Bollywood’s Villainisation Of Psychological Disorders
The ’90s saw a rise in the popularity of villains…
The ’90s saw a rise in the popularity of villains suffering from long-term trauma that was painted as ‘bad boy’ness. In his book, Pure Evil, author Balaji Vittal provides a detailed analysis of some of Bollywood’s most villainous performances.
Evil come in various shades, but the 1990s saw a rise in popularity of villains who were evidently suffering from long-term trauma, which manifested itself into various psychological illnesses. But instead of treating them with understanding and empathy, the characters were painted with negative shades, doomed to die by the end of the film. From brutality and psychopathic tendencies to abandonment issues and obsession, the whole gamut was explored in Bollywood until the early 2000s.
Maybe changing times brought in healthier perspectives. Additionally, the black-and-white hero-villain structure also started disappearing from mainstream cinema after the gangster phase of Bollywood. So, when a Bhool Bhulaiyaa happened, psychological disorders were treated with compassion and ingenuity. Although, that is not something one can say about Akshay Kumar’s last release, Atrangi Re, which deals with paracosm irresponsibly, turning it into a hook for comedy. While we might not villainise psychological disorders anymore, does mainstream Bollywood understand how to sensitively portray them on screen? In this excerpt from Balaji Vittal’s book Pure Evil, we get a chance to look at characters afflicted with mental illnesses and those that led to some of the most career-making performances for actors like Nana Patekar, Shah Rukh Khan, and Manoj Bajpayee.
In the 1940 film Pagal, Dr Vasant (Prithviraj Kapoor) plays a doctor in charge of a mental asylum. He had been deceived into marrying Chhaya (Khatun) instead of her prettier sister Parvati (Madhuri). When he looks at his wife, he is reminded of her sister—the one whom he actually loves. His obsession with Parvati pushes him to lose his sense of rationality and professional ethics. He injects her with a drug that makes her insane, and, with her in that state of madness, he makes love to her. He himself goes insane later and ends up murdering his wife Chhaya. The story peg is not so much about Dr Vasant’s villainous acts as his mental instability that was the root cause of his antagonistic behaviour. Pagal is arguably India’s first film around the subject of psychosis. Prithviraj Kapoor’s performance as the psychotic doctor was hailed even by a critic of the stature of Baburao Patel in the August 1940 edition of FilmIndia. “The development of the theme was psychological and within natural limits of intellectual understanding,” he had written.
Remember Kunwar Saheb (Premnath) in Teesri Manzil (1966)? He commits three murders. Saheb’s wife catches him red-handed in bed with another woman. In the ensuing tussle, the gun goes off, killing the wife. But there happen to be two ‘accidental’ witnesses to the crime and Saheb has to kill them too. Amol (Amol Palekar) in Khamosh (1985) commits four murders. Soni (Soni Razdan) gets pregnant with Amol’s child and she threatens to expose him, an eventuality that could ruin Amol’s chances at the election that he is planning to contest. Amol kills Soni and is in a similar bind, as he has to now dispose of three more witnesses. Both Kunwar Saheb and Amol are killing for pragmatic reasons. So, what is the difference between the two characters? Kunwar Sahab demonstrates a sincere sense of remorse. He admits that his crimes have bought him a ticket to the gallows—and he prefers to atone for his sins by leaping to his death. Whereas in Amol’s case, he progressively develops an insensitivity and, in the climax, actually admits, “Ab to mujhe ye sab karne me mazaa bhi aane laga tha (By now I had started enjoying killing)”. In other words, he’s become a psychopath.
Amol Palekar recounted a little-known fact about the climax scene (when Shabana discovers that he was the killer and he captures her). “The original climax scene was set on a golf course. And then, while going through the script at Vidhu’s place with editor Renu Saluja and Sudhir Mishra, I said, ‘Vinod, I have an idea. Now, instead of the standard loud announcement of ‘I am going to kill you!’, what if, in a whispered tone, I give a very factual, step-by-step cold description to Shabana of how I was going to kill her? Would the effect be more threatening and more blood-chilling?’ Vinod and Renu got very excited and asked Sudhir to rewrite the final climax scene basis my idea. And Sudhir went into another room and started rewriting the scene. All this was a very collective effort. Also, director Vidhu Vinod wanted this cold menace. This coldness made the difference.”
“Daro mat Shabana. Shabana, mere paas aao (Don’t be scared, Shabana. Come to me, Shabana),’ Amol calls out to her in a whisper, smiling when she tries to hide and slither away from him. His left eye twitches, and eyeballs bulge. ‘Mai majboor hoon. Ab to mujhe tumhari jaan leni hi padegi na? Tum samajhti kyon nahi? Huh? (I’m in a fix. I have to end your life now. Why don’t you understand?),” he explains in a silky soft voice. It showed an inner medical condition as opposed to common villainy.
By the mid-1980s, the established mainstream Bollywood heroes were ageing. But they refused to compromise on the conventional hero images that made them the stars they were. Even the next generation of heroes that took over the baton between 1982 and 1990—Sunny Deol, Kumar Gaurav, Sanjay Dutt, Anil Kapoor, Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Jackie Shroff—stuck to predictable macho/romantic heroes, almost as if they were worried about diluting their fan base if they did anything else.
It took an outsider to break the norm; a non-Bombayite. “Want to become a Hindi film hero? You’ve got to be mad,” parents often tell their children. A Delhi-born actor, who began his career with roles in television serials, soon became the face of the disturbed, reclusive young man, obsessed with cold revenge or love. His name was Shah Rukh Khan.
There is only one ambition that consumes Ajay (aka Vicky) in Abbas-Mustan’s Baazigar (1993): avenging his father Vishwanath Sharma (Ananth Mahadevan) for the betrayal he experiences at the hands of Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil). A betrayal that leads to the eventual, tragic death of his father, the death of his younger sister and causes his mother to lose her mental equilibrium. Hatred devours Ajay, and he plots to rip apart the Chopra family through deceit and murder. So why does Ajay, who pursues a good motive of avenging his parents’ death and humiliation albeit through illegal means, not feature in the anti-hero chapter that comes later in this book? The reason is that the anti-heroes, like the Vijays of Deewar, Zanjeer and Trishul, and Shankar of Yaadon ki Baaraat, have the morality to ensure that the innocent ones in the enemy camp did not get hurt.
But Ajay in Baazigar targets the innocent. First up is Madan Chopra’s elder daughter Seema (Shilpa Shetty), whom he kills with great relish. And then two more classmates of Seema are sent to their death in a grisly manner because they are possible witnesses to the crime. Ajay’s preoccupation with wanting to inflict pain on the Chopras pushes him to the extent that he’s labelled a psychopath: one who knows he is doing something wrong but still does it. And we do see some freaky traits in him that adhere to such a notion. For instance, he eats the photograph (instead of burning it) that could link him to Seema’s murder.
Doubtless, like all bad men who have committed evil deeds, death visits Ajay in the end. He breathes his last in his mother’s lap. But not before killing Madan Chopra. A just punishment, one would say. And yet, it is for Ajay that the audience feels the most in the end. The role won Shah Rukh Khan his first Filmfare Award for Best Actor.
What is interesting is that, initially, the story of Ajay’s parents was not part of the larger plot. As Ananth Mahadevan said, ‘On completing the film, Abbas–Mustan realized that the hero was actually a villain who was killing people with no motive. That was when they added the track of Ajay’s parents and brought in the angle of his mother getting humiliated to justify Ajay’s acts and to get him some iota of audience sympathy.’
Shah Rukh Khan followed up Baazigar with two definitive roles of the mentally sick OYM (Obsessed Young Man)—Rahul Mehra in Yash Chopra’s Darr (1993) and Vijay Agnihotri in Anjaam (1994). Unlike Baazigar, neither of these was a revenge saga. These characters had problems of unalloyed obsessions. Rahul of Darr suffers from multiple disorders, in the doctor’s own analysis. Rahul has always been a loner with hardly any friends. The one person he ‘speaks’ with frequently over the ‘phone’ is his mother—but she died in an automobile accident eighteen years ago. It is hinted that Rahul holds his father responsible for his mother’s death since he was at the wheel of the ill-fated car. Rahul is definitely delusional. Apart from believing that his mother is still alive, he is also deluded by his belief that Kiran (Juhi Chawla) loves him. He is the crazed lover, who stalks her, wants to be close to her, refusing to surrender to the fact that Kiran loves Sunil (Sunny Deol). Rahul’s hysterical laughter, his famous stutter ‘K … k … k ….k … Kiran’, his suicidal self-destructiveness like walking on a high parapet, engraving ‘KIRAN’ on his chest with a dagger, his homicidal tendencies all point to mental instability. So much so that, in the face of the terror caused by Rahul’s persistent stalking, Kiran almost loses her mind. Curiously, at some level, the audience sympathizes with Rahul, especially in the penultimate scene in which he pleads with Sunil to forgive him. After all, Rahul is a motherless, lonely, sick boy who needed a bit of care and affection. But since he has blood on his hands, he has to die.
Vijay Agnihotri in Anjaam is far worse. Unlike Rahul who becomes a recluse after his mother’s death, Vijay has a mental condition that is congenital. He himself admits that, right from childhood, he believed that he had a right to ruin anything that his persuasion couldn’t acquire. He starts off by trying to woo Shivani (Madhuri Dixit) with some harmless serenading. But Shivani’s rejection aggravates his condition and he attempts to kill himself by slashing his wrists. It also turns him into a sadist and he starts killing animals for fun. On being repeatedly rebuffed by her, he murders her husband (yes, Shivani marries someone else) and later, Vijay frames her in an attempted murder case and lands her in prison. Quite aptly, Shyam Benegal describes Anjaam as a vastly sadistic and gratuitously manipulative film. Unlike Rahul of Darr, Vijay of Anjaam enjoys no audience sympathy. They couldn’t wait to see him die. This was Shah Rukh Khan’s darkest role and he never played such a black character ever again. But with these three roles, Khan shattered the paradigm that a lead actor’s public image would be disadvantaged if they played mentally unsound characters.
SRK also passed on this confidence of going against the grain to his female colleagues. Isha (Kajol) in Gupt (1997) is in love with Sahil (Bobby Deol); when they were young, she killed a pet dog that bit Sahil. Dr Gandhi’s (Kulbhushan Kharbanda) diagnosis is that Isha has been mentally unstable since childhood, and also has anger management issues. Unable to accept the loss of Sahil to another woman, the familiar irrationality and dangerous symptoms of people with mental disturbance surface in Isha and she murders Sahil’s father when he refuses to accept her as his daughter-in-law. ‘Sahil ko paane ke liye mai sau khoon bhi kar sakti hoon’ (To win over Sahil I am willing to commit a hundred murders),’ she avers. She kills two persons and almost murders another. Kajol’s gamble in accepting the antagonist’s role in Gupt paid off as she won the Filmfare Award for Best Villain. This movie was also the first time that a woman had been nominated for this category—another big leap forward for Bollywood in breaking stereotypes. We call it Kajol’s gamble because prior to Gupt, these types of roles were reserved for the supporting cast, like Simi Garewal in Chalte Chalte (1976) or non-mainstream heroines like Smita Patil in the psychological thriller Haadsaa (1983), as the leading ladies perceived these types of roles as being too risky for their public image.
The stalkers’ parade continued through the 1990s with Nana Patekar playing Vishwanath in Agni Sakshi (1996). Coming as a follow-up to the pyrophobic Anna in Parinda (1990), this role of the abnormally possessive husband Vishwanath fit Nana like a glove. Vishwanath keeps his wife Madhu (Manisha Koirala) under a virtual house arrest and has also banned anyone from coming home. Even when Madhu does step out, he demands a detailed account of every minute. Vishwanath’s perverted and erratic behaviour, like whipping her with a belt and making love to her soon after, and his suicidal tendencies, including walking on a parapet and asking an untrained Madhu to shoot at an apple perched on his head, horrifies her. Vishwanath discloses to Madhu that he owed this condition to a bad childhood in which his parents had separated and abandoned him as a child. Madhu manages to break free from this madman and starts a new life under a new identity of Shubhangi—and marries Suraj. All appears well until she runs into Vishwanath again and he starts stalking her. Her nightmare ends only when Vishwanath shoots himself at the end.
Of the couple of Hindi films that were inspired by the psychological thriller Sleeping with the Enemy (1991), Agni Sakshi was the one that fared well at the box office. But this genre of mentally disturbed, delusional, destructive men and women in the lead cast was clearly working with the audience in the 1990s.
All the mentally deranged characters discussed so far were consigned to death at the end, albeit with a sprinkling of sympathy at their mental malady. Their inevitable death emphasized that these people could not be rehabilitated and had to go for good at the end of the film. The serialization of these characters hadn’t started happening yet. But that too changed in 2001 with Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra’s Aks (2001), a film which bore resemblances to Hollywood’s Face/Off (1997), in which the cop and the killer swap faces. Raghavan is a psychotic contract killer who infiltrates the security cordon of the Indian Defence Minister by wearing a face mask of the cop Manu Verma (Amitabh Bachchan) and assassinates the Defence Minister. The face mask is a metaphor for Raghavan’s philosophy, ‘Chehron me kya rakha hai? (What is in a face?)’, suggesting that there is a ‘Raghavan (a bad man)’ in every ‘Manu Verma (a good man)’. Raghavan is captured but is killed in a shootout. His spirit enters Manu Verma who now turns evil, thus proving Raghavan’s dark metaphysics. Manoj Bajpayee who played the demented villain Raghavan, said, ‘The subject of Aks germinated from the conflict of good vs evil and it was Hindi filmdom’s first psychological villain-based film. Mehra was trying to show the impact of what would happen if evil were to be separated from the good. Manu Verma and Raghavan were chemically one and the “same” person, according to the script. He had to become “me”.’ Another unique attribute that was added to Raghavan’s characteristics was his reciting a line from the Bhagavad Gita after committing a murder, to justify his actions. As Bajpayee explained, ‘Except for the screeching laughter, Raghavan’s mannerisms were meant to look like Lord Krishna, including his long, askance look.’
Aks wasn’t a commercial success, but there was no denying the impression left by the villain. ‘Maybe the people mistook it for a ghost movie,’ added Bajpayee. But his effort to essay something new is worthy of mention. ‘I worked hard on the character Raghavan for three to four months. I tried to introduce a physicality in Raghavan’s gait by the cocking of the head. And the line from the Gita—that was my idea,’ he disclosed.
The final frame of Aks leaves behind a chill of fear similar to that in Omen (1976) as we discover that the evil spirit of Raghavan has left the body of Manu Verma but has now entered the body of ACP Arjun Shrivastava (Abhimanyu Shekhar Singh). Just as there had been sequels to Omen, so there could be another Aks. This prospect of seriality was a novelty.
Amitabh Bachchan followed up Aks with the role of Vijay Singh Rajput, General Manager of Vilasrao Jefferson Bank Ltd., in Aankhen (2002). Vijay is a genius with a mental condition. ‘Woh paagal hai (He is mad)’, says
Mr Bhandari (Ajit Vachchani), one of the board members of the bank, referring to Rajput’s known condition of schizophrenia. In addition to that, Rajput has a problem with anger management and had beaten up people severely in the past. The bank’s top brass decides that it is dangerous to keep him on the payroll any longer. Peeved at getting fired, Rajput decides to get even with his employers and hatches an ingenious plan of robbing the bank with the help of three blind men. As the plot unfolds, Rajput toys around with those three blind men, seemingly deriving pleasure at their blindness, bringing into prominence his sadistic streak. Based on a Gujarati play, there are two versions of Aankhen with two different endings: one of them being that Rajput evades arrest and starts shadowing the two surviving blind men to extract the loot. ‘A dangerous game is about to begin,’ Rajput says, breaking into demented laughter. That same seriality again.