Tapan K. Ghosh’s “Bollywood Baddies” focuses on villains, marginal figures in the world of stardom

In John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, an epic retelling of the Biblical story of the fall of Man, the most powerful lines are reserved for Satan (“better to reign in hell than to serve in heaven”) such that the poet William Blake was prompted to see Milton as belonging to “the Devil’s party…” In a similar vein, Ramesh Sippy can be said to be of the villain’s party. For why else does “Sholay” readily bring to mind, over anything else, the dialogues “kitne aadmi thhe” and “ye haath…”?

Tapan K. Ghosh, too, is of the villain’s party. A former head of the Department of English, Rabindra Bharati University, and former member of the Central Board of Film Certification, he has come up with a book titled “Bollywood Baddies” (Sage Publications) on the institution of villainy in the Hindi film industry.

The book traces the journey of the villain through film history, and also looks at the neglected archetypes of the vamp and the henchman. Also included in the book are brief profiles of the usual suspects — Amjad Khan, Prem Chopra, Ajit — and the lesser criminals, Bob Christo, Jeevan and Mukesh Rishi among others.

The writer’s interest in films began with watching greats like Mrinal Sen and Buddhadev Dasgupta in the politically charged Calcutta of the 1970s, and grew outwards thereafter. “The ’80s marked the revival of stardom, but I started wondering at whose expense this stardom happened,” he says. “A few articles talked about villains, but never in a systematic or detailed way.” To study the contributions of others in the constellation of a film, the author brings to bear his academic background without sounding pedantic.

He locates the beginnings of villainy in Bollywood to myths, always fertile ground for storytelling. “From being an unsure and uncertain entity in pre-independence cinema, the villain acquired the face of the moneylender in the ’50s, of the lover, thwarting the interests of the hero-lover, in the ’60s, the smuggler and bootlegger in the ’70s and the political-terrorist of the ’80s,” he says.

But this categorisation doesn’t impede the possibilities of seeing resonances between villains from not just two eras, but often two different film cultures. The writer compares, for instance, the landlord of Satyajit Ray’s “Jalsaghar” with the landlord of Shyam Benegal’s “Ankur”, and the anti-heroes of the ’90s, from films like “Darr”, “Baazigar” and “Khalnayak”, with Ashok Kumar’s character in the pre-independence “Kismet”.

Over the past few decades one has seen a reassessment of a particular kind of villain — the daku — very much in vogue till the 1970s, through films like “Bandit Queen” and “Paan Singh Tomar”. Does this mean that film culture is more accommodating than one believes? “The transformation is so gradual and so subtle that it might not have any external impact,” replies the author.

Ghosh’s vision of the villain for the coming years is “as one who might assume God’s role of creation.”

“The intensity of action might change, but not his power to disrupt,” he anticipates, putting to rest any fears about the dilution of the villain.

Although he has viewed villains of various shades with equal empathy, he does have a favourite. “I would’ve said Mogambo but his villainy is partly hidden by a clownish gait. So I have to say Sanjay Dutt’s Kancha Cheena.”