The most recent and controversial release to hit our screens is ‘Darlings’. Streaming on Netflix, it has been trending on Twitter for all the wrong reasons. In keeping with our ostensible ‘boycott culture’, Indian viewers were quick to create assumptions based on viewing the two minute long trailer of the film. While the boycott culture stems from multiple issues in the Indian cultural discourse at the moment, this particular case reveals the audience’s discomfort with evolving depictions of morally ambiguous characters on screen. If a movie implies violence at the hands of a heroine (for any valid or invalid reason), viewers will be quick to dismiss it.
The thrill of viewing films on the big screen is more than just a cinematic experience for the Indian audience. Most viewers watch for an almost cathartic encounter where the hero gets revenge against the villain during the climax. The victory of good over bad has created a motif for the representation of Hindi movie characters at large. This is where the advent of morally ‘grey’ characters help explore nuance and presents multi-layered depictions.
In my personal experience one of the first few films to explore such characters was ‘Ijaazat’ (1987) featuring Naseeruddhin Shah and Rekha as an estranged couple and Anuradha Patel as the former lover and ‘third person’ omnipresent in their relationship. The art-house film generated empathy for two characters responsible for breaking a marriage, while still critiquing their relationship; a difficult task that’s still mishandled in present-day cinema. The nuanced depiction of a leading man paved the way for characters in the mainstream films of the 90s to be presented in a mixed light.
Sanjay Dutt in ‘Khalnayak’ (1993) and Salman Khan in ‘Tere Naam’ (2003) were the first few commercial heroes to explore the blurred line. Although the characters relied on toxic masculinity for the ‘edge’, these depictions were at odds with previous Hindi film heroes. This soon created space for actresses to play characters that do not marry well with the image of a ‘good Indian woman’ present in the shared consciousness of the audience. Priyanka Chopra in ‘Saat Khoon Maaf’ (2007) and Vidya Balan in ‘Kahaani’ (2012) showcase the triumph story of flawed women against their ‘enemy’ in the most ruthless way.
Recently the OTT platforms have provided a space for directors to further explore characters and take risks not viable for commercial cinema. The character of Tara in the series ‘Made in Heaven’ (2019) provides the canvas to dissect a female lead pushed to the brink as she takes morally wrong steps in order to get out of poverty. Similarly, the acclaimed series ‘Paatal Lok’ (2020) presents multiple characters who yearn for vengeance, exploring the caste-class politics in India with multi-layered depictions.
Beyond the dichotomy of good and bad, the mixed representations help in providing dignity to morally ambiguous characters. These are characters who display traits that move away from saint-like portrayals of heroes and complete monsters in the form of villains; exploring the actual reality of the general public viewing these films, all of whom deal with similar issues regularly. This allows them to move away from the extremes and inculcate a more realistically subjective view of morals.
With a wider spectrum to showcase the human experience through the cinematic lens, these depictions also help broaden our limited perspectives; going beyond obvious tropes and breaking away from the constraints of black and white characters.
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