Five Of Hindi Cinema’s Best-Written Male Characters Over 40 Years

Five Of Hindi Cinema’s Best-Written Male Characters Over 40 Years
Dev D

Hindi cinema has been accused of having a disgraceful dearth of well-rounded female characters in its films, but the same has largely been true for our heroes as well. Usually, they must maintain the power dynamic of patriarchy-the knight in shining armour most likely to be devoid of emotional intelligence. Whether they are playing a father, brother, husband or lover in the film, if an actor is to play the lead he must fill in the shoes of the messiah-for the women in the film or society at large.

This kind of toxic masculinity has manifested itself in Bollywood with the demand of actors–gym-made toned bodies are valued much more than acting talent. Which means rarely can a man without bulging biceps and carved abs be allowed in the limelight. If male characters are allowed flaws then they must be typecast as the villain in a simple single shade of evil, or become the character in the “supporting role” who does little to move the plot of the film forward. Or they must be intolerably melodramatic and utterly preposterous-a caricature of supposed ‘complexity’– whether its Shahid Kapoor in Udta Punjab (2016) or Ranveer Singh in Padmaavat (2018).

Many may argue that nuance and sensitivity is the realm of experimental cinema but my vast watching of both commercial and independent Hindi cinema proves otherwise. From time to time there is a male character written for realism, who’s allowed to grapple with the pressures of maintaining the face of patriarchy. Characters with raw wounds and vulnerability, with flaws like jealousy and pride that shatter their inner worlds, with a longing to love and be loved in return. From the parallel cinema of the 70s to the lover-boy era of the 90s, right to the rise of the ‘sensitive hero’ of the present millennial, here is a list of five of my personal favourite male characters whose cinematic stories are written with the complexity and the kind of thought that makes them real men.

It would be rather daunting to look for a character played by Naseeruddin Shah that isn’t complex. For the actor, whose versatility is incomparable in the Indian film industry, rarely chooses to play a role that is one-dimensional. However, if I personally had to choose one character from his formidable oeuvre whose realism is both endearing and arresting, it would be from Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh.

In this sensitively scripted film, Shah plays the character of Anirudh, a visually challenged principal of a blind school. Though having found a strong social purpose in his life of teaching and caring for the blind, Anirudh leads a socially lonely life. His seclusion begins to change when Kavita (Shabana Azmi) a young widow, joins his school as a teacher. As Anirudh enters into a journey of friction, friendship and love with Kavita we watch his amicable and serene demeanour being stripped to reveal the vulnerabilities of his soul. A grave intolerance to the possibility of pity being thrown his way, he often turns callous and stern, to the extent of deeply upsetting those who care for him the most. This reflects on his sense of self that has been moulded as much from his strengths as they have from his own insecurities of being denied the power of ‘sight’. Later in the film, we learn that in the face of genuine intimacy Anirudh is a man of immense sensitivity, especially when he grapples with his love for Kavita.

Shah’s character in Sparsh is an unusual one for Hindi cinema because it’s the rare occasion when you see the male lead struggling to harmonise the polarising motivations of his personality.

Image Credit: Sparsh

Before Shahrukh Khan became Bollywood’s ultimate romantic hero he was a fabulous villain–his performances as a sociopath in films like Darr (1993), Anjaam and, my personal favourite, Baazigar. In Abbas-Mustan’s Baazigar, Khan plays Ajay (later changes his name to Vicky) the son of a successful businessman whose family was driven to poverty by the hands of his treacherous employee Madan Chopra (Dalip Tahil). When Ajay romances Chopra’s daughter Seema (Shilpa Shetty) it’s easy to give your heart-away to his boyish charms as he sings Anu Malik’s romantic duets. However, he becomes equally engaging when his character takes a dark turn. He pushes Seema from the terrace without a flicker of guilt as he storms his way towards his vendetta. The suave dandy, the ultimate lover boy and the secretive sociopath, Khan’s character in the film puts on masks to conceal his underlying trauma-the helplessness of a boy who saw his family fall apart.

A memorable character in Hindi cinema, Ajay steers away from morality and is steeped in the realism of the darkness and light that makes up the many hues of humanity.

Image Credit: Baazigar

With his rendition of the tragic literary character of Devdas, the dimpled Abhay Deol proved that he was made for more than just the-boy-next-door roles. In Anurag Kashyap’s Dev D, a modern re-telling of Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s classic Bengali novel Devdas, Deol plays Dev the entitled and egoistic son of a rich businessman in Chandigarh. When Dev returns to his hometown to rekindle his romance with his simple and modest childhood sweetheart Paro, he finds himself in the midst of a scandal- Paro’s allegedly notorious sex life. Dev readily believes these rumours (that later prove to be false) and what follows is the complete shattering of his inner world.

He loses love, friendship and family, to uphold his own sexual superiority and turns painfully chauvinistic. As grief and regret drive him to alcoholism, drug abuse and the arms of the sex-worker Leni (Kalki Koechlin) the audience finds themselves repulsed by a man who has voluntarily allowed his life to spiral out of control. Though somewhere through the film as we see the layered traumas behind his crumbling existence, we find ourselves rooting for him– hoping against hope that he will be salvaged.

In contemporary Indian cinema, Deol’s character in Dev D is perhaps one of the few ones to focus on the repercussions of patriarchy on the Indian male psyche itself.

Image Credit: Dev D

Though Konkana Sen Sharma’s directorial debut, A Death In The Gunj has an exceptionally talented cast, it is Vikrant Massey’s performance that steals the show. Pure poetry punctuated by bittersweet moments of melancholy, the film is set in 1979 in an old Anglo-Indian town, where a family unites along with close friends. Through the course of the film we see the quiet unravelling of Shutu, the youngest member of the family played by Massey, that ends in a unforeseen implosion. A troubled teenager Shutu struggles to find his place in the adult world- his desire for acceptance is as strong as the alienation and loneliness he feels in it. The constant company he keeps of his pre-teen cousin is where he feels most at home and still the young man in him is willingly seduced by the older Mimi (Kalki Koechlin), who ultimately betrays his love. As he fights the mockery of his outer world that does little to heal the wounds of his inner world, Massey must bring his soul to salvation.

In an industry of predominantly hyper-masculine characters, Shutu is one of those rare characters that allowed moments of innocence, sensitivity, vulnerability and torment without scrutiny or judgement.

Image Credit: A Death In The Gunj

With his powerful performance in Newton, as an idealistic government clerk, Rajkumar Rao proved once again, that perhaps there isn’t a role that he can’t play well.

The country’s official entry to the Oscars last year, the film which is directed by Amit Masurkar, is a scathing remark on the crumbling state of Indian democracy. Rao’s character Newton is sent on election duty to a Naxal controlled town surrounded by the conflict-ridden jungles of Chhattisgarh. Here he fights to conduct free and fair voting against the apathetic Indian security forces and the looming fear of guerrilla attacks by communist rebels. Despite Newton’s virtuous intentions and efforts, the jungle tribals become a pawn in larger game of vote banks. Unlike the Angry Young Man of the 70s, Newton’s character is more nuanced showcasing shades of high idealism, fiery revolution and the fears of an ordinary citizen, through the changing circumstances of the film.

What distinguishes Newton from the countless messiahs and martyrs of Hindi cinema, is that he isn’t given a larger than life persona, making him both believable and a relatable source of inspiration.

Image Credit: Rajkumar Rao

If you enjoyed reading this article, we suggest you read: