Bollywood badman Gulshan Grover is back at acting school. After hamming for nearly three decades with characters like Chhappan Tikle, Babubhai Bichhoo, Kesariya Vilayti and Kabira, the 55-year-old veteran of 300-plus films has reportedly joined Roshan Taneja's acting classes in Mumbai for a change of image. As villain, he does not have much work beyond the current Zor Lagaa Ke Haiya.
Grover's contemporary and co-villain in many potboilers, Shakti Kapoor is in the same boat. After Hum Aapke Dil Mein Rehte Hain in 1999, the only major film he has shown up in was Malamaal Weekly. That was three years back. And it was more in the nature of a comic villain. Today, no mainline producer or director has any use for him. Then there is Anupam Kher who has wisely kept reinventing himself from time to time and is now recognised as a 'character actor' rather than a villain or comedian. Other specialist villains like Ashutosh Rana, Sadashiv Amrapurkar, Dalip Tahil and Sayaji Shinde are nowhere in the reckoning.
Likewise Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Ranjit, Shatrughan Sinha, Danny Denzongpa and others of their generation do not count for anything. At one time they represented all that was dark and evil in Bollywood narratives, much in keeping with the tradition of yesteryear greats - Kanhaiya Lal, Prem Nath, Pran, Amjad Khan, Amrish Puri... Now, one after another, they have all faded out of the Hindi screen.
This is however, not to suggest that villains have lost their relevance in contemporary story-telling. It is just that the type of villainy has kept changing and there's a new face of a rogue showing up every time. From the wicked village money-lender and zamindars to bandits, political thugs and corrupt cops to the suave and sophisticated smuggler and black-marketer, Bollywood villains evolved into stubborn parents, evil scientists, terrorist masterminds and sex perverts.
Their relevance stems from the fact that our films are still no more than morality tales with strong underpinnings in religious mythology. We still like to see screen characters painted in black and white - the villain being an avatar of Ravana and the hero and heroine, Rama and Sita respectively. Small wonder, Mani Ratnam should be making a "modernised version" of the Ramayana, called Raavan, with Aishwarya and Abhishek Bachchan at this time and age.
Films take on an enigmatic hue when characters appear as neither black nor white, but in peculiar shades of grey. When the hero becomes a Robin Hood character and operates on the wrong side of law (think Amitabh Bachchan) for common good, where do you place him? When Shah Rukh Khan comes across as an obsessive neurotic going K-k-k-Kiran in Darr, are you scared or do you sympathise with him? When Aamir Khan goes berserk with a vengeance in Ghajini, you don't cringe in fear or hatred by his bare-bodied exuberance, but applaud him every time he makes mincemeat of an adversary. The lines between right and wrong get all the more blurred when a stylish Hrithik Roshan bares his torso and sways to the beats of Dhoom macha le in Dhoom-2.