Bollywood: From violence to love to violence

Let’s face it. Dishoom-Dishoom has always been an important chapter of the Bollywood story, but in an ordered way. Every single hero has, at some point or the other, done his share because, after all, poetic justice had to be played out. The horrible, mean, cruel and devious villain forever making life miserable for the lovers needed to be punished. What better than a solid thrashing before the cops [forever late.] arrived to lead him away and allow the love birds the pleasure of a passionate embrace before waltzing into the sunset? Violence was an essential component of the Bollywood narrative, along with romance, drama, emotion, song, dance, comedy et al.

It was Dharmendra however who gave us the first taste of how dishoom could work as a killer brand. When bare-chested he leant over a [virginal] sleeping Meena Kumari in Phool aur Patthar all those years ago, Dharam-Garam – inadvertently – set the pulse racing, blood pounding and temperature soaring of a million women while re-defining the very concept of mard for the guys. Yelling his trademark terms of endearment – Kuttie. Kaminey. Mein Tera Khoon Peejaoonga.] in one movie after another, Dharam Paaji was indeed B-town’s first legitimate He-man.

That is until 1973 September arrived, with Zanjeer introducing The Angry Young Man. Amitabh Bachchan’s persona was different. In his early, more memorable flashes – Zanjeer, Deewar, Trishul, Sholay – he presented a chilling portrait of cold-blooded violence – without apology. Of steely resolve, unsmiling and driven by a single-point agenda, this fantastic Salim-Javed creation went where no leading man dared to go – and triumphed all the way. Even in later films like Shahenshah and Agnipath, the Big B, with his booming baritone, blasted and blitzed his way to a different space. Agreed, later [responding to market forces] he diversified successfully to embrace other areas like song, dance, romance and comedy, but his basic image never left him. Little wonder that earlier this year, in mock-tribute to the golden, Angry Young Man era, he attempted a fun, updated version [Angry Old Man?] entitled, appropriately, Buddha Hoga Tera Baap. Dharam’s puttar Sunny Deol took up where his dad left. Blessed with a soft face and macho build – dhai kilo ke haath. – he dishoomed his way into the big time with films like Ghayal, Ghatak and of course the biggest, Gadar.

The nineties changed it all. Bachchan had a couple of spectacular mega-flops and a bunch of cutie-pie kids, with sugar n’ spice looks in soft, candy-floss youthful romantic movies, zoomed centre-stage. Suddenly violence, He-man-giri and raw action was considered down market and cheap. Romance was in and the three faces of this movement were the Khan combine. Salman Khan [with his Maine Pyar Kiya] Aamir Khan [with his QSQT] and Sharukh Khan [with DDLJ] celebrated puppy-love big time, connecting with the nineties youngistan as no star did or could. For an entire decade and a half, romance of the feel-good kind ruled, effectively laying to rest the fists-of-fury genre of films.

Then suddenly, around 2008, Gajini happened. The hottest box-office hit of the year, the Aamir Khan, violence-driven starrer was initially dismissed [by the laila-majnus] as a one-off, freak hit, an accident. However, when Wanted, Dabangg, Ready and Singham followed [with Bodyguard the biggest of them all] the startled collective cry that echoed everywhere from the luv-shuv camp was a plaintive: Ki Hoya??

As always, opinions came thick n’ fast. Producer Boney Kapoor believes that “the mass audiences were tired of the refined candy-floss, sweet, sophisticated metro-centric movies and were yearning for some real, hard-core, uncomplicated, old-fashioned action packed masala.” The nineties template catering to the multiplexes had totally alienated the mass audience in the mini-metros and interiors from the action. The Pan-Indian film had totally disappeared.

It was niche cinema that ruled. Wanted revived the earlier maar-dhaad model … and boy, did it bring in the crowds? Others believe that this is a “time and place thing”. The seventies were ripe for the Angry Young Man because the setting appropriated his entry and persona – a fearless young individual taking on a corrupt and unfair world with his fists and larger-than-life action to celebrate the triumph of the human spirit against all odds.

Similarly today in a corrupt and scam-infested environment, where only the rich rock, while the middle and lower class are given short shrift – both in terms of values and opportunities – a super hero is indeed a balm to their anguished souls. “The part where the minister is kicked on his butt by Ajay Devgun in Singham is a huge hit, everywhere. It strikes a collective chord and vents all the pent-up anger and frustration of the down-in-the-dumps masses,” says its director Rohit Shetty.

The director completely dismisses the fashionable “Multiplex cinema syndrome” by insisting that it has, at best, affected only a tiny segment. “Most people in most places – at a basic level – have the same taste in terms of appeal and entertainment. Dance, songs, emotion and action, pitched right, will always work. While I enjoy Adi and Karan’s movies and admire the sophisticated cool of Race and Dhoom, truth to say, Dabangg, Bodyguard and Singham are my kind of bharpoor, no-holds-barred entertainment.”

If action, emotion, song and dance was so hot, why was it slung out so unceremoniously across the nineties? Critics believe it was an overdose. Rauf Ahmed reckons “too much of anything can be a bore. Also, nothing succeeds like success.

Besides, with romantic, youth-driven films, spearheaded by the new exciting Khan trio blitzing the imagination of the kids, this genre became the flavour of the day completely shutting off the violence-prone films of the earlier decade.” Another school of thought believes this new violence-fever is nothing more than a fad, trend, fashion. “In the nineties, it was considered un-cool to scream your emotion. Today, it is the opposite – let it all hang out, baby and sock it big n’ hard, one more time. It is a cyclic thing, natural in human nature. No big deal.”

Critic Saibal Chatterjee is however not so sure. “With the Salman Khan factor looming ominously large in the public mindscape, his thundering back-to-back mega-hits Wanted, Dabangg, Ready and now the biggest, Bodyguard [scooping up mind-boggling Rs.21 crores plus on day one of its release in India] must mean something in terms of popular taste.

In this kind of a scenario, where do films – big or small – attempting anything fresh, new and interesting (The Girls In Yellow Boots, Mausam) stand a chance? Not every film can be as cleverly titillating as The Dirty Picture or chiller–thriller like Kahaani starring the flavour of the day, Vidya Balan. Who will be their Bodyguard to ensure decent funding, release and media attention? The future appears scary.”

(Manojit Lahiri is a New Delhi-based writer.)


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