Where have all the characters gone?

Rupleena Bose | Updated on September 21, 2018 Published on September 21, 2018

Time was when a line of stock characters helped a Hindi film tell its story of love and hatred, of hope and despair. But the script has changed over the years, erasing the role — and place — of the loyal family retainer or the comic drunk

In Shakespearean theatre, stock characters dot the large canvas of men of rank and power. The characters have a voice and insight to that larger situation that the protagonist does not. The fool, for instance, is often the wisest man; his lines hide the philosophical core of the unfolding drama.

So when Vishal Bhardwaj adapted the Bard’s works for his cinema, he ensured the side characters had stories to tell. In Maqbool (2003), his adaptation of Macbeth, Bhardwaj had two minor characters in the bumbling policemen, who became one of the most interesting interpretations of Shakespeare’s three witches. But what was most interesting about the film was the resurfacing and reinterpretation of characters that are becoming increasingly rare in the changing universe of Hindi cinema.

In its early years, Hindi cinema always had stock characters such as the village bumpkin or the cruel landlord, whom the audiences readily recognised from existing stories and the theatre they were used to. Over the years, the characters changed, in tune with changing social concerns.

But the side roles were not the only ones to be transformed or disappear; the leads moved with the times, too. In the 1950s, for instance, the urban and rural divide was a plot point for drama. It was the era of Nehruvian socialism, and the realism of cinema was meant to reflect the concerns of the period. It was also the age of the migrant hero who came into the city in search of opportunities. With a firm value system, he underwent a journey towards discovery and change. The working-class migrant hero emerged as the hero.

Raj Kapoor was one such working class hero, often representing the puzzle that modernity and the big city posed in the years after Independence, in films such as Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955). The orphan, struggling to find the limited opportunities available to a working-class man, was Everyman.

From the margins: Raj Kapoor, in Shree 420, played the village lad bewildered by the big city.   -  The Hindu


Cinema reflected the flux in society. It told the story of Shankar, played by Dilip Kumar in Naya Daur (1957), a tonga-wallah whose life was affected when the first bus started in the village. He represented a class threatened by the advent of the vehicles of modern development. Shambhu Mahato in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) represented the core exploitation that still exists in the villages. To repay his debt to the landlord, Shambhu had to sell everything he owned and move to the city for work. Caste was the focus in Nutan’s character in Roy’s 1959 film Sujata. Born into a Dalit family and adopted by a Brahmin engineer and his wife, Sujata was never quite accepted in the family or the society she was brought up in.

The Nutan-starrer was not the first film where lower caste proved a hurdle in the path of love. Achhut Kanya (1936), produced by Himanshu Rai and directed by Franz Osten, had Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar as lovers who could not transgress the deep lines drawn between them by their caste. Caste resurfaced as an important concern in the parallel cinema movement, in Shyam Benegal’s Ankur (1974), Nishant (1975). and later Manthan (1976). Sadgati (1981), a Satyajit Ray film based on a story by Premchand, was a scathing comment on the caste system.

In the progressing years the working-class hero continued with his central role — and got angrier with the unfairness of the times. Amitabh Bachchan as the protesting hero transgressed his class destiny by turning from a dockworker into a smuggler in Deewaar (1975), leading to a decade of the most iconic characters showing their defiant fists to the system. Like Vijay in Deewaar, Iqbal from Coolie (1985) was a hero of the people. As the orphan hero in the 1978 film Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, Bachchan dared to be in love with his childhood friend. He transcended the class he was born in, but was not acceptable to the wealthy family where he had once worked as hired help.

Comic relief

While the character of the hero morphed over time, what also changed was the role of the side character. Hindi cinema relied on disparate characters to tell its stories of love and hatred and of hope and despair. The stock characters who played a pivotal role in Hindi cinema included the vamp — or, occasionally, the tawaif (courtesan) — with a golden heart, the scheming uncle, the leech-like village moneylender, the man who wallowed in unrequited love, the sacrificing mother and, of course, the comic sidekick.

Some of the roles were appropriated by the main characters. A film no longer needed Helen to do a sizzling dance, not when the heroines could shake an equally deft — and shapely — leg. The hero’s comic friend — though still present in some films such as the Munnabhai series — was not as essential to the plot as he once was, when Rajendra Nath, Keshto Mukherjee and Johnny Walker ruled.

Johhny Walker


Badruddin Khan Jamaluddin Kazi, legend has it, entertained a film crew with his routine drunken act, which led to him getting a role in a film. It was an act that was incorporated in many films as Johnny Walker — the name given to Kazi by Guru Dutt when he cast him in Baazi (1951). The drunken comedian was from a lower middle class, and his role was to interrupt and intervene during the more serious scenes with comic relief and laughter. For decades, the drunk was a stereotype required as a side character aiding the hero. He was also a man of the street often found lurking in roadside bars, but his humour cut through class sensibilities. Johnny Walker was the quintessential comedian — often drunk, but always the hero’s loyal friend, in films such as CID (1956), Pyaasa (1957) and 12 O’Clock (1958).

High on mirth: Keshto Mukherjee often played characters who lightened the serious scenes with laughter


The comedian was a constant presence in Hindi films, until the heroes became adept at comedy and one-liners. The drunken street-side loafer took a new turn with Amitabh Bachchan in Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), making way for yet another stereotypical figure in Indian cinema, the streetside rebel or the tapori. The tapori was a modern variant of the vagabond of the ‘50s. The tapori’s life was on the streets of Mumbai, and he was full of humour. The street rebel spoke a language of the street — a mixture of Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati and everything that came to be classified as Bambaiya.

Word on the street: Aamir Khan, in his memorable tapori or vagabond act, and Rani Mukerji in Ghulam


One of the most interesting representations was by Aamir Khan in Rangeela (1995) and, later, again in Ghulam (1998). Munna in Rangeela was a black marketer, the street was his home. He was constantly undermining upper-class egos with his own pride of existence. “It is better to live in the streets than as a slave to some wealthy bugger,” he said. Munna was flamboyant, charming and honest, and, to date, remains one of the most interesting working-class street heroes in Indian cinema. But the tapori is no longer a street rebel challenging the staid reality of middle-class lives. Instead, he has been subsumed within the canvas of the ever-proliferating gangster films.

The non-hero

Along with the angry hero, in the cinema from the ’60s onwards, were narratives of large wealthy joint families. Families that were imagined with winding staircases and opulent furniture, complete with the existence of the old family retainer. Often called Ramu Kaka, this was a genial old man, frail but the stable figure holding the family together. In Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Mili (1975), Gopi was the only constant in Shekhar’s life, the only person who responded and reacted to his temper. They shifted from house to house as a tormented Shekhar — played by Bachchan — tried to make peace with his past. Gopi fixed drinks for him, even reprimanding him for his inability to come to terms with his family’s failings, but remained loyal, a man without any other interest or life beyond that of his master.

High on mirth: Rajendra Nath often played characters who lightened the serious scenes with laughter


In Anubhav (1971), AK Hangal’s character Hari made the most reflective comment on the working hours of his master, newspaper editor Sanjeev Kumar, even while tending to him. He was also the only one who tried to understand Tanuja, the editor’s wife. The loyal retainer was a fixture in the stories that were about upper class characters.

The quintessential squabbling Indian family, ironically living in a house called Shanti Niwas, was wonderfully portrayed in Bawarchi (1972). The family had many problems — which were resolved, one at a time, when Rajesh Khanna appeared as Raghu, the new cook.

The times have changed. There is little space — realistically, as well as figuratively — for large rambling homes and a selfless employee bound by the feudal codes of subservience. The silent heroism of the loyal worker has been replaced by the young and restless lower middle-class youth who is willing to unchain his moral shackles to trespass class — and caste — lines.

The problem of caste and class was stunningly underlined in Sairat (2016). Director Nagraj Manjule’s earlier film Fandry (2013) was also about a Dalit boy’s infatuation with an upper caste girl. Another film that looked at love across caste lines was Masaan (2015). Sections of Indian cinema have been zeroing in on the sharpening social divides and finding new characters who represent heroism.

Rupleena Bose teaches English literature at Delhi University

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Published on September 21, 2018
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