Popular cinema has been driven in India by the image of the ‘Hero’. As the Heroes so the movies. Films have come to be identified with the legendary Heroes they have created. Artistes have been identified, their public images been built according to the kind of Hero they have played in movies. Amitabh Bachchan is still called the ‘angry young man’. Dev Anand was known as the ‘evergreen lover’ and so on and so forth. But things have changed and the Hero is no more the Hero he used to be. He has become a lot of things and, unfortunately or fortunately, all at once.
The representation of the ‘Hero’ in mainstream Indian cinema has undergone a sea change in the past decade or so. From an ideologically charged character who fights societal evils at the grass roots level – villages and mohallas generally – the Hero has become more of an all-rounder. The Hero has displaced the comedian – pathetically in most cases. He is also the ‘perfect’ enchanter of girls – philandering has become a virtue of late and a girl on either side has become the new mark of ‘Hero-ism’. Also, a chiseled out body in the image of Hercules has become an integral part of his screen presence, not to forget dancing skills. This transition in the image of the Hero – how he became the jack of all trades – can be traced in and through historical epochs in Indian cinema, starting with Raj Kapoor.
Remember Raj Kapoor being chased for a thief in Jagte Raho; his wandering aimlessly and singing Awara hun in Awara. In Shree 420 he sings Mera joota hai Japani, ye patloon Englistani, sar pe laal topi Roosi phir bhi dil hai Hindustani. Jagte Raho presents him as the son of a poor farmer who has come to the city in search of a job. This reflected the unemployment and poverty that had prevailed during the Nehruvian years of Socialism. Kapoor’s movies were not revolutionary but representative of his times. The Shree 420 song referred to above reflects the dilemma of confused identity amongst Indians – the half and half affair between Westernisation bred corruption and a core Indian-ness inspired by newly acquired freedom and the rhetoric of egalitarianism.
The present Hero belies popularly accepted images. He has become the jack of all trades. He has become the comedian, the character artiste, the dancer, the philandering villain, the wayward goonda, a trigger happy policeman or a gun toting underworld don.
Another notable movie that reflects the conflict between idealism and pragmatism, between profession and the practice of Indian democracy and State is Mother India of 1957. The best part of the movie was that the Hero was a female character in a deeply patriarchal set-up.
In the 1970s unfolds the image of the ‘angry young man’. Amitabh Bachchan was the epitome of this epoch. Deewaar (1975) presents a different sort of romanticism in Indian cinema. Amitabh Bachchan is an angry man, a young one, who feels wronged not just by the people around, society at large, and an administration that works on bureaucratic fiats than on justice but one who throws the gauntlet even at God in his pugnacious bouts.
Then comes the phase when Jitendra, Rishi Kapoor, Mithun Chakraborty and later Govinda as an extension, ruled the silver screen. The Hero became a skirt chaser and gave junior artistes a run for their money by transforming into a good dancer and this became what we call the ‘formula’ of hit movies. Once this formula took the box office by storm, an entire era was converted into creatively blunt, mimetic tyranny of formula films. Mithun’s Disco Dancer and all of Jitendra’s movies – especially where he partnered with Sridevi and Jayaprada – have the Hero as a moth-eaten extension of the theme of eternal love that has been sustained till now by Indian cinema as a matter of tradition.
Though Raj Kapoor was a trend-setter, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand continued with the image of the Hero as a soft-hearted lover who believes in the eternity of love even as their movies had what Kapoor had started – the reflection of society. Guide and Ganga Jamuna are, apart from many others, two of the characteristic movies of this genre.
Since the 1990s, in the new era of globalisation, movies reflect the post-modern predicament. Henceforth, popular and accepted categories have been mediated by new conundrums and sensibilities have been disentangled from tradition.
The present Hero too belies popularly accepted images. He has become the jack of all trades. He has become the comedian, the character artiste, the dancer, the philandering villain, the wayward goonda, a trigger happy policeman or a gun toting underworld don. If we look at a series of movies starting with Satya and walk our way through Vaastav, Company, among others, till Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, we find the Hero in a grey shade – an underworld don who is glorified. Obviously, movies no longer have characters having clearly defined jurisdictions among them. As suggested above, a comedian can become the Hero, as in the case of Rajpal Yadav in his beautiful performance in Main Meri Patni Aur Woh, and a Hero may re-figure as a villain (in the traditional sense only), like Abhishek Bachchan in Raavan or previously Shahrukh Khan in Darr, to mention only a few such anti-heroes.
Movies are perused critically from a myriad angles – direction, production, make-up, acting, story, lyrics, music, etc. – but the social angle is often either neglected or is underplayed. Though an entirely creative field where censorship is often informed by extraneous factors other than what should be valid grounds, license in the name of creativity has been an increasing trend lately, Murder and Jism being suggestive only and not exhaustive examples. The audience themselves must take the responsibility of what they should see and what they should not.