Lazy Wednesday Discussion Post: the Morality of Taking “Grey” Roles

I already put up my Wednesday Watching post, here’s a bonus one for us.  It’s something that I’ve been puzzling over and don’t have a good answer for, but thought might make a good discussion for us and maybe we can find an answer together, or at least get closer.

Now, question for you!  Which is just sort of a discussion question.

Can/should Superstars play negative characters?

Salman Khan won’t play a grey character, because he feels it would influence his fans too much.  That is, he doesn’t believe his fans will be able to separate his character who is doing bad things and they shouldn’t imitate him from the actor they love and want to imitate.  This came up again recently because he just joined the Race franchise, which is all about morally ambiguous characters and according to reports there was a lot of back and forth on the script before Salman found it acceptable.

(Morally ambiguous characters and super sexual songs, two things Salman won’t do.  Very curious what this movie will be like)

Meanwhile, Shahrukh got his start by being willing to play negative roles, in Baazigar and Darr and Anjaam.  And then later in Don and Fan.  However, the audience consistently cheered for him.  Even when the script and directing made it abundantly clear that he was supposed to be the antagonist, not the hero.

Prithviraj down south recently put out a statement saying that he will be careful moving forward to only take films in which his rapist and/or stalker character was the clear antagonist.  He wasn’t saying he would never play those roles again, he wasn’t limiting himself as an artist in that way, just that he would be very very careful and make sure the script passed not just his artistic and moral standards, but would be clear to the audience.  But then on the other hand, how can he know that?  The audience is always capable of misunderstanding, of blindly following the hero actor movie to movie.

I honestly don’t know, what do you think?  No negative roles at all, negative roles if they inspire you as an actor, or negative roles only if they pass a high standard to make sure the audience will understand them?

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27 thoughts on “Lazy Wednesday Discussion Post: the Morality of Taking “Grey” Roles

  1. As a westerner I’m all about actors doing negative roles if they can pull them off (you have to have decent acting chops). For example, Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda both took on villain roles as they got older and they were brilliant at it.

    But in India, where the stars are almost godlike, I understand why the actors don’t want to do those roles. It’s too bad, though. For example, Aamir is good at playing negative characters, he can pull off those roles without turning them into mustache twirling caricatures, but he doesn’t do them anymore which is a shame.

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      • Yes, I can see that, a sort of “it is our responsibility to maintain the moral order for everyone” kind of feeling.

        On Wed, Apr 18, 2018 at 11:33 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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    • Jimmy Stewart was also the master of the “grey” role. He is the most terrifying character in Rope, to me, because you slowly realize his casual cruelty and lack of empathy is what led these young men down a path of complete evil. And yet he is still so seemingly normal and good.

      I was trying to think of an Aamir role where he played straight up negative, not like DCH where he was immature and a little nasty, but fully bad. Is there one?

      On Wed, Apr 18, 2018 at 11:27 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  2. (again Claudia, still on another laptop)
    In my opinion, “grey” doesn’t mean a negative character but a character with considerable flaws/weaknesses. For me, Asoka, Dev, Aryan Khanna, Raees, Harry (for example) are “grey characters” …equally Sejal and Majmudar.
    I think, ‘black’ or negative characters always have selfish/negative/destructive mobiles (like Darr’s Rahul, Baazigar’s Ajay and Madan, Anjaam’s Vijay, Don, Gaurav) deliberately destroying/killing others.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Which brings up another question. Do you think part of the confusion with completely negative characters comes about if the actor has previously played “grey” roles? Is it possible that “grey” is even more dangerous from a social perspective because the audience can so easily see it sliding into “black”? For a simple example, in Fan Shahrukh played one completely negative role, and one role with shades of grey. And the end result was that the audience saw them as both bad, both villainous.

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      • I reply before having read Moimeme’s (almost always) very interesting comments…so I just go with my feelings.

        When I started with my interest in Hindi Cinema through my enthusiasm for ShahRukh, I got the feeling that till the 90’s there was a more explicit differentiation between good (=hero) and bad (=villain)…it was like Rizwan’s mother saying that people doing good things are good and people going bad things are bad.
        My start into Hindi Cinema started in 2006, shortly before KANK was promoted and I read and saw discussions about ‘gray characters’.

        I think it depends on personal reception if ‘grey’ slides to ‘black’. I for myself never saw Aryan Khanna as villaneous, not even as ‘bad’, only as someone who tried to protect his privacy, his image, his professional life and to whom it became a matter only between him and Gaurav.

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        • Aryan Khanna is a complicated character, because he isn’t easy to like. Gaurav has all the charm and audience sympathy, while Aryan seems too confident to really need us.

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  3. “Salman Khan won’t play a grey character, because he feels it would influence his fans too much”

    And I wonder, if it is not because he in real life is kind of grey character, with a lot of bad things on his conscience. So maybe he is afraid his fans could “open the eyes” and see him as he is.

    I think the most famous actors have a lot of responsibility on them, and they should think twice before taking a role, but it shouldn’t be in categories : bad, good, grey, but more: will it be good for my audience? I support Prithviraj’s decision. he is one of the biggest stars and he knows some people can imitate what he does on screen. I can’t help but compare him with Mammootty, and his role in Kasaba. Ok, I understand, the world is not perfect and we can’t pretend everybody respects women, but at the same time you don’t have to say every stupid dialogue people wrote for you. Think, change something, use your power for good.

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    • Just to play Devil’s advocate, how can you ever be sure the change you are making will help the audience to see what is happening? Or that the change you are making is the right change? Is it better to have an across the board answer of “no negative roles at all”, or better to try to split hairs film by film?

      On Wed, Apr 18, 2018 at 3:56 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Prithviraj’s point was no glorification of misogyny. As a leading actor with considerable influence even in the creative choices, he can set the tone & way a particular scene is played out in discussion with the director & script writer. As with any big star, I cannot buy the argument that everything is decided by the director. In today’s film making in India, often the director himself is picked by the actor. So a very-much involved actor like Prithviraj or any leading actor serious enough about his career will have collaborative discussions with the director & it is here that he has decided to use his voice to avoid any unwanted embellishments to a not-desirable/not worth emulating trait. Something Mammooty with his considerable influence could also have done but chose not to-because he didn’t see it as a problem in the first place.

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        • Meenakshy beautifuly wrote what I wasn’t able to write well.

          @Moimeme Thanks, I didn’t know Salman decided he won’t play negative characters years ago.

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    • @Angie — Except Salman’s stand of “no negative characters” as taken long before any “grey areas” developed in his personal life, pretty much at the beginning of his career. Remember that he was offered Baazigar first, which he refused, because as the script was then, there was no backstory to explain the character’s evil doings. Salim Khan suggested they add the motive of defending his mother, which the directors refused to do, so Salman refused the role. Later, when it went to SRK, the directors added in Salim’s suggestion, which is what brought sympathy to the role. In contrast, Aamir was first offered SRK’s role in Darr, but he eventually didn’t come on board because he didn’t want to be beaten up by Sunny Deol in the climax (since that would affect his “hero” image).

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  4. @Margaret — I think you’re confusing “grey” and “negative” roles. What Salman said is that he won’t ever play “negative” roles, especially the kind that SRK does, because he doesn’t want the character to be glorified in any way. When Dabangg was being made, a lot of publicity was woven around the fact that Salman was playing his first “grey” role — the guy takes bribes, after all, and has issues with his stepfather and stepbrother. But still overall it’s “hero” type of noble character. That’s about as far as Salman has gone.

    I personally don’t understand the fascination with negative characters that many people have. Even as an acting exercise, I think it takes just as much or more talent to convincingly pull off a positive character and still make it human, i.e., not a cardboard cutout.

    On topic, I think it’s about what role(s) first makes an actor famous. There are actors whose entire careers are as villains, and they are just as popular and famous as the actors who play heroes. But can they switch to being heroes? Very rarely. Vinod Khanna was famous because he was the first who switched from being a villain to being a hero, and I mean from film to film, not that he started as a villain and then changed to a hero and stayed that way. Second, I think it’s also about the level of fame/popularity that one achieves, but more importantly, about the kind of audience connect that actor establishes. When Amitabh Bachchan had his “Coolie” accident and everyone was praying for his recovery, it wasn’t just about being popular, but about the connection he had established with his audience. Coming to Salman, everything I’ve read about him has been about the amazing audience connect he has, the most of any actor except Amitabh. Both Salman and SRK have the largest fan bases, but I do sense a slight difference in their fandoms. Almost all of SRK’s fans became fans because they dhim as an actor (for a lot of people in India, they may or may not care about his films, but they admire him for achieving the level of financial success he has). After that they may have started to care for him as a person, but even then, not to the extent of wanting to “become” him (they may want to become as rich or successful as he is, but they’d still want to be themselves). In contrast, Salman’s fans actually want to be him, and the overwhelming majority of them became fans because they liked “him” — and therefore they like his acting and his films. You can see it in the way they adopt his family as his own — referring to Salim uncle and Salma and Helen aunties, and any serious girlfriend of his, like Katrina, as “bhabhi.” Of course SRK doesn’t have any family except his sister, but do you see any of his fans refer to “Gauri bhabhi?” So that’s the difference in audience connect. There is also the fact that the segment of society that is attracted by SRK thinks it “uncool” to be a “fan” of any actor, which they think is characteristic of the “uneducated” or at least “unsophisticated” classes. That’s why they have to intellectualize their fandom. This is even more true of Aamir. Strangely enough, this lack of personal connection is one reason why Aamir can get away with behavior (divorcing his wife and the mother of his children, out of wedlock child from an affair, now alleged extramarital affairs) that would spell career suicide for any other top star. In his case, people only seem to care about his films (hence their success), but not about him. So both Aamir and SRK can be accepted playing negative characters, and Salman can’t.

    Of course I’m saying all this in the context of Indian films and Indian society. And it also varies between different language industries. Both Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan are superstars in the Tamil industry, but I don’t think Rajnikanth can play a negative role now (though he started out playing a lot of out and out villains), but I think Kamal still can, and people will only talk about his artistry. One way Kamal has found around this is to play double roles in films, one evil, one good.

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    • this is all fascinating and wonderful and exactly the kind of thing I was looking for struggling with this issue. I think you hit the nail on the head with the difference between Salman and SRK fans. Do you know the famous story about Adi? He promised after DDLJ Shahrukh would be every girl’s dream lover and every woman’s dream son? But you made me realize that he never promised that men would want to be him. Which has been true all along, people like Shahrukh and admire him and respect him and have crushes on him, but he isn’t known for the people who adopt him like that.

      Going back to your point about how they start, maybe that’s what is confusing about Shahrukh? Because he was a failure as a romantic hero lead, switched to negative roles and became a hit, and then switched back to hero parts? So it’s hard to get a handle on him.

      One final thing, you got me thinking about Vinod Khanna, and how he moved between hero and villains. And then I was thinking about his recent roles where he did that a little too, and then I thought about how Jackie Shroff and Anupam Kher do that as well. So there seems to be something about reaching a certain age where suddenly you just play “patriarch” and that can be good or evil and no one thinks twice about it. Unless you are Amitabh, I can’t think of a movie (besides Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag) where he played a straight up bad guy.

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      • Before dealing with your SRK question, we need to completely revise the terminology we are using, which is of quite recent origin. All these usages like “characters with grey shades” or “negative roles” only came about within the last ten years or so in Hindi films. Before that there were “heroes” and “villains.” Well, there are still “heroes”, but there are no longer “villains.” Even the Filmfare awards for “Best Villain” and “Best Comedian” have been done away with.

        I also want to correct another implicit or explicit assumption that has been made in this discussion. That is that the Indian/Hindi audience is somehow incapable of distinguishing between an actor’s performance and his or her personality. To be frank, this is not a little patronizing and offensive. What we are talking about is audience expectations from various actors, and how film makers can use those expectations when making their films. These audience expectations are completely separate from audience appreciation.

        As I said above, there have been plenty of actors whose entire careers were made playing villains, who received acclaim and adulation from the paying public. The audience knows that a good story needs a good villain, as does a good hero. So what happens when they see Pran on the screen? They expect some evil doings from his character, which saves the writer and director from having to do a lot of character development or exposition. And this is not a bad thing. It is just a form of cinematic shorthand, just like putting “Paris, 1946” to establish the time and place of a scene or film, instead of having to do a lot of lengthy setting of the scene. Similarly having actors who are known for playing “heroes” or “heroines” again makes the establishment of characters and their relationships easier and simpler, so the film can spend its time on something more interesting or detailed. All Indian film industries used to have well-defined categories for actors along these lines. Those playing supporting characters had more flexibility to move between “good” and “bad” characters from film to film, since they were never the focus of the film, anyway. That’s why Vinod Khanna was such a breakthrough, for switching between two opposing categories, and succeeding in both.

        Now coming to SRK, I don’t think it’s correct to say that he “failed” at romantic roles initially. He was an actor just starting out, who took all kinds of roles, including romantic ones, but without finding a lot of success as yet. So he did not yet establish an “image”, You could just as well say that he “failed” (more correctly, did not succeed in a big way) at every other kind of role, too. He was still in the beginning stage, feeling his way to find what worked.

        So then he did Darr, Baazigar and Anjaam, all of which succeeded and established him as a star. The question is, what kind of star? Note that he did not play “villains” in these films, even if you want to say he played “negative roles.” He was firmly the “hero” in all three. All three films were told from his point of view, and he was the one one driving the action. The latter means he was the “protagonist” in the western sense, and the former that he was still the “hero” in the Indian sense. What he was not, was the “Nayak” of classical Indian literature and drama (which later was adopted into film, too). That is, he was not someone of virtuous or noble character, and not someone one should emulate. (Note that the word “nayak” also means leader.) In addition, all three characters , in some respect, were also “romantic” in that they were also driven by “love” for the heroine of the film. In Baazigar he had other motives, too, but in Darr and Anjaam, that was the prime or even only motivation. It may have been a twisted or perverted “love”, but that’s what it was in the character’s mind.

        Thus, in all three of those films, SRK was still the “hero”, not the villain, even though he was doing very reprehensible things. So the real accomplishment of SRK via these films was to redefine the concept of hero in Hindi films, to make a dangerous, psychotic, and murderous person acceptable and sympathetic. It is no small accomplishment, and is what earned him his place in the Encycolopedia of Indian Cinema,which I’m sure you’ve read. In fact, his entry says something like, “he has introduced a particularly vicious kind of hero, who abuses women violently.”

        So when he did DDLJ, he already had a “romantic” image, albeit a romantic who’s not quite right in his mind. In DDLJ his character was normal, only a little mischievous and rebellious about societal norms, but that was completely smoothed out by the film’s second half, where he is complying with every societal convention, even if it is detrimental to his (and the heroine’s) interests. With DDLJ, anyone who was still struggling with their attraction to his characters in the earlier three films could now safely give in to that attraction, and admire him in the role of the perfect lover. Since there were no more ambiguities or hesitations to be overcome, he found much bigger success this way.

        So what about his roles in the Don films and Raees? Well, since I haven’t seen those (and have no desire to), I can’t offer any first hand observations, but here are some thoughts based on the box office reception of those films. You notice that none of them was all that successful. In fact, the Don films are often quoted as evidence for the beginning of his “downfall” as an actor. His only really big success in the last ten years has been Chennai Express — an out and out love story. So what about the Harry and Sejal film? The fact that I can’t even remember its proper title tells its own story. It performed dismally at the box office. So we can safely say that it was not accepted by the audience. In terms of your question, he has not been successful with these later “negative role” films as he was with the original three — which were also, let us remember, not all that big successes. They were hits, but not blockbusters, nor even Super hits.

        There are some commentators on the net who hold firmly to the view that the secret of SRK’s stardom was not about the kind of roles he played, but about the kind of films he did, mainly with YRF and Dharma, that tapped into the aspirations of Indians at a crucial time — right after the economic liberalization policies were established, and whose effects were beginning to be felt by the public. The lifestyles portrayed, the brands which were extensively flaunted, all represented aspirational goals for the public, who were just coming out of the deprivations of the earlier socialist policies. This goes back to what I was saying about the nature of his fans versus Salman’s — they wanted what he had on screen (the big house, the cars, the branded clothes, etc.), but they wanted those things in their own lives, and did not wish to become someone else to obtain them. Or to put it another way, they wanted *things*, not characters.

        Coming to your question on “patriarchs”, again it’s not about the age of the actor, but the slot that s/he fulfills in the film universe structure. So, just as there were “heroes”, “heroines”, and “villains” (also “second heroes/heroines” who might or might not move on to become “heroes” and “heroines” in their own right), there were also “character actors”. As the term implies, their purpose was to play whatever character was required in the story, good, bad, indifferent, brief, or long. Nowadays people are using “supporting actors”, which doesn’t fully convey the range of roles that these character actors portrayed. Anupam Kher, for instance, was playing fathers and grandfathers when he was still in his 30’s, good or bad as the story required. The decision for someone like Vinod Khanna, and more so Amitabh Bachchan, to make would have been whether to move from being a “hero” (and thus the main focus of the story) to a “character actor”, and still get interesting roles, but now in support of whoever was the “hero” or “heroine.” It’s not an easy transition to make, as it involves a lot of ego swallowing. Many actors who reached fame and fortune as heroes, refused to move into any other category, preferring to retire as “heroes”, and be remembered that way in the public’s mind. And all this applies to female actors, too — those who move on into mother and grandmother roles, or who played such roles even when being young themselves. It is why it was such a big deal for Sridevi to play mother of an adult daughter in Mom (though she was still the “heroine” of the film, in that the film was about her character), while Madhuri is resisting, or has resisted, for so long about playing a mother on screen. She doesn’t want to fall out of the “heroine” category.

        Liked by 1 person

        • What I find interesting is that, at least in the present day, Shahrukh is describing himself as starting out as a villain who became a hero. I agree with you, his early roles weren’t exactly “villains” int hat they were the protoganist of the film, although they also weren’t heroic. When Prem Chopra talked about giving up hero parts and focusing on being a villain, he was talking about taking a step back and a step down, choosing a smaller more reliable kind of career. But Shahrukh is using “villain” to merely mean roles so toxic in content that no one else would touch them. Not roles that came second to the hero, a career on the slow track, but the complicated dark characters no other actor would touch.

          On Fri, Apr 20, 2018 at 2:22 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I agree with you about Salman/ShahRukh and an overwhelming part of their fans reacting to them differently… Salman = they want to be like Prem, ShahRukh = they want to have someone like Rahul or Raj in their life.
            I also would prefer to equal the definition of “hero” with “main protagonist” and “heroine” with “leading lady”
            As for Salman sticking to his ‘good man’ image…I wonder what he would have become with his father dead when he started his career…

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  5. I guess just like playing an unconventional role, onscreen intimacy is also decided by the actor’s image? Aamir, Kamal Hassan were never trapped by images & hence can do anything onscreen. Kamal was known as the kissing king. SRK, for all of his lover boy roles , hesitated to kiss until JTHJ. I know he is not coy because I have seen Maya Memsaab. Then why the long abstinence & why in JTHJ? Nothing else must have worked with Katrina. I bet the burden of being the ‘keeper of his fans’ moral code’ is why Salman hesitates to kiss onscreen too. Aamir has always been a kisser -starting from his first film. Akshay was okay with intimacy onscreen earlier but is now coy. On a related note-I would pay to see Salman kiss with that straight face of his..;))

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    • Actually Salman said he’s not comfortable kissing on screen, and he’d be embarrassed for his father to see it. SRK said he promised Gauri not to do any kissing scenes. (There was nudity in Maya Memsab but no kissing, ha ha. Anyway I think he wasn’t yet married at that point.) As for why changed his policy for JTHJ, supposedly Yash Chopra asked him to, and he couldn’t say no. Now why did Yash ask him is the more interesting question, and I suspect it was really Aditya, trying to capture the “modern” audience. In any case, it was a stupid decision, as that was one awkward kiss! I hated to see him do it, and Salman seemed to be shocked, too (in his interview with Anupama Chopra).

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  6. About 10 years ago, there was a push in Tamil Nadu lead by a politician calling out actors, to get to actors to stop smoking on screen. It mostly worked and the hero smoking on screen fell dramatically. It was also around the time we started seeing no smoking warnings before the movie started and just more warnings about the dangers of smoking in general. I’d love to know if there was ever any studies done on the impact of all of this. Did smoking in the state actually drop and if it did, was it because kids didn’t see their favorite actor smoke and never started the habit? Or was it because there was just more information out there about the dangers of smoking and people quit? Sometimes I feel like with Indian films, there’s a tendency to over-emphasize the influence of films on society but then again, fandom in India is a different beast. I really do wish there would be some studies on this.

    I don’t really mind actors playing good/bad/grey characters but I would prefer if problematic things aren’t made to look cool. Like an actor may play a sexist character but gets called out for it or its otherwise shown as clearly not being a good thing about him. I think the audience can get complicated heros that have flaws but are overall good but my problem is when those flaws are shown as good.

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    • From the little I know about the impact of those warnings and things, it is not that effective. What you don’t want is to normalize something. So if you see people smoking in all the movies and TV shows it starts to feel like just what everyone does. But seeing your favorite actor smoke one time won’t make the difference. The warnings might work just in taking you out of the film and realizing that a character is smoking instead of not noticing it and subconsciously normalizing it. Or, they could have the opposite effect, making you more aware of how much smoking is in movies and therefore making it seem more normal to you.

      Which is the same as what you are saying about sexist characters. Don’t normalize the behavior, don’t laugh and say “everyone is like this”, call it out as bad. And don’t have it happen always all around with everyone in the movie, have it in just one or two characters and have the film talk about why it is happening. Then the audience won’t learn to accept it as the default position, will think of it as an aberration instead.

      Which makes me think about how maybe a “grey” or negative character needs more contrasting characters for it to be clear that he is wrong. In Darr, there was Juhi and Sunny and Anupam and Shahrukh. Juhi was good, that was clear. Sunny was okay but ineffective, Anupam was comic, and then there was Shahrukh. If we had seen dozens of young male characters and they were all normal and healthy, and then Shahrukh, it would be clear he was an aberration. But since it was just him versus Sunny and Anupam, it wasn’t completely clear.

      On Thu, Apr 19, 2018 at 9:44 AM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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