When Amjad Khan whips his belt on the rocks of Ramgarh and asks “kitney aadmi the?”, his gang trembles. They’re terrified of him. And not just them, but the entire village of Ramgarh is scared of Gabbar – an evil, ruthless and invincible dacoit who proudly and shamelessly boasts of the price the government has placed on his head. But at the end of the film, Gabbar receives as much admiration in Sholay as Jay and Veeru, the lead characters do.
Throughout the history of Bollywood, only a few villains have received much admiration. Antagonists are often hated or ignored by audiences, probably because of our natural tendency to feel emotions for the protagonist. But whenever an antagonist has caught the audiences’ emotions, it is purely because of the actor’s merit backed by strong writing. When Amrish Puri’s evil character in “Mr India” declares his happiness by saying, “Mogambo khush hua”, his dialogue becomes such a popular line that it inspires hundreds of pop-culture references.
So what makes a villain admirable? Is it their power, determination or intelligence? Or is it because most villains have a good side to them – a softer, human side ruined by circumstances during childhood? Some villains have a purpose, a motivation that they believe will help achieve the greater good for society. For example, the character of Raavan in Mani Ratnam’s film of the same name. A brutal murderer who is soft at heart, a noble character forced to take up the evil side due to his circumstances. While Vikram won accolades for his portrayal of Raavan in the Tamil version of the film, Abhishek Bachchan was trashed for his performance in the Hindi film. Many argued that Abhishek’s portrayal didn’t do justice to the sensitive side of Raavan but only tried to highlight his madness as the antagonist.
Talking of villains, it is absolutely mandatory to talk about ‘romantic villains’, a niche category of antagonists who are obsessed with love. They’re maniac, ruthless, and will go to any extent to be with their love. Whether it is Shahrukh in “Darr”, who makes Juhi Chawla shiver with fright every time he calls her and stammers “K…k….k…..kiran”, or the sly Kajol in “Gupt” who mysteriously murders anyone she believes could hinder her romance with Bobby Deol. Both these actors, known for playing lead characters and at the peak of their career at that time, took a bold step by drifting towards the dark side. And oh boy, they did a commendable job!
Recently, another actor known for playing lead roles, and is also at the peak of his career, has attempted to portray the role of an antagonist. But sadly, Ranveer Singh, as Alauddin Khilji in Bhansali’s “Padmavat”, fails to weave magic on screen. While he has been receiving much acclaim already, one can’t ignore the fact that his acting lacks the finesse or substance that other villains have portrayed in the past.
The role of a villain requires substance, style, and a well-layered multi-dimensional performance. Often, actors chalk out several ways to craft a character in order to present them to the audiences convincingly. Shahrukh succeeds in garnering our sympathy in “Darr” because he chooses to portray his character as extremely caring and loving, despite the umpteen number of flaws. Similarly, when we watch “Sholay”, we feel for Gabbar because Amjad Khan portrays him as a dacoit with a reason.
Ranveer’s portrayal of Khilji is sadly uni-dimensional and flat. According to him, Khilji was a barbaric, lustful maniac with a lame sense of humor, and Ranveer chooses to perform this role by brute force and high-octane energy, instead of a thoughtful interpretation. There seems to be no motivation, subtext or backstory to this character. All we know is that Khilji is animalistic and obsessive. What we see on screen appears like a cross-breed of a hyena and a monkey jumping, laughing, seething, murdering, and twisting his arms as well as facial muscles randomly to look evil enough. There is no single gesture, neither a trademark dialogue that the actor has been able to tactfully deliver throughout the film.
And it is not just Ranveer to blame for this, but the writers as well as the director, who chose to interpret a historic character with such blandness. If Khilji was indeed as barbaric as depicted in the film, then what made him so? Was he born barbaric? At several points in the film, Ranveer presents tremendous confidence in his character, especially when confronting the Sultanate of Delhi or when battling Rawal Ratan Singh. But why does the same Khilji tremble his fingers then, while waiting for Rani Padmavati to come down the fort, fearing that he might not be the first one to get a glimpse of her? Where does this madness come from? Is there a method to this madness?
As audiences, we don’t feel any sympathy for the character of Khilji nor any admiration for the actor who plays him. We may appreciate Ranveer for his high energy levels, or for being bold. Yet, for the lack of substance and thought, Ranveer’s portrayal can never join the ranks of top villains in Bollywood. And if he does, owing to popular opinion and critics’ reviews, if he indeed wins a Filmfare for his role, it’ll be a sad moment for Indian cinema.