In a recent column here, I wrote about how weird it feels—if you grew up with 1980s’ Hindi-film stereotypes—to see someone like Gulshan Grover playing a good guy. There was almost something comforting about those old-style villains back in the day—you knew that venom and slime were their usual stock in trade, you knew their function in the story. Nowadays, the lines are more blurred.
But there is also the opposite phenomenon: that of being unsettled by a movie villain who, your instincts tell you, shouldn’t be a villain.
This can be a personality-centred matter: It can mean being startled when Ashok Kumar—our beloved “Dada Moni”, katha-vachak of TV shows like Hum Log—was revealed to be the criminal mastermind at the end of Jewel Thief (1967). Or it can be about the associations one has with a character type. Watching the recent live-action version of The Jungle Book, and despite my familiarity with the story and its assumptions, I cringed a little when Sher Khan plummeted to his death at the end. Given everything our self-centred species has done to hasten tiger extinction in the real world, it was troubling to see a tiger—no matter how malevolent—presented as a force to be destroyed (with the audience cheering on Mowgli).
Unexpected villain-predators are often to be found in the horror or suspense genres, which might contain narrative twists or fantastical elements. Monsters in horror cinema have come in all shapes and sizes, depending on the nature of the film: They can be gargoyles with flaming red eyes, but they can just as easily be cherubic children, or the sweet-looking dolls or clowns that cherubic children like to play with (there has been a whole tradition of that narrative, including The Omen, It and the Child’s Play series).
As a long-time horror buff, I have encountered a range of such antagonists over the years, but I was still blindsided (so to speak) by the one in Fede Alvarez’s creepy new film Don’t Breathe (2016). This predator-monster is a sightless old man, known only as Blind Man in the script. He is also a former soldier. And at the start, it seems that he will be the victim, since the premise is that three youngsters have broken into his house—where he lives alone, or so we are told—to rob him.
Those kids are in for a surprise, though, and so are we viewers.
I’m spoiling nothing by telling you that Blind Man really is unsighted—the film doesn’t play an underhanded trick on us by revealing that he can see, or part-see. What it does do is to slowly, craftily turn the tables so that the hunters become the hunted, and Blind Man, who is always alert and ramrod-straight, becomes a nightmarish presence.
There are a couple of reasons why it is so disquieting to see a blind person in an aggressor’s role in a film. The first is obvious: The condition seems to demand sympathy, concern or assistance. It is much more common, in thrillers or horror films, to see blind people being persecuted, sometimes to a point where it can become gratuitous or sadistic. A trio of endangered heroines come to mind: Audrey Hepburn in Wait Until Dark (1967), Rakhee in Barsaat Ki Ek Raat (1981), and Ida Lupino in Nicholas Ray’s under-watched film noir On Dangerous Ground (1951).
The second reason has to do with the nature of film-watching itself. We are seeing the images on the screen with our eyes, assessing and judging the characters, who are—most of the time—oblivious to our presence. This is why we can feel so exposed when a film unexpectedly breaks the Fourth Wall and has its characters looking straight at us, locking their eyes with ours. Conversely, when a sightless character is on the screen, we feel not just sympathy but also—perhaps on a subconscious level—a bit of relief, and a touch of superiority. They can’t see us. We are safe.
But the old man in Don’t Breathe allows us no such safety nets as he moves swiftly through the labyrinths of his large house (the nooks and crannies of which he knows more intimately than the intruders). The inside of the house is very dimly lit, with some sections not lit at all, which means that the three youngsters are effectively almost as blind as he is—and more disadvantaged in some ways, since his other senses have been heightened over time. Plus, he has had special forces training as an armyman, and the film makes the most of this.
Watching him, I was reminded of Pale Man in Pan’s Labyrinth, another initially sightless being who awakens from slumber and stalks his quarries through hallways and trapdoors. But I also had a sudden memory flash of watching a film called Qatl (1986) in a movie hall three decades ago. In that one, Sanjeev Kumar played a blind man who carefully—and without any aid—plots the murder of his unfaithful wife, rehearsing every movement of his for weeks beforehand. Qatl, as I realized when I saw bits of it on YouTube the other day, is a shoddy movie full of unintentionally funny scenes. But there was a special thrill in experiencing it as a child, and being enthralled by the sound of the sightless hero’s cane tapping the floor as he measures the distance to where he needs to be to get that perfect shot.
Above The Line is a fortnightly column on Hindi cinema and how it presents the world. Jai Arjun Singh tweets at @jaiarjun.