Middle age can make you mushy in unexpected contexts. In the 1980s, if someone had told me that one day I would feel nostalgic watching an actor of that era play himself in a film, Gulshan Grover would have been the last on my list of possibles—not because he was a villain but because he was oily and reptilian and henchman-like in ways that other bad men weren’t. As a personality, he was a few shades below Amjad Khan, who was always a classy actor, or Amrish Puri, who could leer and roll his eyes with the best of them when required, but had gravitas and authority too, or Kader Khan, who knew how to command a scene even if his sense of humour was an acquired taste. Compared to these performers, Grover was the lizard on the wall, the lead villain’s callow son, who leered and struck a pose for a bit before getting beaten up by the second hero.
For me, then, one achievement of the new direct-to-Web film BadMan, directed by Soumik Sen and available on the online video platform Voot, is that it makes Grover likeable and, in his own way, charming. The film weaves a series of zany, slapstick skits around this basic premise: Grover, at age 60, decides that he wants to play the hero in a movie, to make himself relevant again and to take revenge for all the beatings he took in his iniquitous heyday. Naturally, this film-within-the-film will be called “GoodMan”.
There are many levels at which a Hindi-movie buff of my generation can enjoy BadMan. It is both an affectionate tribute to, and a parody of, the industry and the people who had their moments in the sun without quite becoming A-list stars—people like Chunky Pandey, who has a nice, self-deprecating part here. There are funny turns by Anuvab Pal, as one of Grover’s inept sons, and Farah Khan as herself, and wry one-liners such as the one about needing to use a cauliflower in a fight scene because of sponsorship.
But the film also had me thinking about the king-sized lives of 1970s’ and 1980s’ super-villains, who had to be omnipotent and secure in private fortresses until they were taken down in the end. Recall the astonishing set design in films like Parvarish, Mr India or Shaan, where bad men had their private lava pits, spiky walls, sharks/crocodiles, and a supply of dancing girls silhouetted behind curtains, presumably shimmying in 8-hour shifts (this was pre-liberalization). In the brilliantly inventive climactic scene of Teesri Aankh, Dharmendra—arriving in Amjad Khan’s multi-storeyed lair to rescue his friends—must negotiate a convoluted obstacle course (golden exploding owl statues! karate babes with foot-long fingernails!), all the while singing Salaam Salaam Main Aa Gaya.
These settings and appurtenances were far removed from our middle-class realities (or realities anywhere), and perhaps this is why BadMan’s opening scene is such a rib-tickler. Grover is in the shower—a fancy shower in a big mansion—and the water supply runs out (the municipal corporation had sent a warning SMS). Here is an old-world villain in a very mundane situation. Shortly afterwards, we see him in a white kurta, eating muesli at the breakfast table. His ageing colleagues, including Ranjeet, now looking like a jovial Punjabi taayaji, discuss medical ailments such as bleeding fissures and a colonoscopy test.
Watching this, I pictured how differently things might have gone for movie villains past. Imagine: The water tanks in Mogambo’s (or Shakaal’s) den are emptying; shark carcasses are stinking up the place; sidekick Tom Alter, in a scuba-diving outfit, sprinkles chlorine tablets into the tank, but it doesn’t help. What to do? The criminal mastermind gets his men to bring in penguins, seals and other relatively low-maintenance marine animals, then watches in despair as Neetu Singh and Zeenat Aman coochie-coo and high-five at the creatures instead of being scared. He tries to recover his fading dignity by squishing the hero between lethal, electrically operated moving walls, but there is a power cut and the generator won’t start.
Or, moving beyond flashy urban dens, consider Sholay, and Gabbar Singh’s men coming to Ramgarh for their quota of grain. With the taalaab (pond) near the dacoits’ hideout drying up, where will they wash their distinctive khaki uniforms? Picture them sheepishly handing a sack of clothes to the village dhobi, collecting the inventory, then sitting about on the rocks in their underwear, waiting.
Takes away some of the sheen of the badness, doesn’t it?
In an age of nuanced cinema, the old-style villain was one of the first things to go out of fashion—these days we no longer hanker after grand depictions of evil but celebrate “shades of grey” and speak pedantically about how people are never all bad or all good. Perhaps, then, one good way of humanizing the bad guy is to have him stand soapy in his shower, cursing the “water board”, like any ordinary mortal. Gulshan Grover can be one of us.
BadMan can be seen at: www.voot.com/shows/badman/1/387816
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.