In a decade where heroes struggled to stay relevant, villains came to embody a more corporate approach to villainy, that seemed as systematised as it seemed loud and gaudy.
There is no secret that the 80s were a trying time for Bollywood. Amitabh Bachchan’s star had begun to fade, dependable peers have become liabilities and the first generation of India’s superstars had begun to slide into oblivion. Consequently, the hero, the protagonist of our stories went missing, not in terms of narrative presence but cultural imposition. Bollywood looked for new faces, stories beyond the usual good vs evil to tell, and experimented with styles and formats that led to an era of terrible music, gaudy filmmaking and cringe aesthetic. It wasn’t until on the cusp of globalisation that the industry discovered the three Khans and was ushered to safer shores. The 80s, therefore represent a decade without obvious leading men, an era of whimsical filmmaking that was really trying to chisel its way through uncertainty. With the hero largely absent or declining in the public eye, the 80s became the age of the larger-than-life villain.
In Shaan(1980), debutant Kulbhushan Kharbanda plays a cold sociopath who has his own personal pool full of live sharks. Shakaal gently taps his barren head, as a sort of calming reflex every time he has to mull the fate of his antagonists. It’s a bewitching form of villainy, more austere and grand than anything the audience had seen before. Even though Shaan boasted a slew of acting heavyweights it was really Kharbanda’s eerie performance that redefined the image of evil. We had known scheming mothers, cunning middle-aged men, but this form of evil was new. It was decorated, prideful in its privilege and grandeur. We had previously seen villains with means, but this was a new form elite villainy one that was transformative through its controlled persistence. Of course Shakaal was inspired by the James Bond films and Apocalypse Now to an extent, but this was still alien territory.
In Karma(1986), Anupam Kher played the duplicitous but comparatively more accessible Dr Dang. Dang, unlike Shakaal, resorted to chicanery, often ridiculing his victims or indulging them in a bit of banter. Dang isn’t exactly eccentric but differently motivated. In 1987, Amrish Puri, essayed the iconic role of Mogambo in Mr India, a typically wide-eyed menace, who elates in self-serving rhetoric. He of course iconised the dialogue ‘Mogambo Khush Hua’. Mogambo’s brutality was somewhat subverted by the coming-of-age tone of the film, but the intensity of his eyes, his ornamented uniform suggested a militaristic streak of thought. It’s no wonder really, that Puri is considered the golden standard of hair-raising villainy and essayed not one but many iconic roles across the years. There were other actors like Shakti Kapoor, Ranjeet and Bob Christo who stepped into the shoes of crime and bad intent but it was these three that headlined an era that is also considered Bollywood’s trashiest. Beyond the curious antics, and self-serving hyperbole however there was something common to these three villains – their baldness.
The 80s arrived in the aftermath of an Emergency and the return to power of an Indira Gandhi who had by then become a precariously divisive figure. While most 70s villains operated within the annals of familial ties, and intimate feuds, the villain of the 80s went all out to capture the country, colonise landscapes far greater than those imaginable in the previous decade. The most iconic villain from the 70s – Gabbar – only envisioned modest territorial rule, a humble life in comparison to the economic and cultural status of the 80s.
This new breed of villain splurged on modern cave dwellings, covert stations, sophisticated gadgets, an army of minions and a mission that foreshadowed Gabbar’s imagination and purview. Beyond imagination, the 80s villain also represented the audacity to aspire to bigger things, and execute it through a degree of diplomatic control that though pressing in places also felt corporate. This was perhaps cinema’s first signs of the entrepreneurial spirit, coupled with the hunger to both occupy and lust after thrones, rather than petty over-the-wall scraps. The systematic and obscene capture of power that the Emergency represented, possibly fired the imagination of writers who previously imagined villains to be small-time thugs. Though not necessarily badder, the 80s villain believed in grand entrances, indulgent lifestyles and the whisperings of monarchism.
The 80s produced a lot of low-brow, forgettable cinema that eventually culminated in the audience pining for the romantic heroic figure, the kind of man whose heroism would emerge in the battles he won for his woman’s sake. The Good v Evil template was never quite abandoned but at the turn of this whirlwind and most imprecise of cinematic decades, India had returned home to re-focus on familial matters. The emergence of Doordarshan and religious epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata satiated the appetite for mythical, grand battles, and the larger-than-life villain receded to the pavilion to play tough father figures embroiled in a battle of prestige and honour rather than rule and territory. If nothing else though, the 80s did give us three bald men who, though precariously named and imagined, commandeered oddly committed and orderly ships.
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