Friday, June 10, 2016

In which Gulshan Grover plays a good guy (and can't finish his bath)

[my latest Mint Lounge column]

Middle age can make you mushy in unexpected contexts. In the 1980s, if someone had told my child-self that one day I’d feel nostalgic watching an actor of that era play himself in a film, Gulshan Grover would be last on my list of possibles. Not because he was a villain, but because he was oily and reptilian and henchman-like in ways that other bad men weren’t. As a personality, he was a few shades below Amjad Khan, who was always a classy actor, or Amrish Puri – who could leer and roll his eyes with the best of them when required, but had gravitas and authority too – or Kader Khan,
who knew how to command a scene even if his sense of humour was an acquired taste. Compared to these performers, Grover was the lizard on the wall, the lead villain’s callow son who leered and struck a pose for a bit, before getting beaten up by the second hero.

For me, then, one achievement of the new direct-to-web film Bad Man – a mockumentary directed by Soumik Sen and available on the online video platform Voot – is that it makes Gulshan Grover likable and, in his own way, charming. The film weaves a series of zany, slapstick skits around this basic premise: Grover, at age 60, decides that he wants to play the hero in a movie, to make himself relevant again and to get revenge for all the beatings he took in his iniquitous heyday. Naturally, his film will be called “Good Man”.

There are many levels on which a Hindi-movie buff of my generation can enjoy Bad Man. It is both an affectionate tribute to and a parody of the industry and the people who had their moments in the sun without quite becoming A-list stars – people like Chunky Pandey, who has a nice self-deprecating part here. There are funny turns by Anuvab Pal, as one of Grover’s inept sons, Farah Khan as herself, a cameo by a homily-spouting Mahesh Bhatt (“Gulshan Grover, never over”) and wry one-liners such as the one about needing to use a cauliflower in a fight scene because of sponsorship.

But the film also had me thinking about the king-sized lives of 1970s and 80s super-villains, who had to be omnipotent and secure in private fortresses until they were taken down in the end. Recall the astonishing set design in films like Parvarish, Mr India, Naseeb or Shaan, where bad men had their private lava pits, spiky walls, rotating floors, sharks/crocodiles, and a supply of dancing girls silhouetted behind curtains, presumably shimmying in eight-hour shifts (this was pre-liberalisation). Or the brilliantly inventive climactic scene of Teesri Aankh, where Dharmendra – arriving in Amjad Khan’s multi-level lair to rescue his friends – must negotiate a convoluted obstacle course (golden exploding owl statues! Karate babes with foot-long fingernails!) while singing “Salaam Salaam Main Aa Gaya”.

These settings and appurtenances were well removed from our middle-class realities (or realities anywhere), and perhaps this is why Bad Man’s opening scene is such a rib-tickler. Gulshan Grover is in the shower, a fancy shower in a big mansion, but then the water supply runs out (the municipal corporation had sent a warning SMS). Here is an old-world villain in a very mundane situation. Shortly afterwards, we see him in white kurta, eating muesli at the breakfast table. His aging colleagues – including Ranjeet, now looking like a jovial Punjabi taaya-ji – discuss medical ailments such as colonoscopy and bleeding fissures.

Watching this, I pictured how differently things might have gone for movie villains past. Imagine: the water tanks in Mogambo’s (or Shakaal’s) den are emptying; shark carcasses are stinking up the place; sidekick Tom Alter, in a scuba-diving outfit, sprinkles chlorine tablets into the tank, but it doesn’t help. What to do? The criminal mastermind gets his men to bring in penguins, seals and other relatively low-maintenance marine animals, then watches in despair as Neetu Singh and Zeenat Aman coochie-coo and high-five at the creatures instead of being scared. He tries to recoup his fading dignity by squishing the hero between lethal, electrically operated moving walls, but there is a power cut and the generator won’t start.

You don’t even have to look at flashy urban dens. Consider Sholay, and Gabbar Singh’s men coming to Ramgarh for their quota of grain. The scene is played to stress the bullying of the dacoits and the helplessness of the villagers, but extend the thought a little and in the next scene you can picture the family-less bandits having poorly cooked daal-chaawal together on their sunbaked rocks. Now go further. Imagine that the taalaab near the hideout is drying up. Where do they wash their clothes, those distinctive khaki uniforms? Picture them sheepishly handing a sack of clothes to the village dhobi, collecting the inventory, then sitting about on the rocks in their underwear, waiting.

Takes some of the sheen off the badness, doesn’t it?

In an age of nuanced cinema, the old-style villain was one of the first things to go out of fashion – these days we no longer hanker after grand depictions of evil but celebrate “shades of grey” and speak pedantically about how people are never all bad or all good. Perhaps, then, one good way of humanising the bad guy is to have him standing soapily in his shower, cursing the water board, like any ordinary mortal. Gulshan Grover can be one of us.

[Related post: how comedy can make villains look ridiculous]


  1. Never thought about it that way. :-) Must make the time to watch the documentary.

  2. It looks like Voot is only available in India. :(

    Laughed out loud at your brilliant writing and now have a hankering to watch the villains and movies of the Funky Bollywood era.