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The perfect villain

A screenshot of Amjad Khan in the film Sholay.  

Sholay, which turned 40 yesterday, would rank quite highly in any poll for the most-watched Hindi film in the last 100 years. The film had a rather lukewarm opening at the height of the Emergency on August 15, 1975. The ‘heroes’ were not the stars on the screen but the writers — Salim-Javed — whose names featured just before that of the director as the credits rolled. Almost every character, whether Thakur, Jai, Veeru, Basanti or Radha, had his/her own distinguishing attributes and idiosyncrasies. But the one character on whose presence the narrative was premised was Gabbar Singh. And he was played by Amjad Khan, a rank newcomer.

What makes Gabbar one of Hindi cinema’s most-remembered antagonists? The characters played by Pran — like Raja Ugra Narayan in  Madhumati and Gajendra in Ram Aur Shyam — were as vicious. In a similar role, Vinod Khanna had equally suave mannerisms as Jabbar Singh in  Mera Gaon Mera Desh, about four years before  Sholay.

The answer lies in the script. Rarely had a villainous character been placed at the centre of the narrative by the scriptwriters. It was almost as if the star-writer duo had done a detailed analysis of the human psyche and the darkest elements of human personality before investing those emotions in the character.

Hindi filmmakers — right from the days of  Mujhe Jeene Do and  Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai — have been in awe of gun-wielding bandits who live in deep ravines and strike terror in the minds of the people in their neighbourhood. Some were lower-caste rebels forced to live as outcasts because of the exploitation by local zamindars. Real-life dacoits like Veerappan and Paan Singh Tomar as well as mythical ones like Sultana Daku have also been portrayed on screen. But Gabbar was the apotheosis of bad-hearted banditry, someone who dealt only in punchy dialogues, gruesome murders and ruthless acts of arson.

Gabbar’s physical entry happens after a good 1 hour and 7 minutes. Yet, his aura precedes his appearance and outlasts it, whether or not his name is mentioned. The first scene — when an unnamed jailor makes his unhurried horse journey to a languid Ramgarh, as a phlegmatic Thakur waits to receive him — anticipates the pain of the latter as he braces to extract revenge from Gabbar. The last scene shows a desolate Thakur coming to terms with a blank life. Having achieved the objective of his life — killing Gabbar, as per the original ending — he contemplates his future as the train chugs away, taking Veeru and Basanti to a new destination. Gabbar is like a recurring nightmare that does not stop haunting the characters.

Gabbar’s entry is marked not by his visage but by his voice, his footsteps, the clinking of his belt. The audience’s dread on imagining the existence of such a character outclasses the fear experienced on coming face to face with him. The one scene that presents Gabbar as the epitome of evil is the one that shows the killing of Ahmad (Sachin), who is heading towards a neighbourhood town when Gabbar’s henchmen catch him.  A grim-faced Gabbar, lying half-asleep, senses an opportunity to settle scores with the villagers. He spots a tiny ant on his right hand and crushes it to death. That is the fate that awaits Ahmad.

Salim-Javed’s desire to present Gabbar as evil incarnate justified their decision to have him killed in the original version. The only way Thakur’s retributory impulses — he was part of the same feudal set-up as Gabbar — could have been settled was by killing Gabbar. Gabbar being arrested by the police made it a different movie altogether.

If there were another poll, on the most referenced character in the history of Hindi cinema, Gabbar would win it hands down. His name must have featured in the names of at least half-a-dozen more films, among them, the recent  Gabbar is Back, and quite a few songs (the dialogue ‘ Jo darr gaya, samjho marr gaya’ alone inspired an entire song in the film  100 Days) . An antagonist with no redeeming feature having achieved such popularity was due to the writing being centred on him.  Sholay could well have been named Gabbar and made a similar impact.

Correction

This article has been corrected for a factual error.


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Printable version | Jun 14, 2021 5:41:14 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/hari-narayan-on-hindi-cinemas-most-iconic-villain/article7540641.ece

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