Hindi Film 101: Turn of the Century Sociopaths, the Hindi Rom-Com Heroes of the 2000s

Fun post! I get to complain, and then you all get to complain back at me. It will be like when I talked about subtitles, but worse.

Hindi film has always had the “bad boy” “good girl” divide. It goes back to pre-film, even pre-history, with the Krishna stories. Krishna was charming and loving, and a trickster. He “teased” the girls and romanced the women. But he was so handsome and so wonderful that even a little bit of Krishna was better than all of another man. And he understood women, sympathized with them, helped women to elope with the men they loved (even if that man was not him), understood and appreciate elderly mothers as much as young girls. His misbehavior was about breaking rules, including the rules of love, because he would rather take a crooked path to the right end than a straight path to the wrong end.

Shahrukh in Zamaana Deewana is a Krishna type hero straight through, loves women of all ages, gets his way by trickery instead of straight, but has the greater good in mind.

It’s not necessarily that the women around Krishna were “good”, just that Krishna was so choatic and tricky that their behavior appeared good in contrast. The Gopis would dance with him all night, Rukmani ran away with him seconds before her marriage, and so on and so forth. The idea is that the main characteristic of Krishna, the thing that makes him different and exciting and interesting, is that he spreads his love around and just doesn’t care what the rules are. The women around him, they have to have a different aspect, you can’t have two Krishnas in a story.

And so we have, for instance, Awara. Raj Kapoor is a conman and a thief, and a charmer. But he has one true love, Nargis. He may trick and tease and misbehave, but he is different with her, because she is beyond his trickery. And Nargis is different, she is straight where he is crooked, but so in love that she is willing to go crooked with him.

And we have Shammi Kapoor in An Evening in Paris, he is confident and good at tricking folks and charming them, is introduced surrounded by women. He meets Sharmila and lies to her in order to woo her. Sharmila sees through his lies and is angry, but won over again by his charm and sincere feelings behind the charm.

In Manzil Manzil, Sunny Deol’s friend suggests a trick, wait until you see a pretty girl leave her car, then take the car keys and put them in your pocket. She will come back, think her keys fell in the grass, you help her look and “find” the keys, you are a hero and have an opening to ask her for a date. He tries this on Dimple Kapadia but she outwits him. After further battles of wits, they finally fall in love.

Shahrukh in DDLJ is constantly flirting with women. His behavior treads the line of unacceptable but does not quite cross it. A woman is safe traveling with him, and he never tells a direct lie. He may say “your eyes are like my grandmother’s”, but he does not say a false “I love you” or try to drug a woman or make her afraid when there is no reason, in fact the opposite. He is a trickster, not a criminal.

Saif in Yeh Dillagi tries to drug Kajol. He has tried his charm and found it not up to the task, and so he crosses the line into using more than charm. This is no longer Krishna, the charming trickster. The point of Krishna is that (unless you were his enemy) you never actually minded his tricks once you found them out. Either they were so minor losses that you laughed, or they were ultimately to your benefit. Saif crosses that line, this is no longer a “trick”, this is an attack. And so, Saif is not the hero. He has revealed ultimate weakness and failure and the narrative punishes him. He is now the poor pitiful brother of the hero, he does not get the girl or the happy ending.

Shahrukh in Kal Ho Na Ho is the ultimate Krishna character. He has one true love. But he loves all of humanity as well, lying and tricking in order to bring happiness to the lives of everyone around him. And he is not above using his physical attraction and charm to make what should happen, happen. He flirts with women constantly. But only to bring joy to the world.

Now, let us look at what happened in the late 90s. As the audience for Hindi films expanded quickly beyond the borders of India, into the metropolitan areas of the west. And as western media entered into Indian (Friends, soap operas, crime shows), the old trickster hero went through a strange change. To attract this new audience, Hindi films decided they had to show the new “reality” of young people, lives of freedom and casual sex. Only because of Indian morality, of course the women couldn’t have casual sex. The end result was that the existing “trickster” Krishna hero was grafted onto the idea of a sexually active man. But once Krishna’s tricks expand beyond, for instance, acquiring a better table at a restaurant and into gaining sex with no commitment, he crosses the line from a “charming harmless trickster” into a disturbing sociopath.

It’s not just what happened to “Krishna” it’s also what failed to happen to “Radha”. When, for instance, Dharmendra tricked Hema Malani in Sholay, his goal was a hug, and then marriage. Hema herself was interested in him (her behavior told him and the audience that this was the case) and more generally she was interested in marriage. He was not tricking her into doing something she did not ultimately want to do already. It is very very different when we see, for instance, Abhishek and John lie to Priyanka in Dostana that they are gay in order to trick her into living in the same apartment as two men, something she otherwise would definitely not want to do.

There is a basic premise that all of these films accept, that young men living in the city are sexually active and experienced, that they are only interested in sex and not relationships. And that women do not feel the same way. From there, the film will move on to introducing a young woman who accepts the same premise (that men are promiscuous and guilt free) and slowly wins the hero over to being a better man.

What makes JHMS special is that our heroine refuses to accept that premise, treats the hero as a human person and a friend, trusts him. It’s not that she “wins” him away from his bad way of life, but that she shows by example that he isn’t the person he thinks he is

But the question is, why do we accept the premise? That men are naturally more driven by their sexual needs than any kind of empathy for others? And that any tricks they may pull in order to satisfy their sexual needs are understandable and forgivable. And most of all, that they could ultimately create a happy husband and good partner for a young woman for whom sex was a serious matter, only to be indulged when there is a deep connection with someone she can trust.

Part of this is an extension of the pre-existing attitude towards heroes? Young men in India tend to be powerless in many aspects of life. The generational power imbalance means they cannot control any part of their lives, including who they marry. And so films show the ammoral action hero, the police officer who breaks the rules to get justice, or the criminal who stays outside of society. And in the 2000s, this same fantasy of “the rules don’t apply” was moved into sexual relationships.

Or perhaps it is the Friends effect? When I watch Friends, what I see is a bunch of men and women posturing and saying what they think they are supposed to say but not what they really believe. The boys talk about only being interested in sex, but are constantly falling into deep and real relationships. Not to mention that (at least in the early seasons) it is established that, in fact, the men generally have less experience than the women (Chandler has only slept with a 4 or 5 women, Ross with only one, Joey with many, while both Monica and Phoebe have had multiple sexual relationships and even Rachel is more experienced than Ross). There may be talk about tricks and sex and only wanting one thing and so on, but that’s all it is, just talk. And yet when it is translated to the Indian films of the turn of the century, it is no longer talk, it is how our hero is established. Instead of dancing around joyfully playing tricks and romancing all of humanity, now he is seen with scantily clad young women draped on him, sneaking out of their apartments in the morning or tricking them into leaving his. The heroine may see sex as part of a committed loving relationship, but for the hero women are just bodies, there to satisfy his needs. It is what all men are like, it’s normal.

I don’t think it is normal, and I also don’t think that is what men are actually like. I think men are like women, or more generally, I think people are like people. Some of them have a higher sex drive, some of them are capable of enjoying casual sex. But that doesn’t mean they cross the line into harming others, into deceit, purely in pursuit of casual sex. And the implication that it is “normal” and “charming” even for these men in these films to act that way is not okay either. On a very small level, it makes me unable to enjoy the film because I can’t relate to the hero or root for him to get together with the heroine.

On a larger level, it makes me disturbed with how it plays into a general social message that men can get away with anything simply because they are men. That “good” woman should forgive them whatever they do. I don’t think there is a real concern that men all over India will start seducing supermodels and taking them back to their cool bachelor pads, but I do think there is a concern that men will continue to divide women into the two categories of “Virgin” and “Vamp” and not really worry about what happens to the vamps, or about if the virgins will forgive their own behavior.

Now, who are these turn of the century sociopaths?

Imraan Khan in I Hate Luv Storys: He is a brat to Sonam (his boss) at work, and a bit of a brat to his boss’s boss, Samir Soni. But more disturbing is when he picks up a woman at a bar, so drunk she can barely walk, lies to her about his job, lies to her that he understands love stories now that he has met her, takes her back to his apartment and has sex with her. Then the next morning lies that his landlord will have her arrested if he finds her there, refuses to even give her breakfast, throws her out in the hallway with only one shoe, and happily gives a voice over about how that was one problem solved. In an earlier film, this would be a not-drunk woman, and a flirtation in order to steal a kiss. All that same behavior, lying about his job and pretending to be a little in love and so on, becomes very different when the woman is not drunk, and the only goal is a kiss. But because films have to be “modern” now, she is drunk and they have sex and suddenly a casual fun hero becomes a sociopath.

What makes this even stranger is that the rest of the film shows Imraan as sensitive and kind and human. But for some reason they inserted this one disturbing sequence to establish him as “cool”

Imraan Khan in Gori Tere Pyar Main: Imraan is introduced flirting and dancing and drinking with Udita Goswami, his phone keeps ringing and he keeps ignoring it, even makes it part of the song, how family always calls just when you are “getting down” with a woman. He finally picks up the phone to learn his uncle has died. His reaction is irritation that the death interrupted his pursuit of sex. Again, it is all about scale. If this is a boy in a village working up his courage to propose to the girl next door, and then is interrupted by someone running to tell him his uncle has died, then that is a little bit of humor. But when it is a man in the city who ignores calls from his family over and over again in preference for a one time sexual experience, that is disturbing.

This movie, the hero is as bad as this pretty much the whole time. So I never bother rewatching it.

Saif Ali Khan in Salaam-Namaste: At first he does not appear as bad as other heroes. He is young and flirtatious and so on, but no more so than his heroine Preity. He proposes that they move in together, but explicitly does not pressure her to have sex just because they are living together. They sleep together at a time when they mutually want it. But then after living together and sleeping together for months, Preity becomes pregnant. Saif wants to end the pregnancy, Preity does as well at first but then changes her mind. And Saif turns into a sociopath. After living with a woman for months, being in love with her, he breaks up with her and throws petty fits about even sharing the same house. He has no basic human concern for her as someone going through a difficult medical situation, nor does he show any concern for the child that will be born with his genes and as a result of his love making. And in this case we have an exact earlier film to compare this with, Kya Kehna?, which also stars Preity and Saif and where they also have mutually agreed upon sex in the midst of a committed relationship which results in pregnancy. In that case, Saif acts the same way, but the film treats him differently. Instead of this being a comedy, and him being the hero who is ultimately redeemed by a last minute proposal (after doing NOTHING besides one late night ice cream run for the entire pregnancy), Kya Kehna Saif as abnormal and wrong for his behavior, gives him a backstory to explain such strange actions, and ultimate does not forgive him but instead has Preity move on with a man who did support her through her pregnancy. Behavior that a few years earlier was seen as absolutely unacceptable is now simply “funny”.

This is her fantasy, basic human sympathy and kindness while she is going through a distressing painful scary time. And in reality, he eats all the good in the house and turns away from her in disgust. SOCIOPATH!

Akshay in Heyy Babby: This is the least disgusting Sajid Khan movie, probably because it was his first one and his sister Farah was heavily involved. The majority of the plot is about three men and a baby (hey, that would be a good title for a movie!). But it includes a flashback to how Akshay seduced the baby’s mother, Vidya Balan. At a wedding, he picked out the not-interested-in-casual-sex friend of the bride as his target. He confused her and lied to her and did everything he had to do in order to get her into bed. He started to have real feelings for her at that point, but when she found out the truth and left him, he forgot about her and moved on to more casual sex with casual partners. The difference between this movie and the American original is that the American original did not (I think) feel the need to specify that the mother of the baby was a virgin, nor that the hero lied outrageously to get her into bed. And the difference between this movie and other Indian films with similar plots is that in the other films, the hero literally has amnesia because that is the only explanation for forgetting a woman you loved and slept with who might be carrying your child.

Those are the first films that occur to me, the ones that made me sit up and go “wait, am I supposed to find that behavior forgivable and charming?” I am sure you will be able to think of more.

The other problem with these movies existing is that they made the other movies, the ones that do not have sociopathic heroes, strive to appear like they do, to put on a layer of being “cool” and “modern” even if at heart they are old-fashioned. If you look at the grand sweep of romances in the early 2000s, the sociopathic hero options end up seeming even more prevelant than they were because of the superficial behavior of other heroes in other films. For example:

Uday Chopra in Neal n’ Nikki: Our hero starts out looking for a lot of sex with strangers before he has his arranged marriage. He is just like all the others. The difference being, he can’t actually manage to go through with it. The film is not about him having sex with a lot of women, it is about him attempting to have sex and not managing it because ultimately he sabotages himself. The only sex scene in the film is between the hero and heroine who are in love and know each other well and want to get married. Both of them have bought into the fantasy sold by those other movies that sex should be casual and meaningless, but this story questions that and instead shows the reality that sex (especially your first time) is meaningful and cannot happen simply because of a few cool lines and cool lies at a bar.

See how they call themselves “hot and happening” and “rockstar superstar”, but the reality shown in flashbacks is very different? It’s all just posturing.

Saif Ali Khan in Tashan: He has an aggressively cool hair style and an aggressively cool attitude, but in reality all we see him do is flirt a little with the female students in his English class, and then fall in love with Kareena. The entire film is about questioning the surface (Kareena as a Femme Fatale, Akshay as a brainless action hero, and so on), and part of that surface is Saif as the lady killer cool dude. He’s not, he just thinks he is.

Saif Ali Kahn in Love Aaj Kal: He meets Deepika in a bar, but that first night all they do is smile at each other and poke each other with one finger. For two years, they date and are together, and then break up. Both of them went into this sexual relationship expecting it to be a real bond between them (not just one night), but also not necessarily leading to marriage. After their break-up. Saif meets another woman, a white woman, at a street party. But he’s not just using her for sex, they are together for months, he takes her with him to India, he sees her as a real person and not just a sex body. It is little different from Deepika moving on and getting engaged to another man.

Ranbir in Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani: Ranbir started in Bachne Ae Haseeno, the most sociopathic of all heroes. But this film takes that same image and changes it just enough to make it human. Ranbir flirts with a pretty girl on the trek with him, but he also spends time with his friends and people who are not potential sex partners. Sex, and selfishness in general, does not drive all his actions. And he never actually sleeps with that girl, or lies to her in order to sleep with her, or even really tries to sleep with her. They talk, he makes her laugh, he enjoys observing her body which she puts on display, and that is it. When we return to him as a young man, we see him casually picking up woman, but with a joyful smile. It is not a matter of tricking them and then enjoying getting rid of them, all we see is that he enjoys women. It is a return to the earlier concept of Krishna, no need to spell out that he is only interested in one thing. He is interested in many things.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea. There is a film that acknowledges the basic reality that young people want sex, and some young people will have casual sex and pursue casual sex, and then there are films that seem to promote and even encourage an idea that young men will do anything for sex, including emotionally harming others.

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18 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: Turn of the Century Sociopaths, the Hindi Rom-Com Heroes of the 2000s

  1. `
    I agree with all your “this is icky — I don’t like this” stuff. But what I don’t understand is, who DOES like this stuff? In regard to Hollywood, I picture frat-boy executives coming up with these lame drunk/drugs/sex/naked scenes and plot. But, does that really sell better than good story; good script; good character development? Does everybody just follow stupid? Why? And at least half the audience is female, who can’t be liking it.

    `

    Liked by 1 person

    • With regards to India, I think it was simply aiming for a market they didn’t understand, the thought that this is the life and values all young urbanites worldwide aspire to.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. There was also Garam Masala, the highest grossing movie of 2005, and it was about two guys lying to three girls just to have sex with them.

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    • And the entire Housefull series. I can find it slightly more forgivable when it is a comedy, so we aren’t supposed to take the relationships really really seriously, but it’s still showing sociopaths going after women by lying as a “normal” thing.

      On Sun, May 26, 2019 at 9:10 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • And since Yeh Dillagi has been mentioned – man, how I hate this movie. I have seen it 10 years ago, so I don’t rememeber it well, but this part when Saif tried to drug Kajol and rape her – disgusting. And the worst is that he wasn’t punished for this (at least I don’t remember). And his family? They knew he is useless and makes bad things, but nobody cared, as long as he didn’t date low caste girl. And it was girl’s fault and she had to leave.

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        • Ah, I have to defend Yeh Dillagi at least a little. The film makes it clear that Saif’s behavior is reprehensible and that Kajol is treated poorly by the family. Kajol herself in the film tells off Akshay when he asks her to stay away from his brother and says if she were from a higher social class the family would be arranging their marriage. I agree that Saif doesn’t suffer enough consequences for his behavior but he does get told off by Kajol and he doesn’t get the girl because he doesn’t deserve her.

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          • Yes! Versus some of the newer movies where such behavior would be done by the hero and would never be truly called out.

            On Sun, May 26, 2019 at 11:26 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. Thanks for this post, Margaret. Food for thought. I don’t see this post as being “complaining”. It’s an analysis of how a subtle shift in characterization in some Hindi movies of the 2000’s resulted in poorer storylines, with potentially harmful social consequences. People can disagree with your argument by presenting different facts or different interpretations. Complaining is–I hate it when people put nuts in brownies. Who can argue with that? It’s an entirely subjective argument. The most we can say is, “Oh, bummer. I love nuts in brownies but if I ever make them for you, I won’t put them in.”

    As an American newcomer to Hindi films, I interpreted the “hug” in Sholay as indicating off-screen hanky-panky, probably making out. And I interpreted that Shah Rukh in DDLJ is after at least making out when he starts flirting with (harassing, really, since he physically grabs her, lays his head in her lap, etc) Kajol. Not by deception though, at least he’s pretty open about it. So, it’s not as clear a distinction for me between Krishna and sociopath as it is for you, and maybe for South Asian viewers. Your example of how JHMS subverts this sociopath-type storyline was helpful! I’m glad to give the Sholay situation a more innocent interpretation. It makes me like the film more.

    The movie example that came to my head was an American one. Swingers, from 1996. One of my friends (a guy) thinks this movie is hilarious and wanted me to watch it. Ugh. I just found it sad, empty, and angry-making.

    I watched this cool documentary about the Japanese actor Toshiro Mifune. Trailer here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l7mRn6muYWU

    Turns out that Japanese filmmakers had a challenging situation that audiences wanted youthful romance before/outside of marriage, but neither good boys NOR good girls would ever engage in youthful romance. This is one reason filmmakers started making more of the Ronin genre. Ronin were solitary Samurai not affiliated to any Lord and thus outside of social rules. So they could romance ladies, whether virgins or vamps (a distinction which we all agree needs to die).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Good points — but what I really agree with is that people should NEVER put nuts in brownies. (It’s always been a issue for me. WHY ruin a perfectly good brownie with nuts?)

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    • One thing that occurs to me from your comment is the difference between scenes which show a little onscreen but imply more, and scenes which are just about what they are showing. As I see the Sholay scene, merely getting a hug from a respectable woman is something to aspire towards, there was nothing more going on or implied to be going on. And similarly with Shahrukh in DDLJ, I didn’t feel like there was anything more going on than what we saw onscreen, grabbing girls’ hands and leaning on them and stuff. I guess that’s another change post-2000s, once sex is on the table for characters, there are scenes that we can look at and think there might be more happening than what we see. Varun in Humpty Sharma, his introduction is either having sex in a bathroom stall, or making out, or just holding hands. It’s up to the audience to imagine which. It’s Schrodinger’s Sex.

      Interesting with the Japanese example. It also reminds me of criminal action hero in Indian film, the ones who don’t have parents to yell at them, who can romance the prostitute or the good girl, or whatever they want.

      On Sun, May 26, 2019 at 9:43 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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        • Except Sonali and Salman totally have sex in Hum Saath Saath Hain. That’s clear from the eyes he is giving her.

          On Sun, May 26, 2019 at 10:00 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for this analysis!

    I think during the early 2000s these sociopaths didn’t bother me as much as they would today because I saw it as a temporary byproduct of what happens when a sexual revolution of sorts is suddenly introduced to an inherently patriarchal society. The women move forward but the men are confused. Just part of the pendulum swinging. I trusted that it would sort itself out in a decade or two.
    That’s easy for me to say sitting here in the USA though. I’m sure there were real women and men in India adversely affected by these characterizations as role models for interpersonal behavior at the time.

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    • I think you are right. It was a time of transition, fiction was struggling to catch up with reality.

      I am still bothered now though especially because of something that is a little bit petty and a little big legitimate, Indian film writing has had a wave of criticism directed towards the romances of the 90s, and of course new criticism directed towards every small element of the films that come out today. But somehow this era of films, which I find far far worse, has escaped analysis. It’s petty because I personally like the 90s movies and I am frustrated that they get sooooooooo much grief while later films escape. But I think it is also legitimate because how can you talk about movies today without acknowledging the problems of the movies from the recent past?

      On Thu, May 30, 2019 at 11:27 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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