Some of the most popular films we see tell the story of protagonists who overcome certain hurdles thrown at them by one or more antagonists to reach a point of stability in life. However, there are certain films, which by default remain underrated, where the protagonists don’t display the typical qualities that we associate with them, namely heroism, empathy, kindness or goodness. In another person’s story, these protagonists might as well be a villain, but since we follow their stories, they are the anti-heroes.
Hollywood has its fair share of anti-hero films and characters. A Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, a Walter White in Breaking Bad. Someone like Michael Corleone, for that matter, can also be considered an anti-hero. Even though his motives can be seen as heroic, his actions don’t. A recent example of an anti-hero can be Jake Gyllenhaal’s Nightcrawler or Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker.
In Hindi cinema, where the hero is often worshipped, anti-hero films are rare. However, there are several underrated gems through which explore the psyche of a protagonist full of faults and a corrupt moral compass. From gangsters to master manipulators, we will find several anti-heroes here.
Probably one of the first examples to come to your mind when you think of anti-hero films, Satya had not one but two strong anti-hero leads. First was JD Chakravarty’s Satya, a migrant who gets mixed up in the underworld after gaining the trust of our second anti-hero lead, a seasoned gangster Bhiku Mhatre played by Manoj Bajpayee. An extremely layered and realistic portrayal of gang-wars, political rivalry and everything in between, Satya was undoubtedly the best film director Ram Gopal Verma ever made.
Govind Nihalani’s 1980 ‘arthouse’ film starring Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Amrish Puri among others, Aakrosh is the story of a man accused of strangling his wife to death. A fresh graduate takes the case and fights against his mentor, the public prosecutor in the gripping court drama. However, as the film progresses we find out about the corrupt and oppressive State machinery which is unkind to the vulnerable, especially the Scheduled Castes and Tribes in India. To explain why our silent protagonist is anti-hero, we will have to spoil the extremely shocking ending. Aakrosh is an important film that everyone who appreciates cinema should watch at least once in their lives.
This 1943 Bombay Talkies film starring Ashok Kumar and directed by Gyan Mukerjee was one of the very first times Hindi cinema grappled with an anti-hero. It was also a commercial success of the time. A film about several stories intertwining due to Kismet or fate, it had Kumar’s Shekhar, a seasoned thief who has already served three jail sentences. Even when our protagonist arcs towards redemption due to the circumstances, he never steps away from crime. The heroine in the film, Rani (Mumtaz Shanti) is also an anti-hero for that time, she is a dancer who supports her sister who is pregnant out of wed-lock.
One of the more recent films, Badla stars Taapsee Pannu as a liar and master-manipulator, who unflinchingly covers up the crimes she commits. Not once does her character Naina conform to what a typical Bollywood heroine should be. Yes it can be argued that Amitabh Bachchan’s character is also an anti-hero, and so is the one played by Amrita Singh. However, at the heart of this spine-chilling thriller is the fact that it is Naina’s story. The film wouldn’t have been as interesting if her character was any different.
One of Vishal Bharadwaj’s finest, Maqbool was the first film in the filmmaker’s Shakespearan trilogy, also consisting of Omkara and Haider. Maqbool, an Indianised and modernised version of Macbeth, saw Irrfan Khan as a haunting anti-hero. Maqbool, overpowered by his love for Nimmi (Tabu) and desire for power, murders his mentor Abba Ji (Pankaj Kapoor) in cold blood. However, the lovers do not enjoy their new-found freedom and are quite literally haunted by their sins. In a way, Tabu’s Nimmi, too is an anti-hero in the film. Irrfan Khan in Maqbool set the stage for Ajay Devgn in Omkara and Shahid Kapoor in Haider to play unabashedly flawed characters. Maqbool also boasts of a talented ensemble cast, complete with Naseerudiin Shah and late Om Puri.