and creating the angry young man, he had no idea he was giving voice to a national undercurrent. But of all the actors working in mainstream Bollywood today Hashmi is the only one who is truly speaking to a large section of the society that is actually grappling with a power and class divide. Not merely looking down at it. He comes with dollops of kisses and an array of interchangeable and skimpily clad women. But that's just clever packaging. Don't confuse it with what's inside.
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