Guest Post: The Unsung Villains of Yesteryears, by Balaji Vittal

Balaji Vittal has written several books along with Anirudha Bhattacharjee. I’d read and enjoyed their biographies of SD Burman and RD Burman, as well as their collection of top songs, Gaata Rahe Mera Dil; so when Balaji Vittal wrote to me informing me about the publication of his first solo foray into cinema writing, I was intrigued—especially as the premise of Vittal’s book sounded thoroughly entertaining. Pure Evil: The Bad Men of Bollywood explores the villains of Hindi cinema. From dacoits to smugglers to mafia dons and gangsters, from serial killers to terrorists and traitors, to small-time crooks, evil relatives, adulterous spouses, even anti-heroes: they’re all here, described in detail.

Pure Evil isn’t a book that fits completely into the time line of my blog, since a good deal of its focus ends up being on more recent cinema than Dustedoff restricts itself to. While I haven’t reviewed the book here, you can read a fairly detailed review I wrote on Goodreads, here.

And, while we’re on the topic, a piece Balaji Vittal wrote specifically to feature here as a guest post. On the unsung villains of the Hindi cinema of the 40s and 50s: nasty characters who were a little offbeat as far as villains went, in the films they featured in.

Over to Balaji:

Size does matter. As do sound and colour. In a rapidly technically-upgrading Bollywood of the 1970s, cinematically pleasing features such as technicolour, cinemascope, 70 mm wide screens, stereophonic sound and superior cinematography accentuated the notoriety of those gargantuan villain characters like Gabbar, Shakaal (Yaadon ki Baaraat), Mogambo and others. Even long shots could pick up their car chases and horse rides a mile away. Whereas, in the black & white era, the terror of the villain characters played by K.N. Singh, Pran and Anwar Hussain were mostly shown in close-up shots, making their villainy look intense but not spectacular. And blood, the outcome of violence, too was still black and not red yet.

Despite these constraints, villain characters like Raaka in Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai, Pyarelal in Howrah Bridge and Raja Ugra Narain in Madhumati remain emblazoned in our memories. And then there were a few hidden gems from the black & white era which are worth exploring.

Sheth Laxmidas in Roti (1942) – The destitute in the streets of the city fight like dogs for the left-over food thrown at them after the wealthy have dined to their hearts’ content. The men scavenge the waste bins for food while children with no clothes to cover their emaciated bodies, ask their helpless mothers for ‘roti’ (bread). The coolies labour under the burden of sacksful of food grain on their backs –not a grain of which they have the right to. Sheth Laxmidas (played by Chandramohan) buys out all food grains available in the city, hoards them, sells them at a premium in the market, and converts the profits into bars of gold.

Snubbing advice from his munimji that Laxmidas reduce the price of the food grains for his own factory’s labour force, Laxmidas avers that his mazdoor are nothing more than tools for him to top up his gold reserves. His monopolization drives peer businessmen out of business and to suicide – but he is remorseless. He also kills his elderly business partner Charandas by trapping him inside the gold vault (where he dies of heart failure) and stealing all his gold.

Laxmidas’s silver-streaked hair is slicked back, his blue eyes unblinking and wide open, and his deliberate smile ruthlessly triumphant. His understated, almost mechanical body movements add that inhumanity factor to his persona. But fate catches up with him. Armed with classified information of an impending war, Laxmidas’s vile plan to manipulate the commodity market gets leaked and he goes bankrupt. He stocks his gold bars in his car and flees town. He gets stuck in a sandstorm and starves to death surrounded by gold bars that fail to buy him a glass of water.  Chandramohan, handsome, tall and blessed with a baritone voice was arguably one of Hindi cinema’s first villains who reigned in the 1930s and 1940s. His career began at Prabhat Studios and it happened quite accidentally when he had been a representative of a Delhi-based film distributor, had come to Pune to meet V. Shantaram, and got hired as an actor.   

Through the 1940s and 1950s, barring the dacoit genre, the Bollywood villain was usually an individual. In the mid-to-late 1960s and well as into the 1970s, came those gangs of criminals with cross-border networks involved in trade of contraband items, supplying arms or smuggling gold and national artefacts. The clientele of these smugglers would be a white-skinned foreigner who would purchase these stolen/smuggled goods for a hefty price. This genre of villainy erupted with the coming of colour films. But there were a few unsung villains in the black & white era too who, along with their gangs, ran smuggling rackets.

Khanna in Marine Drive (1955) – Thugs needn’t be uncouth. In fact, looking sophisticated helped their cause as it cloaked them with a social status that made the law enforcement a tad hesitant to take them head on. The first such slick and urbane gangster was played by K.N.Singh in the1950s. In Marine Drive (1955) K.N. Singh plays Khanna, an opium dealer and a gold smuggler who goes bankrupt when the Bombay police raid his sea-bound smuggling consignment.

Looking dapper in a suit, Khanna actually looked like someone with whom one would prefer to engage in business. Despite being middle-aged, he has a hot young cigarette-smoking girlfriend in Dolly (played by Mohana). Even in the face of the crisis his smuggling has run into, Khanna maintains his poise, negotiates with his aggressive creditors for more time to pay off his overdue debts, and maintains a vice-like grip on his team. Khanna shoots to death a rebelling gang member, thus conveying a clear message to the rest that they dare not jump ship even if the waters are choppy.

Such is Khanna’s persona that, for a long time, the Bombay Police does not even suspect that this gentlemanly Mr. Khanna is the big boss behind the smuggling gang. Strapped for finances, Khanna pushes his wealthy brother to death from a high rise on Marine Drive and plots to eliminate his niece so that he may usurp his brother’s wealth. In a scuffle with the hero in the finale of what is an action-packed film, Khanna gets crushed to death by a train while the hero escapes by a hair’s breadth. Curious irony – eighteen years after the release of Marine Drive. the hero of the film would go on to play a very famous villain character who would similarly get crushed by a screeching train. The hero of Marine Drive was Ajit.

Till the late 1970s, one struggles to remember even one corrupt policeman or a government official in Bollywood films. They were all honest and duty-abiding, with oodles of integrity. There was one film made in 1949, which was a startling exception –

Various villains in Apna Desh (1949), directed by V. Shantaram – Sub-Inspector Bholanath (played by Chandrashekhar) accepts a bribe of an expensive wristwatch worth INR 1000 from a smuggling gang in return for allowing the gang to smuggle out fifty cartons of stolen fabric from Mahim harbour. A young storekeeper, John Barbar, at the Military Arms Depot is corrupt too. He allows the gang to steal a thousand guns and ammunition from the depot because Barbar owed a favour to the gang’s kingpin, Seth Dhaniram (Manmohan Krishna) who had gotten him the job in the military depot in the first place.

Haridas, a parcel clerk at the Indian Railways parcel office accepts a bribe from the gunrunners for loading the arms into the goods train. And Customs Officer Gulzar Singh permits gold bars worth INR 5 lakhs to be smuggled into India through the air route; these gold bars were payment to Seth Dhaniram against the arms that Dhaniram’s accomplices had stolen from the military depot.

But in the end, the government employees cannot escape the clutches of the law. John Barbar gets 5 years’ rigorous imprisonment, Gulzar Singh and Bholanath get 3 years of rigorous imprisonment, while Haridas gets a 6-month term of rigorous imprisonment for accepting a petty bribe. What director Shantaram succeeding in showing was how government officials from various government departments unconnected with each other seemed to form an invisible network of complicity with smugglers and thieves.

© Balaji Vittal, 2022

 

17 thoughts on “Guest Post: The Unsung Villains of Yesteryears, by Balaji Vittal

  1. It is Manmohan Krishna’s birth centenary this year (I wouldn’t have thought he was that young, he always struck me as one of the older lot), and I’m wondering if he has a substantial enough role in Apna Desh for me to review the film as a tribute to him. What do you think, Balaji? :-)

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  2. Thank you for your post, Balaji! I am looking forward to reading your book once it is available in libraries here.

    “Till the late 1970s, one struggles to remember even one corrupt policeman or a government official in Bollywood films”–I can think of examples of crooked officials from that era, but certainly not as the primary antagonistic force in a film the way they would later become. In “Sachaai,” for example, Sanjeev’s character breaks with his parents after he learns that his father has been taking bribes. Ultimately, though, that is a minor detail; Sanjeev winds up doing crime because of friends of his, not his father’s bad influence. It’s certainly nothing like the police corruption movies of the ’80s, which are practically a subgenre unto themselves!

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  3. Read not only this post but your review on Goodreads also. This post is a damn interesting one whereas your review of the book is completely objective, unbiased and very useful for the prospective readers. The author’s effort deserves appreciation but he could have done better.

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  4. I love Bollywood antiheroes from Dev Anand to Shahrukh. I hope they got a honorary mention amongst all the professional villains. That said, would you consider doing a review of Ruth Vanita’s Dancing with the Nation: Courtesans in Bombay Cinema. I don’t agree with all her opinions. But it makes fascinating reading and chronicles almost all the tawaifs in Hindi cinema.

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