The rise and fall of cult heroes

This article was originally published in Dawn, Tuesday Review, October 24-30, 1995. It was the first in a series that was introduced with the headline, “Celebrating the 100 years of cinema, Tuesday Review starts a five-part series beginning with this article on the cinematic heroes of the subcontinent.” Other articles in the series were ‘The importance of being Eve’, ‘Sold for a song’, ‘The director’s cut’ and ‘The hunt for success’.

Since then, my views have evolved much. Most importantly, I do not think that the work of Waheed Murad had anything to do with escapism, and also, I now believe that he does not fit into any of the three prototypes described by the Indian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar (in this article, I tried to place Waheed within those categories). For my latest views, see my book Waheed Murad: His Life and Our Times, or check my articles and posts written about him after 2007.

In the span of its history, the Indo-Pakistani cinema has seen the rise of such screen figures as K. L. Segal, Dilip Kumar, Waheed Murad and Amitabh Bachchan. The popularity of Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachan has remained evident on both sides of the border. The range of enthusiastic fans is one evidence. Another is the number of clones they have spawned.

To mention a few imitators of Dilip Kumar in Pakistan: Santosh Kumar, Nadeem and Hanif. The foremost imitator of Amitabh Bachan was Izhar Qazi. Waheed Murad had the disadvantage of a cinema that sought to cover a limited market. In spite of this the neighbouring country could not remain blind to his charms and he had an ardent imitator in the superstar Jeetendra. Indeed the cult heroes have been setting the trends for films in their own times in both the countries. The question is, why do some screen figures rise so high above their peers? How do they succeed in capturing the fancy of their audience to such a degree that the audience is not just willing to crown the heroes with laurels but is also ready to accept anyone who imitates them? Film critics agree that there is more than just the quality of acting involved in the making of a cult figure.

Various theories have been forwarded to explain the phenomena. I will here discuss only two of them because I think these two explain each other.

The first theory is propounded by Sudhir Kakar, an eminent Indian psychoanalyst, in his book The Intimate Relations. Kakar draws attention to the psycho-social roots of the audience themselves. He mentions three prototypes in the South Asian culture. The first is Lord Krishna. In mythology he is presented as a naughty youth who would hide away the clothes of young gopis while they take a bath in the river. This prototype appears in the Indian cinema in characters usually played by Dev Anand and Shammi Kapoor in the 50s and the 60s. In a typical Shammi Kapoor film, for instance, the heroine first appears as an extrovert character confronting the hero without many hang ups, as she is unaware of her own sexuality. In the course of their conflict the hero not only asserts the proof of his own manhood but also arouses the sexuality of the young virgin who subsequently sinks into modesty. The psycho-social theory of cult figures shows this pattern as inherent in the stories of the land, and therefore appealing to the Indian psyche.

A divergence from this prototype is the introvert lover epitomised for the cine-goers of the 50s by Dilip Kumar in Devdas and Guru Dutt in Piyaasa. Indeed we can add the name of Waheed Murad in this list. This is a character who leaves the action of the world to look inside. Unrequitted or lost love is the cause of his anguish. The prototype of this figure can be found in the legendary hero of the age-old tale of Laila Majnun. The story originated in Arabia, and reached the Indo-Pakistan through Persian sources. Certainly it has taken roots here as a popular folk tale (Incidentally both India and Pakistan have filmed it. One of the Pakistani versions featured Waheed Murad as Majnun.)

The third type of hero appeared in the screen image of Amitabh Bachan. To him, amorous love is secondary as compared to his armed struggle against the decadent order of the society, and he doesn’t always find himself on the right side of the law. A prototype of this figure might be found in the classical Hindu legend of Mahabharata. There we have Karna, who was deserted by his mother soon after his birth. As a grown up he goes to the battlefield of Mahabharata, to raise arms against his own brothers. As his mother approaches him to stop, he lets her down, saying that she did not support him when he needed her most, how could she expect him to obey her now? Of course, the deprived childhood of Karna, his warlike disposition and his final reply all remind us of the best of Amitabh Bachan films, such as Deewar (1975), and Shakti 1982). 

According to the psycho-sociological theory, all these prototypes remain alive in the collective unconscious of the people and thereby instigate them to approve of such screen figures who come to represent any of these. Also, it must be noted that a cultural prototype can find a rise in a particular period and then face a decline but never completely die away. Hence, while we have the Karna-type Amitabh in Sholay (1975) taking the front seat. There still is the Krishna-type Dharmendra in the tandem. And so we see that the prototype has remained there only the emphasis has changed with time. Here lies the rub. Is there something beyond the collective unconscious of the people that dictates what prototype should receive emphasis at a given period in the history of a people?

The second theory which I wish to discuss in this article, is an answer to this question. It states that the social or political conditions of a people may dictate their preference for a particular cult hero. The exponents of this theory have picked up as particular examples, three cult figures from the Indo-Pakistani cinema: Dilip Kumar, Waheed Murad and Amitabh Bachan.

Dilip Kumar rose to unparalleled heights of popularity soon after independence, in a society that was ready to welcome change but also wanted to retain something of the old order. Through melodramatic films like Aan (1952), (and even Devdas, to an extent), Dilip represented the spirit of change and liberty along with the right degree of sadism and snobbery that was the legacy of the feudal social order. (His portrayal of Devdas seems passive and mellow, but he still appears far more high-handed than the 1935 version of K. L. Saigal).

Likewise, the rise of Waheed Murad in the Pakistan society can be seen in the perspective of military dictatorship within the country and a general trend of permissiveness that marked the 60s all over the world. The younger generation in Pakistan, brought up under a non-political and pseudo-democratic order of life was all set to turn away its attention in other directions that the economic and political issue of the society. It was therefore prepared to find abode in the unreal but pleasant pastures of fantasy. The release of Armaan (1966) was the grand explosion of Waheed Murad syndrome clearing the ground for films that could take escapism to its most delightful heights.

The most successful of Waheed Murad films, such as Armaan, Andaleeb (1969), Anjuman (1970), etc., bypass the economic issue as they place the hero in a stable position in society. A natural debanaire, Waheed was ideally suited for such roles. At the slightest sign of trouble he would throw himself away into fits of melancholy and bouts of alcoholism — the ultimate dream of an escapist! While the hero thus lies dormant, licking his wounds, it remains for the female staff to clear up the mess. Not surprisingly, some of the strongest female characters of our cinema appear in such films as Armaan and Andaleeb. 

Little need to be said about the socio-political background of the 70’s and the 80’s, which witnessed the rise of Amitabh Bachan as incarnation of the Karna prototype. The shortcoming of law and the weakness of those responsible to enforce it had become more evident than ever before. Also, there was an increased awareness that the expectations people had made about independence had not come true even after nearly three decades later. And yet those expectations had not been given up entirely. This tension worked up a frustration that could find expression in the person of Amitabh Bachan.

It comes out from any careful study that the cult figures of the Indo-Pakistani cinema have roots in cultural patterns of society. Various social and political conditions dictate the shift of people’s emphasis from one prototype (and the cinematic hero representing it) to another. This may partially explain why the regional films still hold attraction to the people in spite of all their shortcomings and even in the face of the Urdu-Hindi versions of the technologically superior foreign films.

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