Anti-heroes

I watched a couple of films – not in their entirety – around Republic Day. One was Shahenshah – a bad film whichever way you look at it; the other was Prahaar – a good one, and a masterpiece compared to Shahenshah. Both films tackle a topic that is a staple of Indian films – corruption in society. And both films feature an anti-hero.

The COED, and even the Wikipedia, defines the anti-hero as someone who “lacks conventional heroic attributes.” But such a definition doesn’t do justice to the phenomenon. My definition is quite simple – he is a person who is forced by circumstances to embrace “his dark side.” He no longer behaves in a manner which society or the law considers to be right; his ends are the same as that of most people, but not his means of achieving them. For this reason alone, barring a few who understand him, he is condemned to a life of misanthropy.

Shahenshah
The only reason Shahenshah deserves a mention, a short one, is – Amitabh Bachchan; he owned the genre as the “angry young man” throughout the ’70s and Deewaar won’t be forgotten for a long time.

Shahenshah is a crime-fighting superhero wearing, as an IMDb commentator describes it, “the worst outfit in movie history.” The story cannot be more clichéd – a boy sees his cop father, accused of taking a bribe, hang himself in shame, and he becomes a seemingly corrupt cop (Vijay, for the thousandth time) when he grows up, but turns into a nightmare for criminals during the night. Fast forward to the climax, the villain (Amrish Puri, “in what may be his 1,000,000th villain role – a role he could do in his sleep with his face.”) is brought before (dragged into) the court (by Shahenshah) so that justice can be done. Shahenshah, who hasn’t bothered with niceties like the law till now, lectures the judge on why justice in important; he also reveals his identity. The case against Puri is proved (thanks to a taped conversation, or a newspaper on which Puri has wiped his bloody hands, or both). But rarely do Indian villains learn their lessons. Puri takes a hostage. And Shahenshah delivers justice by hanging him from the courtroom ceiling – tit for tat.

The only point in the whole film that struck me as odd was Shahenshah’s “lecture” to the court. Our anti-hero evidently suffers from a bi-polar disorder – he fights crime because the justice system is broken; yet he pleads before the court. Other than that this is a regular but bad film with an anti-hero protagonist.

Prahaar
Prahaar is spine-chilling, ultra-violent, and a must-see. Written and directed by Nana Patekar, who is also the protagonist, the first hour and a half sets the foundation for the last hour. The first part of the film can be summarized in one phrase – military boot-camp. A young-man, Peter D’Souza, opts for commando training leaving behind his fiancée, and widower father who runs a bakery; the trainer, Major Chouhan (Patekar) is a hard task master. Peter completes his training, but loses his legs in an operation against a terrorist group that had hijacked a school bus. He leaves the army, and a few days later, invites Chouhan for his wedding.

Chouhan lands in Bombay, and discovers that Peter is dead; he had refused to pay the protection money demanded by local goons. Chouhan visits the police station and demands action on the matter. But he finds out that no witnesses are willing to come forward. He then visits a newspaper office. The editor tells him that people dying at the hands of goons is not news. Then the phone rings – “The Home Minister has a cold? I will print it. He’s going to London? I’ll print that too. On the front page.” And a disgusted Chouhan leaves. Chouhan has a past – his mother was a courtesan who was sold into prostitution before his very eyes – and he hasn’t forgotten the helplessness that he felt. He finds the same feeling among the people he meets while dealing with Peter’s death – sheer helplessness, shattered spirits, people who have lost all hope for justice.

The next time the goons visit the locality, they run into, and get bashed by, Chouhan. And this is where he is left flabbergasted. Instead of applauding him, the people of the locality blame him for Peter’s death, throw stones at him, and even register a police complaint against him. A man who is wound up tight now loses it – the respect for human life. He kills a man who tries to hold him at knife-point; and then he butchers the local goons – kills them all – when they show up and create a ruckus in the locality. The climax is a speech in a court – I haven’t done anything wrong, he says. The judge passes an order declaring that society’s injustices have impacted his mental balance, and that he be kept under psychiatric care till he is cured.

This film delivers the same message that Scholl did

The real damage is done by those millions who want to “survive.” The honest men who just want to be left in peace. Those who don’t want their little lives disturbed by anything bigger than themselves. Those with no sides and no causes. Those who won’t take measure of their own strength, for fear of antagonizing their own weakness. Those who don’t like to make waves or enemies. Those for whom freedom, honour, truth, and principles are only literature. Those who live small, mate small, die small. It’s the reductionist approach to life: if you keep it small, you’ll keep it under control. If you don’t make any noise, the bogeyman won’t find you. But it’s all an illusion, because they die too, those people who roll up their spirits into tiny little balls so as to be safe. Safe?! From what? Life is always on the edge of death; narrow streets lead to the same place as wide avenues, and a little candle burns itself out just like a flaming torch does. I choose my own way to burn.

—-

If these were the “good” anti-heroes – the crime-fighter kind, there are also “bad” anti-heroes – criminals who are not “villains”. I will quote from Lutgendorf’s review of Maqbool

Films with criminal protagonists permit directors and audiences to vicariously experience lifestyles involving extraordinary levels of danger, violence, and ill-gotten luxury, secure in the expectation that they will (normally) be atoned for in the end. Although detective and crime dramas in Bombay cinema began appearing in the silent films of the 1920s, a criminal antihero was relatively rare (with the exception of occasional films featuring noble dacoits or rural bandits; cf. GUNGA JAMUNA, 1961) until the 1970s, when such a role, usually explained as the result of childhood trauma or deprivation, became associated with the emerging “superstar” persona of Amitabh Bachchan (cf. DEEWAR, DON). The backdrop to such films was generally the “black” economy of smuggled goods and untaxed wealth that flourished on the underside of the Congress government’s bureaucratic “license Raj.” With the gradual eclipse of the latter, during the 1980s and early 1990s, by “free market” ideology favoring large capital and the consumer appetites of the middle and upper classes, and with the cross-pollination of gritty crime dramas by American and Hong Kong directors, there appeared a number of notable films (especially from directors Ram Gopal Verma and Vishal Bhardwaj) that depicted life in the Mumbai underworld with a new level of naturalism in both mise-en-scene and dialog. Although the trajectory of the protagonists of these films still generally ended in violent death, the plots now assumed an encompassing amorality in which criminal activity paralleled or was barely distinguished from politics, big business, and police work. Identification with gangster heroes, who continued to display such traditional Hindi cinematic ideals as dosti (male friendship) and clan loyalty (here transferred to the surrogate “family” of the mob), permitted filmmakers to explore the fascinating psychology of characters, such as Satya and Bhikhu Mhatre in Verma’s SATYA (1998), whose evident humanity and even charming bonhomie coexisted with a shocking and repellent brutality.

Nayagan
Nayagan is a must-see for Kamal Haasan’s powerhouse performance. It is a great story, but is somewhat similar to The Godfather – no gangster film made after Coppola’s masterpiece will ever escape the comparison – and Haasan plays the brooding Michael for the first half of the film, and the patriarchal, grieving Vito during the second.

Velu’s father, a trade union leader, is killed by cops. The boy kills a cop in revenge, and escapes to Bombay. He’s taken care of by a good-natured Muslim man who smuggles goods through the sea. Velu learns from this man that nothing that is helpful to someone can ever be wrong. He has a tiff with a policeman who beats the crap out of him. Velu doesn’t fight back. Naa adicha nee sethuduvai, he says – if I hit you, you will die. Then onwards its the story of Velu’s meteoric rise to power and transformation into the Godfather, murder and vendetta; he doesn’t think he’s doing anything wrong. After all, “nothing that is helpful to someone can ever be wrong.” The film, however, pays more attention to family dynamics and the “good” that Velu does rather than his mafia operation. But as is the tradition, a “bad” anti-hero cannot live till the end – he has to pay for his crimes. And that happens to Velu as well.

Satya
As I have said, and written about, many times, this is one of my favorite films. Satya should definitely make it to the list of anti-heroes. But Ramgopal Varma doesn’t think so (Outlook; free registration required). in the interview, he says that Satya is an attempt at finishing off the anti-hero-

Satya’s foray into the underworld happens casually—it’s not the usual forced-by-circumstances-vendetta story. Unlike Deewar or Shiva, where the audience looks up to the violent hero, nobody wants to be Satya. In fact, Satya is an attempt to finish the angry young man once and for all.

Outlook did a story on the film. And it said-

Satya is a moving elegy to men who live under the shadow of death in a big, bad city which, as a voiceover tells us at the outset, never sleeps and yet never stops dreaming. The fitful dreams of one’s waking hours often tend to turn into unnerving nightmares. As they do for the film’s eponymous ‘hero’ (Chakravarthy). The mysterious misfit, like the hundreds of faceless hopefuls who arrive in Mumbai every day in search of material nirvana, lands in the city of dreams. Even before he can find his feet, he is sucked into the underworld. The consequences are tragic.

But Satya is no masala movie mannequin who attains martyrdom. He is the ultimate Nowhere Man: he’s come from nowhere, he’s headed nowhere. It is his nonchalant nihilism that sets him apart from all other anti-heroes. Satya is an end-of-the-century avatar of the ’70s angry young man pared down to his very bones.

The persona that megastar Bachchan made his own had certain moorings: he had a mother, he also had God. But Verma’s anti-hero is an atheist and an orphan. He has no past, no future, no clear raison d’etre except the need to stay afloat in a hostile environment. Even the girl he loves cannot save him: when Satya’s real identity is sprung upon her, she can only recoil in horror and deny him the redemption he craves.

In an era when feel-good romances are all the rage, Satya is a close-to-the-bones chiller that holds out absolutely no flicker of hope. Sad, pensive, it is a film that delves deep into the heart of darkness. Each of the film’s characters is a victim of a system gone haywire. It’s a world where cops are indistinguishable from criminals. For both, it’s a struggle to save what is precious: for the former it is their jobs, for the latter, their lives.

—-

The conventional hero is boring to say the least. In nearly every case, he lives and dies for others, doesn’t question authority, and barring a romantic interlude or two, has nothing that he can live for or call his own. The anti-hero allows the filmmaker or author to break the shackles. He can indulge in behavior that society doesn’t approve of, and therefore which a conventional hero cannot attempt; he can be extremely individualistic in a society where individualism is frowned upon; he can brood, smolder, hate. And he can commit “crimes” and disregard authority. If a hero does that, he will be called selfish, greedy, a thief and what not. That’s why the anti-hero’s actions need a justification – a sad past so that all his “vices” can be justified. As an aside, Bollywood will see the father of all anti-heroes if Anurag Kashyap manages to make this film.

In someways, the anti-hero is the refuge of the individual, and the last stand against conformity while still being “good.” Cross the line, and he becomes a “villain.”

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Comments

  • you12  On March 1, 2009 at 1:05 pm

    There is one similar German film M(1931)directed by Fritz lang with a central character who is a child murderer. He causes anger and grief in public and the criminals hate him as the police has now become more vigilant.

    Both the criminals and the public start a manhunt to find him ,leading to a climax where the murderer delivers a speech about his crime impulse and how nobody knows what its like to be him.

    Despite its age and Being B&W, I have not seen many movies shot with such a intense and dark mood.A birds eye view of the city, very little dialogue and music and some amazing social commentary.

    You might be able to find the film on Internet Archive since the film is now in Public domain but I would suggest to use a “Download” site for quality purposes.

    • Aristotle The Geek  On March 1, 2009 at 3:33 pm

      I saw M a couple of years back, and yes, the film – the atmosphere of fear – is great (The Internet Archive print is a good one).

      But the murderer, here, is not an “anti-hero.” he is a “villain.” The anti-hero is not “evil” – regardless of his control over his faculties. The villain always is.

  • yet_another_hindu_infidel  On March 22, 2009 at 1:25 pm

    don’t think the “anti-hero” genre is a unique concept. something similar along the lines of “circumstances” can be found in freakonomics – “Black Disciple Nation”.
    …every day people struggling to survive, so you know, we just do what we can. We ain’t got no choice, and if that means getting killed, well shit, it’s what niggers do around here to feed their family.

    “goodfellas” and “casino” are yet another masterpieces.

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