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Guns, muscles and song?
Hrithik Roshan makes such an attractive terrorist in Fiza, it makes you wonder when the image of evil shifted from the mad Mogambo of Mr India wanting to take over the world, to this achingly handsome young man flexing his glowing muscles for teenaged girls to ooh over.
Terrorism had been around in Assam, Kashmir and Punjab for a few years before it occurred to mainstream filmmakers that here was a situation -- plus a new kind of villain -- ready to be tapped.
Nothing stirs the masses more than a bit of jingoism.
Filmmakers had had their fill of evil zamindars and dacoits, capitalist-pig mill owners and real estate sharks, suave villains with an agenda no more sinister than kidnapping the heroine and marrying her, thugs, rapists, conmen and thieves.
Then, Ajit and his gold-smuggling gangs came in, followed by gangsters and hitmen in cahoots with politicians and corrupt cops, who are still in business.
Dawned the idea of putting the country in real or imaginary danger. And ridiculous films like Tehelka and Tirangaa having peculiar characters with names like Dong and Dang that caught the audiences' fancy.
With commercial cinema's tendency to glamorise and turn larger than life, it wasn't long before Sanjay Dutt was playing a terrorist in Subash Ghai's Khalnayak. He didn't need to have a cause or an ideology. He just had to look mean and menacing, and shoot straight.
It was Mani Ratnam's Roja that looked the problem of terrorism in the eye, and wove it into an engrossing story -- songs et al -- about the travails of a simple village girl whose husband is kidnapped by militants in Kashmir.
The leader of the gang, played with intelligence and humour by Pankaj Kapur, is an educated man with a mission who argues rationally with his hostage.
If this was the face of evil as opposed to a singing-dancing muscular hunk, it was a frightening one.
Strangely, the off-mainstream Drohkaal by Govind Nihalani also had a bespectacled, intellectual terrorist played with chilling intensity by Ashish Vidyarthi, who manipulates the lives of top cops from his prison cell -- a man who inspires fear and admiration in equal proportion.
As the B-grade Mithun Chakraborty kind of cinema also latched on to the terrorism-patriotism formula, one thing remained clear -- the terrorist was the villain who had to be destroyed by the hero to save the country.
Gulzar's Maachis confused the issue somewhat, by portraying the terrorist as one of us. The boy, played by Chandrachur Singh, who picks up the gun to avenge a wrong done to him by the system, could be any ordinary young man pushed against the wall.
In a disturbed, vulnerable state of mind, he could be easily brainwashed by the logical reasoning of a leader like Om Puri (a similar situation in Fiza with Hrithik and Manoj Bajpai, but not quite so credible).
But Gulzar then moves to the other side and looks at the 'system', represented by a nice, family man like Kanwaljeet, who is working against desperate odds in a very hostile environment. He realises excesses have been committed, but when a state is burning, what else is the solution?
And so when Chandrachur kills the top cop who instigated the death of his friend, it is in the mundane surroundings of a vegetable market.
What parallel cinema does, commercial cinema is quick to copy.
In Diljale, Ajay Devgan plays a terrorist who has been victimised by the system, but his fight is conducted from a lavish set, with a female terrorist doing seductive song-and-dance numbers.
In a more recent Raj Kanwar film, the eponymous hero Badal (Bobby Deol) is really a character out of Maachis, placed in a mainstream setup, where along with the usual naach-gaana, he goes after personal vendetta: to kill the cop responsible for slaughtering his family.
The director seems to sympathise with him, by making the cop (Ashutosh Rana) a caricature monster and justifying Badal's militant activities.
The humanisation of the terrorist was attempted by Mani Ratnam in Dil Se and Santosh Sivan in The Terrorist.
Both told essentially the same story -- the former on a multi-crore scale, the latter on a shoestring budget. The heroines of Dil Se (Manisha Koirala) and The Terrorist (Ayesha Dharker), are young women who have joined militant groups believing that they will be able to get justice for their brutalised people.
However, these two films also took a simplistic stand: sympathising with the terrorist and holding a callous establishment responsible for their plight.
While the heroes of Hindustan Ki Kasam and Kohraam routinely battled desh drohis, John Matthew Mathan's Sarfarosh used all the elements of popular cinema to tell a hard-hitting story from the point of view of an honest cop.
It also named Pakistan's ISI as the instigator of terrorism in India. No pseudo-liberal waffle about the fury of the oppressed.
Interestingly, the chief of the gun-running operations is a ghazal singer (Naseeruddin Shah), loved and respected in both countries.
Pukar, with a dedicated armyman as hero (Anil Kapoor), also played the patriotism card. But it turned the villain Abroosh (Danny Dengzonpa) into a growling and grimacing, totally outlandish creature.
This is the clear black-and-white world Hindi commercial cinema and audiences are most comfortable with.
No strain on the brain.
Give them Fiza with a teen heartthrob -- Hrithik Roshan -- playing a terrorist and they stone cinemas in some Punjab towns, because there isn't enough of him in the film.
And they come out complaining that he had to die in the end.
Finally, what it comes down to is that the audience doesn't care if the terrorist is good or bad -- as long as he looks good and dances well.
Reality? What's that?
Deepa Gahlot is a well-known film critic
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