antiheroes, superheroes, bad behavior, and restraint: in response to the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, October 4, 2013

Read a description of the podcast here and listen to it here.

Frick. I'm already a week behind in my plan to write a brief, timely Indian cinema-themed response to whatever points of the current episode of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast catch my attention. Oh well.

The big entertainment news before this episode was recorded was the finale of Breaking Bad, which I have never watched because it sounds so mercilessly bleak (and violent). PCHH's discussion of the series as a whole included the concept that when antiheroes are the focus of a story, especially a long one like a tv series, they still need antagonists, and these often take the form of even worse villains. Like many other discussions I've enjoyed on this podcast, this seems completely obvious now that they've pointed it out, but I'd never thought about it before. No perfect examples from mainstream Hindi cinema are leaping to mind, maybe because mainstream films don't seem to like having anyone truly bad be the focus of attention, at least not at the expense of the less-bad male lead. I can think of two sort-of examples off the top of my head.  In Delhi Belly, the male leads aren't exactly good—sloppy, crass, disrespectful of authority and conventions, and definitely not seedha saadha—but the people they're in conflict with are worse—violent, criminal, and, in the case of Tashi's first girlfriend, shallow. After rewatching part of Kaminey the other day in an attempt to remind myself that Shahid Kapoor's future didn't always seem as floundering as it does right now, I was reminded that Vishal Bharadwaj regularly uses antiheroes well: Priyanka Chopra's work as the femme fatale in Bharadwaj's 7 Khoon Maaf is my favorite of her performances and the first one that convinced me should could actually act, and to my eyes the person who might seem morally worse in Omkara, Saif Ali Khan's frightening Langda, steals the show.

And when does an antihero slide into being a really charismatic villain? Bollywood probably plays very carefully with that line, given the stereotype that audiences have a narrow definition of what a hero is, which is maybe one reason SRK's performance in Darr is so famous. Is it a coincidence that Darr was such a star-making turn for him? Is being a really juicy, layered villain a smart way to set yourself off from the more standard hero faces? I wonder if it felt like a huge risk to him at the time. And when you become a standard hero, maybe even the standard hero, you try to play up the underdog appeal by naming your most expensive and complicated home production after its epically-evil-referencing villain?

Glen Weldon, the comics and comic culture contributor, talks about superheroes and "the power of this very silly idea of people dressing up in outfits and whaling on each other, to protect us, to give us agency, to inspire, but also to rescue us in a very real way, an emotional way, a psychological way...the power of these characters to lift us up" (in reference to Dean Trippe's Something Terrible comic). With Krrish 347 soon upon us and looking so...problematic, I've again been thinking about that old question of why superheroes in Hindi cinema are one of the tougher genres to execute successfully. I keep coming back to the point that many people have raised of "Who needs a superhero when our regular heroes are so superheroic?" Hindi (and Tamil and Telugu) heroes already beat up dozens of baddies, rescue women and children, give voice to the oppressed or impoverished, reinstate the moral order, and bring emotional closure to stories—and depending on the era and type of film, they might already have capes and spandex tights. Toss in the mythologicals and reincarnation stories (Magadheera may be the most superheroic Indian film I've seen, but I've never heard anyone call it a superhero movie) and there hardly seems a need to bother with American-style superheroes. I watched the Puneet Issar Superman a few weeks ago and started out being quite taken with it, but by about halfway through it felt decidedly un-super and it seemed any hero worth his salt could have stepped in and done essentially the same things without bothering with a costume or telepathic Dharmendra (not that I want to live in a world without telepathic Dharmendra).

For the record, I am not saying Indian filmmakers shouldn't experiment with American-style superheroes if they want, or that there is definitively no scope for superheroes in Indian popular film culture, especially if story and/or effects can be harnessed to make clear that this is someone who is different from, and more than, the standard-issue masala mortal hero. It's just a steeper uphill battle than it might be in other parts of the world.

Side note: if you haven't read Todd's list of 10 oddball Indian film superheroes at io9, you should.

Stephen Thompson likes the growing trends of nice people being rewarded—"good things happening to good people." He quotes a tweet by David Slack "Vince Gilligan [creator of Breaking Bad, co-creator of The Lone Gunmen] is known across the industry as a very nice guy. Remember that the next time people say bad behavior is the price of genius." Can we say this about Bollywood? Are there famously nice people off-screen? I try not to let off-screen life influence my opinion of anyone involved with filmmaking, but it's hard, which is one of the two major reasons I tend not to read interviews or pay much attention to gossip. (The other is that I am always disappointed when stars and directors sound like idiots, and this happens far too often, and I have to remind myself that sounding dumb in interviews isn't necessarily the same thing as being dumb, and being dumb doesn't necessarily mean someone is bad at their movie-making job.) I'm not saying I'm above gossip—I'm just saying it muddies the waters of my head with things that I truly believe to be irrelevant most of the time. But those of you who do pay attention, do you think there's a connection in the fillum industry between genius and acting like jerks/babies? It's also hard not to wonder, in an world in which there may not be much distinction between "good publicity" and "any publicity," if bad behavior is hardly a price at all.

In reference to trying to make jokes in tweets that already have real estate gobbled by long hashtags, Linda Holmes reminds us that "The more you're constrained, the greater your art." I believe this to be true in my own professional life, though obviously it's not a principle I live by on this blog. Can we assign any general value to constraint in cinema? Surely Bollywood cocks a snook at any hint of a directly proportional relationship between constraints on the resources required by the creative process on the one hand and, on the other, the actual finished product and its expressiveness and entertainment value. Of course, many films operate within constraints on types of story and aspects of the human experience that can be depicted, whether dictated by the censor board or issued by producers on behalf of audiences whom they assume to have limited tastes and interests. There can be a high creative cost to content constrained by formula or formulaic approach. Brevity, though, is a different question. Bye-bye, odious comic side plot uncles and long-winded moralizing mothers.

To close: this lip synch battle on Jimmy Fallon between Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Stephen Merchant, and the host is a hoot, partly because of the reveal of unexpected (at least to me) talents and partly do I phrase this? The majority of white boys in the US (and in my experience the UK), to be blunt, tend to ignore all encouragement towards song and dance if they aren't song and dance (or comedy) professionals. I don't know how choreographed ahead of time this was or if their gestures and steps were relatively improvised. I would love to see any of the filmi stars do improvised, or even not well-rehearsed, lip synching to songs that aren't ones they made famous. Has that ever happened? That should definitely happen.


writerinindia said…
An up and coming actor may worry about taking a role which will delegate him to character actor roles which do not pay so well. The worst Shah Rukh Khan was risking when doing Darr, for a top Bollywood producer, was becoming a top Bollywood villain. And there are notable examples of actors who started off as villains and ended as top heroes - Shatrughan Sinha and Vinod Khanna.
Incidentally, Ajit started as a Bollywood hero and went on to become a legendary Bollywood villain of the villain stature of Pran himself.
Also do see Rajesh Khanna's Red Rose, where he plays a psychopath.

As far as super heroes and victory of Good over Evil stories are concerned, Indians have their two epics to fulfill the function.
veracious said…
Ah, fantastic post!

The anti-heroes thing made me think of a few Vinod Khanna films I watched last year, one in which he was absolutely the textbook definition of THE WORST, and yet gets redeemed. I liked the movie, but I could not quite buy the redemption aspect. (I won't name the film as to not spoil anything, unless you want me to.)

The superhero thing is interesting, because I think somebody could easily look at these films from the point of view of cultural differences. It strikes me that masks are an important part of many superheroes, whereas in India, it almost seems like the heroes don't need to be masked. They are themselves, they openly defy authority, and save people. In the Western canon (and in, say, Mexico where the masked wrestler El Santo became a hero in many a film) heroes are "just like you and I" until they put on the mask and do heroic deeds. I guess in that context, the masks and capes and cowls become symbols for the heroism, whereas in the Indian context, the symbol for the hero is almost the star himself. Salman will save the day, Rajnikanth will save the day etc - their cinematic presence is the symbol for their heroism.

Or something. These are just some random thoughts not yet formulated into a theory.
writerinindia - Great reminder about Shotgun, Vinod, and the always-fascinating Ajit. I have seen Red Rose (and written about it) but don't know enough about Rajesh Khanna's career to propose much about how it fits into his overall arc from megahero to...other things.

veracious - Thanks! Agree with you about Vinod. Is the film you're talking about Aan Milo Sajna? I remember the end of that one blowing my mind.

I absolutely agree that superheroes seem to—and I'd probably say must—fall out differently along different cultural lines, and why wouldn't they. The mask question is interesting and makes me wonder if that's part of why Krrish's mask doesn't really work for me. It's not even a complete facial mask—it's the hint of obscured identity, though if I recall the earlier film right it did in fact keep people from recognizing him, didn't it? Maybe, overall, Indian heroes and hero stories have no need for anonymity. And, as you say, the star is the signifier that something (super)heroic will happen.

In an earlier episode of PCHH they talk about different writers' approaches to the question of whether Superman is essential super but Clark Kent is his costume (and thus his opinion of humans—weak, meek, need saving) or whether Clark is his true essence (raised on earth by his human parents) and Superman is his costume (and an aspirational one at that).
Anonymous said…
My brother just revealed last week that he had been delving into Bollywood on the sly (yay, a convert!) and had quickly landed upon Hrithik Roshan as a favorite male lead. If this wasn't surprise enough (I think I was under the false assumption that Hrithik, as talented as he may be, mainly appeals to the hetero-lady crowd) he told me he had seen Krrish--and enjoyed it in a "so-bad-it's good" kind of way. Considering my brother tends to be picky about superheroes, I was curious about the appeal.

So we fell into the discussion of WHY. (Why does it work? Or not work? Or for me, why does it exist?! lol.) He just saw it as an extension of the over the top kind of stuff Bollywood turns out all the time. I agree, but see it as kind of superfluous, considering that anything Western-style superheroes "accomplish," everyday Indian cinematic heroes get done with less fuss and without any need for gamma-ray exposure.

I think that injecting superhuman powers into an already larger than life hero genre creates a product that mostly feels campy and overdone. Like how Dharam-Veer was a swashbuckling fantasy on top of the already fantastical genre of masala. That's ALOT on top of ALOT. Dharam-Veer is great, but it's more fantasy than I need to see most of the time (in other than Desai's hands esp.).

You mentioned "cinematic constraints" later in your post. I wonder if "constraint" is actually the key to making an Indian superhero work. Instead of giving the hero MORE power, take away his power. Truly make him miserable. Perhaps turn him into an anti-hero who has been robbed of something important to him and subsequently hates the world he has to save. If we must have the sci-fi, it must be something that makes life difficult, rather than easier. And rather than looking cool, he should probably take a lesson from Peter Parker . . . start wiping down his glasses . . . borrow some of Rishi's sweaters from the 90's . . . and open a book or two. That, I might want to see.

But, actually, no. Forget about all that! It's too much work. Just turn the superhero into a super-heroine. *Gasp!* Now that WOULD be something new and not even close to overdone in Bollywoodland.
Deepti Sharma said…
There was this god-awful Shahid Kapoor film called... okay, I've forgotten what it's called. It has this sequence in which a character argues that real heroes don't need capes and spandex, and Hanuman was the original Superhero - he could fly, grow bigger or smaller at will, carry a whole mountain on his palm, and set a whole city on fire with his tail. All Shahid needs to do to get his super power is to chant the Hanuman Chalisa.

It was actually a brilliant little touch in a very stinky film.
Aparna said…
Deepti Sharma (feeling guilty that I remember this film at all): It was 'Vah Life ho to aisi'. I actually loved Sanjay Dutt's role in it as the cool Yamraj who get addicted to Scotch and it had good music - what a waste otherwise!
Aparna said…
Deepti Sharma (feeling guilty that I remember this film at all): It was 'Vah Life ho to aisi'. I actually loved Sanjay Dutt's role in it as the cool Yamraj who get addicted to Scotch and it had good music - what a waste otherwise!
Deepti Sharma said…
Aparna: Tut tut, chuck the guilt, I say welcome to the club. The other day I guessed the name of an awful horror film from one shot of one of the sidekicks drowning :)
By the way, didn't Life Ho To Aisi have this Houdini-like escape trick - performed by a freaking 7-year-old?
Deepti Sharma said…
Aparna: chuck the guilt and welcome to the club. Wasn't there a Houdini-like magic trick in this film, in which the magician locks himself up in a wooden chest and somehow escapes - and the magician was played by a freaking 7-year-old?
Sorry for late replies!

filmi-contrast - The idea of too much fantasy is an interesting one. I think for me it will vary on what those fantasies are and who's involved in telling them. Desai can do whatever he wants, but Roshan cannot, at least in this, because we must never forget he also made Khoon Bhari Maang, which is completely fantastic in all senses of the word (and feminist, even).

Re: constraint and hero - the idea that the hero is weaker than the villain is pretty much what the hero of Ra.One says before he is killed by a...pixel demon, isn't it? And both versions of the hero were weaker than the villain until one of them got the power-up of having the love of a child who believed in his dead father's dream and BARF. But yeah, I'd love to see a superheroine too. I can't think of a single one unless you count Priyanka's...what is she, like the guide to the hero quest? in Drona. I do not count that, though. :)

Aparna and Deepti - Embarrassing film revelations are always welcome here - and be proud! :)

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