On Heroes – 100 years of Indian Cinema

My column in today’s Lokmat Times. page 14


Hero, Hero on the Wall – which one of you is tall

India. A land of myths and legends. Of heroes and their heroics. Of larger than life men who perform the most incredible of deeds. The characteristics of the hero are fairly well defined through the ages. He is the alpha male. The leader of the pack. The man other men will follow to the gates of hell. The man whom women desire. A man who is capable of managing each of his relationships as though they were the most important in his life. A perfect son, one who would respect his parents’ wishes through hell and highwater – and, that is exactly what Ram did. On the eve of his coronation he accepts exile to fulfil his father’s wishes. The hero is A considerate kind lover, and while he is an alpha male, he is also comfortable with the idea of a strong woman.  Myth and legend is replete with stories of valorous heroes and feisty heroines – all the women in the epics be they Shakuntala or Sita, Draupadi or Subadhra are no wilting lilies – they can hold their own against the strongest of men.  The ideal hero is a great friend – a friend who will lay down his life for you without thinking – think Karna .  The Hero is a leader – a man who can inspire people to follow him. The Hero is multi talented. He can sing, dance, woo, hunt, game, be childlike in his innocence, yet have the wisdom of a  philosopher, be statesmen like, be a street fighter, hold the peace, go to war, and yet not appear contradictory and confused.  Every Hero is deeply human yet capable of taking on the powers to be, even if those powers are those of God or those blessed by God, and win. Most of us, who have grown up with the Indian epics Ramayan and Mahabharat can recognise these characteristics of heroes.


Given that the bar for heroes has been set so high, it is little wonder that in creating the hero for celluloid, all these characteristics have been retained. Anyone lower than that belongs in an art house film. A century of Indian cinema, the hero has gone trough multiple evolutions. From the earliest films such as Raja Harishchandra and Alam Ara, to the more recent Dabangg and Enthiran, the hero may have changed costumes, may have become more contemporary but at his core he is the same as his 5000 year old counterpart from the epics.


The birth of Indian cinema, a hundred years ago, was also the period when the struggle for freedom began moving out of elite drawing rooms into the space of mass consciousness. The previous year (1911) King George V was crowned Emperor of India, and that act was possibly the greatest fillip to a nascent Independence movement. Films that began getting made reflected the underlying anger of being a slave nation, and attempted to awaken the audience by defining a pan geographic cultural identity that helped in communicating age old  concepts of justice, equality and unity. Raja Harishchandra –  immortalised by  Harishchadrachi Factory – told the story of a King who gave up everything to keep up his word. In his journey from King to chandala and back again, the audience learnt the value of empathy and the oneness of people. In a country riddled by caste there could have been no better first film. The movie resonated across audiences, across the length and breadth of India.


The introduction of sound increased the penetration of cinema. People began watching stories in the language they were most familiar with. Stories of heroism, of valour, of love, romance, of great achievement, of the human spirit and the pursuit of perfection (God). Because of the British Raj, and the rules of censorship that existed – the hero could not directly go up against the Raj. Film makers however, found away around it, with heroes taking on unjust rulers. While Hindi films such as Diler Daku (1931) – a direct remake of Zorro –  lal-e-yaman (the Jewel of Yeman), were costume dramas that featured swashbuckling heroes – who danced, sang, wooed, loved their mothers and overthrew the wicked king – brought in the audiences and made lots of money – they also helped create the pan Indian hero. Regional cinema at this time tended to focus on mythological and historical topics, for example The Marathi film Ayodyecha Raja (1932) and the Tamil film Kalidasa (1931). Both looked at contemporary themes in the context of age old stories.  These films would typically run for weeks in large cities, and then the film reels will move to smaller towns and villages. Incidentally, the warrior woman on horseback was also popular in this era. The woman who represented Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi without it ever being mentioned on screen.


Post independence, the role of popular cinema has been one of the key instruments in building National Unity. The exploration of themes, the depiction of inequality, the tackling of issues arising from the conflicts between traditional and modern, between capital and labour, between the new elites and the masses were all depicted through the travails of the hero. Through the 1950’s and 1960’s the role of the hero was to combat the changing world around him. IT was to stand up against injustice (Marmayogi, 1951, Tamil) , to hold on to core ‘Indian values (Shyaamchi Aayi, Marathi, 1953), to highlight social evil (Do Bigha Zameen, Hindi 1953) and issues regarding rural poverty (Pather Panchali, Bengali, 1955.


It was the troika of Dev Anand, Dilip Kumar and Raj Kapoor who played heroes in Hindi Cinema . Movies such as Shree 420 while actors such M.G.Ramachandran and N.T.Rama Rao began drawing in the audiences in Tamil and Telegu. Hindi film heroes played more real life characters with real life problems. While both NTR and MGR were definitely larger than life, imagery that helped with their political careers in the years to come.  Hindi films as well as films in the southern states worked best when hero led. While, movies in Marathi and Bengali worked more with story lines. It is an issue that has had repercussions on both Marathi and Bengali films in the years that followed. The absence of a Hero who would draw the audience into theatres consistently. That is not to say that Marathi and Bengali films did not have fine actors – they did and they do. But that one hero who cuts across class and sub regional barriers and unites the state or the region into seeing the film, is missing.


Amitabh Bachchan, Rajnikanth, ,  Salman Khan all play heroes that we are familiar with. Larger than life. Superheroic. The stories they tell may be different, but their characteristics are immediately identifiable. On the other hand, actors like Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan, Surya, Vikram play much more nuanced, much more westernised, more focused heroes. It is almost like the era of superhero is finally over, and Indian audiences have finally begun accepting men who don’t fight Gods as their heroes.



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