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29 December 2021

The Games People Play

All human beings are capable of being good or evil. A certain moral code of one’s own, or the restraints that society places on our actions, may ensure that most of us stay on the straight and the narrow. This extends to our viewing of films – we shudder at the evil the villains unleash; we applaud the hero for overcoming the villain; we root for the triumph of good over evil. Or, at least, we did. 

As Hindi cinema progressed and villains changed from the local goon or the devious moneylender to larger-than-life characters, we began to celebrate them. We may still want them to be punished at the end of the film, but through the film we began to find ourselves in sympathy with them, we lived vicariously through them, and somewhere, we may even have wistfully wondered if we could live those lives. That change also brought about a celebration of the villains – some of them have truly elevated themselves to the status of icons. Or how else could you explain the fact that ‘Gabbar Singh’, the dreaded dacoit whose name was “used by mothers to frighten their recalcitrant children into going to sleep”, was also used to sell Brittania Glucose biscuits targeted at that very same demographic?

This unique evolution of villainy in Hindi cinema is the subject of national award-winning author, Balaji Vittal’s new book – Pure Evil – The Bad Men of Bollywood.

HarperCollins India, Rs399
Pages: 328
ISBN935489318X
ISBN13: 9789354893186.

There is a wealth of information in this book, backed by solid research and validated by multiple sources. That is no less than I have come to expect from the author, whose previous works have also had the same high level of detailing. The personal anecdotes, behind-the-scenes trivia, untold stories of unknown men – all these can only begin to fill the serious lacunae in the written records of our cinematic history.

With a foreword by director Sriram Raghavan, Vittal quickly moves on to chronicling the changing faces of villainy through the journey of Hindi cinema beginning with the 1920s until the present day. Divided into categories – colonizers and foreign villains; backstabbers and scheming relatives/friends; zamindars and dacoits; outlaws, rebels and more – Pure Evil traverses a panoply of villains who inhabit/inhabited the world of Hindi cinema, even if it skews towards the male of the species. Vittal skilfully weaves in the history of each category, the first time this category appears on screen, and provides examples of each, even as he introduces us to what he terms ‘rogues’ gallery’ of villainy. The language is simple and the narration, interesting.

Vittal also tries to juxtapose India’s changing socio-economic landscape with the changes in the faces of evil, how one informs the other, and how the latter often reflects – and sometimes, even imitates – the real. In this, he’s only partially successful, not being able to weave the various threads into a cohesive tapestry that can inform us of the whys. It seems like a list of reasons rather than a reasoned argument to defend his thesis. This is also, perhaps, because of the vast scope of the book that makes one feel like the author had bitten off a little more than he could chew. There is more material here than can comfortably fit into one book, an overload of information that begins to look more like an overview of villains under one category than an analysis of their role within that category. Vittal may have been better served if he had woven the narrative around one specific villain in each category.

I understand the desire to offer lesser-known villains their place in cinematic history, and it is indeed admirable that the focus is not only on the most iconic of screen villains, but the ambition overclouds the narrative – when each chapter reads like a roll call of villains, it becomes hard to decipher what that chapter seeks to achieve.

There’s also a lack of interest in the female of the species – while he refers to a few of them, they are not as deeply analysed as their male counterparts (indeed, the book’s title precludes their involvement). Also, why “Pure Evil” as the title, when the book deals with the not-so-evil outcasts and rebels as well?

There are a couple of other points that – to me, at least – mar this otherwise fine addition to my library of books on film. Perhaps this is a professional handicap (I’m an editor by profession), but why does Vittal have an over-fondness for ellipses (even in headlines) and why does he insist on using [incorrectly] a four-dot ellipse? Why is there a verb-tense disagreement so often, and why is Vittal so fond of the third person when personal pronouns are both plentiful and a better alternative? 

For instance, there’s a passage where Vittal is quoting actor Danny: “In a fight scene between Ajit sahib and Feroz Khan, Feroze Khan kicked Ajit sahib in the face. But Ajit sahib did not react in time, and the shoe caught Ajit sahib on the eye, causing an injury.”  (Pg. 132) There are at least two ‘Ajit sahibs’ too many in that sentence.

I am sorry but reading this, the first thing that popped into my mind was Amitabh Bachchan’s iconic dialogue from Namak Halal:

“In the year 1929 when India was playing Australia at the Melbourne stadium Vijay Hazare and Vijay Merchant were at the crease. Vijay Merchant told Vijay Hazare "Look Vijay Hazare Sir, this is a very prestigious match, and we must consider it very prestigiously. We must take this into consideration, the consideration that this is an important match and ultimately this consideration must end in a run." In the year 1979 when Pakistan was playing against India at the Wankhede stadium Wasim Raja and Wasim Bari were at the crease, and they took the same consideration. Wasim Raja told Wasim Bari, "Look Wasim Bari, we must consider this consideration and considering that this is an important match we must put this consideration into action and ultimately score a run." And both of them considered the consideration and ran and both of them got out.”

(By the way, was the editor napping?)

This is not the only instance where this occurs, and it is seriously disturbing because the awkward construction of the sentences takes away from the point that the author is trying to make.

Then, there are some strange editorial choices – of picking quotes to highlight, when that very same sentence appears just below the quote, leaving the reader with the impression of sentences being duplicated. It is distracting and avoidable.  And as always, it would appear that there’s a severe lack of good proof-readers in the publishing world. The errors aren’t too egregious, or too many, but they are there, and they are irritating.

But these are just minor peeves. Overall, the positives outweigh the negatives. The chapter on gangsters and mafia, for example, is the perfect reference point for anyone who wants to know of the unholy nexus between the underworld, the film industry and the politician in the 80s. Vittal’s writing style is conversational, not academic, and this makes it easier for the average film fan who may turn away from a more serious manuscript. But well-researched and well-written books on cinema are rare, and Pure Evil can also serve as a reference tome to any serious student of cinema. With film historians, directors, actors et al weighing in, this book is a well-deserved tribute to our on-screen villains.

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