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7 June 2012

Kahan Gaye Woh Log?

It was on my post on Hindi films' most iconic characters that a reader, Chitrapatsangeet posted his choice of an 'unforgettable' character. It gave me an idea for this post - the countless characters who were the staple of the Hindi cinema of bygone years, and who have since gone the way of the grand piano and wide, curving staircases. Where would our cinema have been without them? For years, these were the characters who peopled our cinema. We recognised them when we saw them, even though their faces changed. In some cases, the faces too remained the same. 

We knew what to expect from them, and were quite shocked sometimes when some of them behaved in ways that we did not quite expect. Whether these stereotypes, for want of a better word, are better off extinct, is a topic (and a post) for another day (or for the comments). But while I am still in the throes of nostalgia, let me list my favourite (not quite as literally) 'character' archetypes from the masala movies of the earlier decades - especially those from the 50s and 60s.  

Let's start with Karthik's contribution; the rest follow in no particular order.

1. The evil moneylender 

The adjective is quite redundant, actually. If we had a moneylender (usually in a village), he had  to be evil. He would charge usurious rates of interest, browbeat the poor, often illiterate father of the hero (or heroine) to sign off on papers mortgaging his humble home, and worse, cast an 'evil' eye on the heroine, or the hero's sister. Interchange moneylender with bania and nothing changes - the character remained the same - the depth of evil changing by degrees. So we had the slimy moneylender, not very courageous, the matter-of-fact one whose only focus is on making money, the humorous one whose own offspring conspire to outwit him, and the totally evil one who manipulates the hero / hero's father / hero's mother into signing off potentially valuable belongings (usually their home, or their land). A rash of actors have played this role with its (scarcely) varying shades - Jeevan, SN Bannerjee, Tiwari, CS Dubey, but the most evil of them all was surely Kanhaiyya Lal's Sukhi Lala in Mother India.
2. The 'village belle' in (unrequited) love with the hero 

Whether the hero is a villager or just visiting from the town, he usually has a run in with one of the above. Who then promptly proceeds to fall in love with him, while he remains completely ignorant of her feelings. Whether he is busy falling in love with another village belle, or a more-sophisticated lass from town is besides the point. Village belle no:1 is usually given at least one song to mourn her love. As you may imagine, this also required a rather continuous use of glycerine.  

This archetype has been going on for so long, and honestly, I think Nimmi is Exhibit no:1 in this category. (Aruna Irani ran her a close second. Who can forget her definitive performance in Andaz or Caravan?) 
Nimmi seemed to have spent her entire career falling in love with men who a) didn't care for her at all, or b) were in love with someone else. If she was lucky, she died in her beloved's arms, secure in the knowledge that she had left him with enough guilt to ensure that he would never be happy in any  relationship, ever. If she wasn't, then she was usually raped by the heinous villain, and died. (Moral of the story: If you had the misfortune to fall in love with the hero when you were not the lead heroine, you died anyway.) 

3. The 'Vamp' 

Helen, Bindu, Faryal, Aruna Irani, Nadira, Shashikala... the list goes on. The faces changed, the names changed (they always but always had Christian - read 'Western' - names) but the character remained the same.
HelenShree 420 Aruna Irani21
It is sad that this one went the way of the dodo. The vamps had very interesting personalities. Today, the heroines may as well be the vamps. Certainly, you could not differentiate between them based on their dresses, or lack of it. Looked at from one ange (pun unintended), it is good that we have emerged out of the hypocrisy that damned women for being aware of their own sexuality. On the other hand, I see the same double standards prevail now as it did then where women's roles are concerned, only now, it is cloaked in euphemisms. The changes are superficial; even today, if you are the heroine, you have to conform to social standards of what a 'good' woman is, or should be.

Then, we all knew what we could expect when we saw 'the vamp'. (The word has to be in quotes, by the way.) She was the heroine's mirror image, the anti-heroine. She was the woman of loose morals, the one who openly smoked and drank and, it is implied, slept around. She also got some of the best foot-tapping numbers that were ever picturised.

She got to wear the funky clothes, and dance uninhibitedly with the hero and the villain. She was a 'b-a-d girl'. You must remember that, and if you didn't, you were hit on the head with that axiom multiple times through a single movie. The heroines were always good, unselfish, sacrificing; the vamps were selfish, seduced the hero for her own ends, and what is worse, had no qualms while so doing! She always came to a bad end, never mind she seemed to have so much fun along the way.

A secondary corollary to this would be the vamp with a) a golden heart or b) with a change of heart. Her love for the hero would make her switch sides (betrayal of trust is of perfectly acceptable in a good cause), and she would conveniently catch the bullet meant for the hero, so she could die in his arms. Now, that was important - exceptions to the rule notwithstanding, her salvation lay in dying in the hero's arms!

4. Ramukaka 

Okay, raise your hands - anyone who has been seeing Hindi films from that era for any length of time and has not met Ramukaka? The faithful servitor, the one who sneaks food for the hero when he comes in late (through the window), who protects the hero / heroine from the wrath of their parents, the one who, at least once in the film says Maine tumhe apne haathon se paala hai (usually just before some pertinent piece of emotional blackmail), and is sometimes, the father figure for the hero who has lost his parents. 
Nazir Kashmiri is Ramukaka.  (Thanks to Harvey who identified the actor for me.) I do not know in how many movies I have seen him play the same role. Change his name to Raghukaka  or insert-name-of-your-choice-kaka here, he still remains Ramukaka. One has to admire the man's tenacity - did he, deprived of a chance to prove his talent, dig in his toes and say "If that is all they will give me, I will be the best dashed Ramukaka in the history of Ramukakas?" Or was he just inured to playing the same role over and over and over again?

5. Rahimchacha

The token good-hearted Muslim character in the mohalla. There was a time, right up to the 80s (Manmohan Desai, I'm looking at you!) when you couldn't go into a film without having national integration shoved down your throat. While each religion perpetrated its own stereotypes, this was one perhaps that outlasted the others. Usually portrayed on screen as the bosom friend of the hero's father, he is nominal 'uncle'. Religious - he has  to be shown praying at least a couple of times in the movie, he is the hero's conscience and his strength. He will, at some point in the film, give the hero a taveez to protect him. If not, he will pray to Allah for the hero's life and Allah will listen. In some cases, he will have rescued the hero's mother from an accident/poverty/a bad man... He is gentle, erudite, wise, and has a pretty, chirpy daughter who will call the hero Bhaijaan. Never, ever will his daughter fall in love with the hero.
But Rahimchacha, like Ramukaka, was a good man. And sometimes, I miss the goodness that was inherent in our films. 

6. The comic sidekick or the hero's 'friend'

This character, if he was laying claim to the heroine's attentions, existed solely for the benefit of showing the heroine how much better off she was, falling in love with the hero. He was usually humiliated by the hero, and the heroine, until then using him to make the hero jealous, would alternately laugh at his misfortune, or become angry at his inability to take revenge on the hero whom she loves to hate. 
If he came in as the hero's friend, he aided and abetted the hero in 'wooing' the heroine (which involved stalking her, and playing 'pranks' which should make any normal woman not touch the hero with a ten-foot barge pole), and was rewarded with a girl of his own, usually the heroine's saheli. 

In either case, he is there to be made fun of. Mostly, this is one archetype I am glad has disappeared because there were times when perfectly good masala films were ruined by the addition of the 'comic' side plot. Rajendranath excelled in making a fool of himself in several movies, as did Mehmood, Ram Sethi, even Johnny Walker, though I must admit the last named was several notches above the others. But even he had some painful over-the-top roles to deal with. And if the character was played by Rajendranath, he was bound to appear in drag at some point in the film. Poor Rajendranath also got stuck with some awful costumes in his films.

7. The heroine's saheli

If the hero has a sidekick, can the heroine be far behind? She usually had a gaggle of giggling women who made an appearance at the beginning of the movie - at the ubiquitous picnic, for example - or ganged up to poke fun at the hero, who is irritating the heroine by stalking her. They also helped the heroine smuggle letters out of the house (after she had been warned 'Over my dead body' or its Hindi equivalent by the until-then-benevolent-father), keep assignations with the hero, and if they are lucky, manage to have a boyfriend of their own - the aforementioned comic sidekick. Sometimes, they have to go to extreme measures to help their 'friend' even if she doesn't appreciate it.
The main saheli also got a couple of songs, and a few speaking scenes, though not quite as much as the hero's sidekick. 

8. The villain's main henchman

Usually Shetty. Or MacMohan. Or even Amrish Puri before he graduated to being the main villain. In any case, he was called Robert, or Michael, or Peter. It didn't matter if he was taller, heftier, stronger than the hero - he was there to get bashed up a bit more than the others. After all, he often had a speaking role, and was paid a bit more money than the other evil minions. It was not fair that he was beaten up in one shot. He had to be able to land a couple of hits at least on the hero's good looking face, before he was summarily dismissed by an uppercut to the jaw. 
Poor Shetty, for instance, found himself at the receiving end of many a beating, from men he could probably have handled blindfolded, and with one hand tied behind his back.

9. The hero's sister

During one thankfully-long-gone period in Hindi cinema, the hero's sister had only one part to play in the story - she was there to be raped by Ranjeet. Or Pran. Or Prem Chopra. (Think Aruna Irani, Madhu Malini, Faryal et al.) But before such bad things began to happen to good girls, she was typically the chulbuli spoilt pet of her father and brothers (Nanda, Farida Jalal, Naseema, Indrani Mukherjee).
She teases her brother unmercifully, is teased back, she ties raakhis on Raksha Bandhan, her brother toils for her wedding, or she falls in love with a totally inappropriate cad and a) elopes with him and b) refuses to come back, because Main kisi ko munh dikhaane ki qaabil nahin rahi. The latter happens only when the sister is older than the hero. If she is the younger sibling, then she falls in love with the hero's friend, who a) also loves her, in which case, all is good or b) also loves the heroine, in which case, the sister accepts her fate and successfully hides her anguish behind her smiles. Or, she pairs off with the comic sidekick, especially if the heroine does not have a saheli.

There are two other archetypes without which Hindi films could not have survived. The maa and baap - the mother (usually of the hero) and father (usually of the heroine). But there are so many sub-genres under those two archetypes that I decided to keep them for my next post. 

I am not saying that I miss all these archetypes that I listed. Some of them became deservedly extinct as our films evolved, but some evoke a nostalgia for the simpler stories of those days, where you knew, even if the film had not reached that stage yet, what was going to happen next. 

What are your favourite 'characters'? 

17 comments:

  1. I lost count how many times I cried out "YES!!!" and "Me too", while reading this post!
    Laughing and crying at the same time!
    The Ramukaka featured is Nazir Kashmiri
    see: http://memsaabstory.com/2010/01/18/found-him/#more-12461

    Lovely post, it made me all nostalgic!

    Favourite characters?
    You have covered them all!
    In which category does Leela Mishra fall in?

    Yeah, the pets! They are also my favourites!

    and the nosy neighbours! What would Hindi cinema be without their taanas

    My brother and I used to make oftne fun of the people who would stand in the crowd in the circle, while the hero/heroine/comedian would sing and dance in the middle. And in the crowd some people would be assigned to bring their hands to their mouth to show astonishment and then shake their heads in amazement! I miss them!

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  2. Thanks, Harvey, glad you enjoyed the post. :) Yes, it does make me nostalgic too. I don't know if all of these are 'favourite' characters, but these stereotypes were always there, and now they are dead. :(  Leela Mishra would fit the village gossip, no? :) Thanks for identifying Nazir Kashmiri for me. I have changed it in the copy.

    Wait for my next post on the various mothers and fathers of Indian cinema.:))

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  3. I LOVED this post, Anu! After I'd read the introduction, the first thing that came to mind was "Ramu Kaka!" (And yes, Nazir Kashmiri ended up playing not just Ramu Kaka, but also physicians - doctors, vaids, hakims).

    The bit on vamps reminded me a lot of the essay I'd written for The Popcorn Essayists: uncannily alike!

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  4. Thanks, Madhu. :) And yes, I can absolutely see Nazir Kashmiri as a vaid or hakim; doctor, not so much.

    I guess that it is no surprise that our views should be so similar. We have seen enough examples already. But it's interesting that you say it is 'uncannily alike'. Now I want to read your essay. :) I should get The Popcorn Essayists on my next trip to India. I know you had mentioned it once in your blog, and someone else I know had also recommended it to me.

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  5. Giraftaar karlo ise !! The quintessential Police Inspector at the climax? :-)

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  6. Yes! Usually Jagdish Raj or Iftekhar! Definitely! :)

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  7. Subodh Agrawal9 June 2012 at 04:53

    Excellent post. I'd add the drunk, played fabulously by Keshto Mukerji in many films. The evil zamindar and his favorite nautch girl could also be added to the list.

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  8. Thanks, Subodh. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. :) *Smacking myself on the forehead* How did I forget the drunk?

    I did have a category of villains, though not the evil Zamindar. (You are right - that was definitely a steretype.) What I had in mind were the outwardly-respectable types who were smugglers behind the scene. Then I dropped it because I think that survives even today.

    Thanks for your inputs.

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  9. One very common stereotype, which always made my blood boil, was the arch and precocious child. Over-energetic and diabetically sweet lisping, any right minded person in real life would have strangled at the first opportunity, or at least spanked into silence.

    There was a Munimji (with low roll top desk, umbrella and wearing a dhoti kurtatopi ensemble ) who was generally comic henchman to the villanous thakur.

    There is the drunk/Christian/both Goan, preferably a bootlegger or running the lodging house. (Lodging house mamas have  hearts of gold, loud mouths, and insist on screeching about rent though obviously doting on non-paying tenants. They have to
    at some point say" yehi agar tumhaari asli maa hoti toh...")

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  10. any right minded person in real life would have strangled at the first opportunity, or at least spanked into silence.

    AKM, LOL. Isn't that a stereotype that you wish were extinct? To me, that falls under pet peeves. Hmm, subject for another post, perhaps. :)

    Yes, the munimji - how could I have forgotten him?

    And I totally agree about the Christian stereotype - if male, he will be drunk; if female, she will be the loud but kind-hearted type.

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  11. Excellent post Anu :). I think all have been added by you or in the comments, so cannot think of any right now. Would like to put in a plug for the villain's henchmen, esp. Shetty, who I resemble :))
    And, of course, the various Mona-Rita-Susie-Salomi Darrlinngsss :))

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  12. Thanks, Samir. :) Okay, so now I know something about you - you look like Shetty. :D 

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  13. Dear Anu,
    Thoroughly enjoyed this :) I think there is another stereotype that seems to have been missing in its full-intensity these days ( watered down versions still play peek-a-boo these days, but nothing comes close to the real McCoy) - the Judge.The very same Huzoor, resplendent in the loudest black and red satin gown on this side of the Ganges, presiding over the neatest and the brightest looking courtroom you will never witness in your life, (I fail to understand why our CPWD has never taken a cue from our movies on how to build courtrooms – large, airy, slick ,dazzlingly lit and neat) and weighs down every single pause with fingering the gavel or banging it his own inborn rhythm.He always added to the literary content of the otherwise down-to-earth script line, punctuating every second word with its Urdu equivalent, which always seem to get the goat of the disheveled hero on the testimony stand. (I know I can never find my way around Indian legalese with a map and a flashlight, let alone a GPRS, but why do they unfailingly speak that way in all those movies with the same vocabulary, beats me). Thank you for this..

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  14. Thanks, cinematters. I'm glad my readers are chipping in to add the stereotypes I had forgotten. For you are right - the judge and his gavel was such a fixture in our films!

    I laughed so much at I fail to understand why our CPWD has never taken a cue from our movies on how to build courtrooms – large, airy, slick ,dazzlingly lit and neat - because all the courtrooms I have been to are dull and dark and dirty. :)

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  15. Tum dono baith jaao. Main abhi tum dono ke liye chai aur biskuit lekar aata hoon.....

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  16.  Thank you, Shashi! :) And don't forget, he will call the hero Munna or Babaor Chhote babubibiji. LOL

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  17. Thankfully I'm spared. I guess he never served tea and biscuits to a heroine :-) So Anu and Madhu will suit me just fine ;-)

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