The Padmavati trailer released yesterday amidst fanfare. The camera makes epic pans across bright deserts and opulent forts, made even more picturesque by the presence of India’s prettiest faces. Bhansali’s flair for the magnum opus is pretty evident by now. His projects have become increasingly grand over the years. Padmavati takes his quest a step further, by venturing into the murky world of Alauddin Khilji, and his illicit obsession with Queen Padmavati. Padmavati’s legendary retaliation to Khilji’s advances, the story that we have grown up with, the inspiration for Abanindranath Tagore’s Rajkahini, is coming to the silver screen. Yes, we are excited. The trailer lived up to the expectations and has amped up the hype around the movie. Deepika and Shahid look phenomenal, the sets look resplendent, and the stage looks ready. But, Ranveer Singh as Alauddin Khilji overshadows everyone and everything, even the stunning titular protagonist. This is an uncommon occurrence in the cinema of the country – the magnification of Bollywood’s villains. Would it change the game?
Evolution of Bollywood’s Antagonists
In the beginning, the villains were a representation of the oppressive financial system – the landlord, the moneylenders, and the agents of feudalism. Time changed the social landscape of the country, and the Zamindar disappeared from the movie screen. He was replaced promptly by the urban crook, the cigar smoking, gold smuggler, in a dapper suit. Opulence was the natural antagonist against the glowing integrity of the struggling middle-class. That was the era of the capitalist villain. There was a spate of bandit villains next – glorified by the legendary Gabbar Singh. Next came the pervert, whose only life-goal was to defile the sanctity of the pristine female protagonist. The ’80s brought the caricature villains, the larger-than-life international offenders, with precarious names, and weird tics – Mogambo, Shakaal, and Dong were created. The ’90s saw the rise of the romantic competitor as the villain. That formula persisted for a long while.
But, through the evolutionary cycle of Bollywood’s villains, one thing has remained constant. The antagonist in Bollywood movies has remained a lesser human, a dark shadow at best, in the life of the hero. In most cases, the villains are annoying obstacles and nothing more. Barring a few deserving exceptions, most Bollywood villains are oversimplified personifications of moral degradation.
Rarely, if ever, has Bollywood had a villain who has changed the rules of the game. With SRK’s experiments, we had witnessed the rise of the anti-hero, who was more layered than the quintessential villain. But, there was always sufficient justification provided to explain the evil, to allow space for the villain to emerge a hero at the end – like a fairytale prince from a frog.
There are times when fiction draws an antagonist, whose evil is so pure, that it is almost venerable. Anthony Hopkin’s Hannibal Lecter or Heath Ledger’s Joker are examples. Such is the raw, animal, magnetic fear that emanates from these characters, that the pivot of the story shifts from the good to the evil. Kevin Spacey has done this successfully a number of times – from his portrayal of John Doe in Seven, to his enigmatic Presidential role in the House of Cards, the man goes under the skin of evil itself to make us cringe in disgust. And yet, whether we own up to it or not, we side with this deranged antagonist, secretly hoping for his redemption. That is a villain that Bollywood has dabbled at, but not been able to master. SRK’s stuttering Rahul, in Darr, had possibilities, but was a caricaturish portrayal. Ashutosh Rana’s Lajjashankar Pandey, of Sangharsh, is probably the closest that Bollywood has gone.
SLB’s Alauddin Khilji looks different. Ranveer Singh has the capacity to bring intensity to a role that could be a celebration of evil. He definitely looks intimidating, in his stone-cold, brutal, scar-faced avatar (that vaguely resembles GoT’s Jason Momoa as Khal Drogo). The trailer is owned by him, despite the soft chemistry between Deepika and Shahid. But, would he be able to supersede the tropes of Bollywood antagonism, and join in the leagues of some international villains? We need to wait until December to know.
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