Langda Tyagi vs Moldy Ram

by Swetha Ramakrishnan | 10 comments | 6,493 views | Add comment

'Growth' of the Indian audience
Morals have been Hindi cinema’s catharsis. It’s been an age-old debate: Good vs. Evil, Right vs. Wrong. Bollywood has always found a way to maneuver the script to make a moral judgment at the end of the film. We have it all, from explicit to implicit morals, seen through plots, stories, dialogues, sometimes even movie titles like Biwi Ho To Aisi, and Pati, Patni aur Woh; somehow the Woh always had a twang to it. However, since Bollywood has always failed at the art of subtlety, morals mostly permeate through characters and their nuances.

As members of the audience, we love to pass judgments. It’s a bit scary how naturally it comes to us to make a call on a character and claim that we would never do 'XYZ' in reality. Phool aur Kaante, Mohra and other action movies have Ajay Devgan and Akshay Kumar being desi supermen, marking an acceptable place for them as saviors against everything"bad”. Villains were always on the other extreme, and the idea of a grey character did not exist for a very long time.

The woman had a different role to play. Needless to say, morals for women were much more melodramatic and watertight. As seen in Hum Aapke Hai Kaun, the elder daughter was always in a salwar kameez, extremely shy and you can’t get more demure than Renuka Shahane. Madhuri Dixit was bubbly and naughty, but in the last scene when she is about the get married, she slips into the role of a sedate, mature bride to be.

Nonetheless, with time this theory started evolving. Apart from her right to fall in love, a hook without which most Hindi movies would not exist, one could notice the flexibility of an acceptable heroine. First and foremost, the late nineties saw, through Karishma Kapoor, that morally inclined heroines can wear trendy clothes. Movies like Hero no. 1, Haseena Maan Jayegi, Ishq stand as appropriate examples.

Rigid rules slowly started fading with the movies post 2000. This developed with Darr and Ram Jaane but became a practice with movies like Ek Hasina Thi, where both Saif Ali Khan and Urmila play grey characters, the root of which is transparent to the audience. Urmila subverts the idea of a morally rooted heroine, with movies like Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya, although this trend is truly taken forward by Saif with a string of movies, which deconstruct the entire premise of having morals in the plot or character of a film. With movies like Being Cyrus and Omkara, he shows how a grey character can still be relatable and appealing.

The idea of a Byronic hero seems much interesting than having a plain, what-you-see-is-what-you-get protagonist. Complex characters make for better conflicts, and we all love watching conflicts play out into a resolution in our movies. Movies like Omkara, Maqbool, Kaminey and Dev D have shown us that a perfectly stimulating movie can be made with characters that have more than one moral inclination, or none at all. Unlike movies like Deewar and Ram Lakhan, there is no good-cop bad-thief conflict in the newer films, where good prevails all and the world learns its lesson.

Having established this transformation, it becomes important to mention that there still exists a prevailing undertone of morals. Inspite of drastically moving away from out and out moral endings, ethics have to be a part of Hindi Cinema. Abhishek and Rani must give up their con days when they start a family in Bunty aur Bubli, Saif must have a valid reason for conceiving evil ploys in Omkara.

Today’s audience is more aware and more open to characters that don’t restrain themselves to pristine moral shades. Where on one hand we have always had movies like Satya, Company and Ijaazat, at a time when grey characters were not considered trendy, we also have judgmental movies like Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna in 2008. The ratio is changing, nonetheless. We don’t relate to characters like Salman Khan in Baghban, who seems extremely transparent in his moral agenda. We learn to accept and love Beera, Langda Tyagi and Charlie because for us, it’s easier to believe in their grayness, while it suggestively brings us one step closer to reality.

This article is by guest author Swetha Ramakrishnan. Swetha Ramakrishnan is currently living and working in Mumbai. She's a self-confessed film enthusiast and can most likely be found talking to anyone and everyone about popular cinema and her love for SRK. Swetha Ramakrishnan also blogs at http://swetharamakrishnan.blogspot.com/.

Comments (10)

Swetha Ramakrishnan:

Well, point noted. Some of them are true to life, although I am not sure characters like Saif in Ek Hasina Thi is someone we come across in our everyday life. We appreciate the character because there is not pretense. But that does not necessarily mean we relate with them.
Some characters could just be grey.

Shruti Rao:

I agree with Samir. If you're saying black/white characters are unreal and we need to do away with the politics of colour (in characterization, not racial profiles), then you're merely substituting one law with another. One set of colours, with another. If you're saying the world isn't divided into black and white ideas, then I don't know, need we assume it's divided into three?

There is indeed the argument, that the "grey" is just symbolic and representative of a myriad of permutations and combinations that make us all complex people to label. But couldn't you then, extend the same logic to the black/white? Yes they are sickeningly good, or unbelievably (almost comically) evil, and I'm not at all arguing for those sort of movies( it's quite refreshing to have these complex, believable characters etched out) but could they be regarded as symbolic and representative of a larger philosophy as opposed to just the idiosyncracies of ONE subject they are expressed through?

So if we're doing away with colours, I'd vote for it, certainly, but I think we need to follow it through and chuck the "grey" as well. Cause, in your comment, if you're saying some characters we'll never meet in life (which I tend to distrust)are hence unreal = grey ; then why do you have a problem with black/white = unreal?

Shruti Rao:

Almost all our prime time television has a binary of good/bad, in very caricaturish terms. Obviously a lot of people are connecting with it and relating to it, and lapping it up, if they're still running. (I'm not disregarding the vice versa of since we keep churning out such stuff, we'll watch such stuff).

I'm sure Byronic heroes were more than adequately represented in the films of Guru Dutt, actors like Dilip Kumar. And there were stylish women in Indian cinema way before Karisma. Zeenat Aman, Neetu Singh, Saira Banu, Hema Malini. Not just in their vamp roles, but otherwise as well.

Swetha Ramakrishnan:

Maybe. Maybe there is more to white and black than we deduce. But my point is, It's been there, and for the large part (read for most people) they are representative of Good and Bad. And just that. There were good characters, and there were bad. And there was MOSTLY nothing in between that.

Then we come the Grey characters, who are a whole lot more complex than good or bad, and have overlapping characteristics. Now in Bollywood, even though we've seen some of these characters around, in mainstream cinema we still have justifications for them. Grey can still be grey without having a childhood reason behind it, you know what I mean?

So the main point of my argument was we went from watertight morals to complex moralistic overlaps wrt characters. While we still have some rigidly moral characters like Amrita Rao in Vivah, we also have a Saif in Being Cyrus. Who according to me is the perfect example of what I pointed out as Grey. Maybe these characters are more relatable to the contemporary audience because they have plausible flaws.

Having established this, all that needs to be said is that Bollywood in itself isn't doing away with extremely moralistic characters. Neither is primetime television, it's still there because there's an audience for it. There has just been a shift in the type of morals being portrayed on screen because of changing times, but the portrayal is there, whether we see it out and out or we see it with undertones, it's there someplace.

Also, these grey characters are of various types. There are some who we'll never meet, by virtue of being from our setup, and some who are closet Grey. But they all co-exist, and no-one's doing away with either. Not the Grey ones, not the B/W ones. I was only mapping their path and portrayals on screen. Because when it comes to Bollywood, the characters need to have a larger purpose. So if the main character has grey shades, it has to be justified with guilt or some past reason. Or there has to be a transformation. Very rarely do we see a Being Cyrus, and suchlike.

P.s- Agreed Hema Malini and Zeenat Aman were stylish and trendy, but with Karishma you see her wearing minimal clothes, which lead woman characters didn't do much back then. And she still did manage to become fairly famous as a lead heroine inspite of starting out the way she did, "sexy sexy mujhe log bole" and all :) I'm trying to say it wasn't so explicit with Zeenat Aman and Hema Malini and if it were I don't know what the reactions would have been like?

Bobbyfan:

speaking of women before karishma who never wore minimal clothing..
does no one remember Bobby?????

Shruti Rao:

Cool :)

Oh, and I think if you're saying giving justifications of why a villain is evil is basically bollywood showing its morality; then aren't yesteryear villains just bad for the sake of being bad?

I think it's the other way round. In trying to show us the human nature of villains, the reasons as to why they're evil, they're letting us understand that character's motivations a little more.

If they didn't "justify" the deed, and let black be black, I'd think THAT was being narrow-mindedly, suffocatingly moral. This sense that bad is just bad, that's it.

Swetha Ramakrishnan:

@Shruti:
No villians are bad for the sake of being bad, only. It's the lead characters with moral flaws which are justified. So I agree that giving a reason shows us the motivation behind the character to do a "wrong" deed, but I am trying to figure out these explanations are needed, and why it can't just be an inherent part of the character!

Swetha Ramakrishnan:

* First line meant that Villians are actually charted out as bad only.

Swetha Ramakrishnan:

@ Bobbyfan:
Yes Bobby was there. But it just seems to me that Karishma made it cool to be that way. But yes, the trend started way earlier :)

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