In this week’s release, Gabbar Is Back, there is a line, “Naam villain ka, kaam hero ka,” which is as big a tribute as any to the most memorable villain of Hindi cinema; nearly forty years after the original Gabbar Singh gave millions of viewers the creeps, a film hero goes by the villain’s name.
Interestingly, the film is a remake of the Tamil film Ramana (by AR Murgadoss), which was remade in other languages with titles like Tagore, Vishnu Sena and Tiger. In the Hindi version, the anti-corruption vigilante protagonist goes by the name that is associated with that of a villain.
Anyone who has not seen (or at least heard of) Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay (1975) would have been living under a rock for 40 years— the film’s dialogue (by Salim-Javed) has passed into common usage, and some of the best lines were written for Gabbar Singh, played by Amjad Khan. Sippy had offered the role to Danny Denzongpa, who turned it down, so a new actor (son of actor Jayant) was signed up and became a star.
Till then dacoits in Hindi films wore dhotis and lived in the Chambal ravines. Gabbar wore army fatigues with a bandolier, his teeth were tobacco stained, his eyes dripped amusement and evil in equal measure. He spoke with a peculiar lift and had a laugh that could make the blood freeze. He was the kind of sadist who would wipe out an entire family, including women and children, would chop off his enemy’s hands, shoot down his own men when they failed in their mission and make a woman dance on pieces of glass.
His hideout was the rock-strewn fictional Ramgarh village, he was given no back story and there was no explanation for his cruelty. No Indian film villain till then had been so gleefully, unapologetically vile. Amjad Khan’s Gabbar was inspired somewhat by Jabbar, played by Vinod Khanna in Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971), but so unique was Gabbar that when Amitabh Bachchan tried to get into his shoes in Ram Gopal Verma Ki Aag (2007), an ill-advised remake of Sholay, he failed to recreate the Gabbar effect.
Ironically, Gabbar Singh became the film’s most popular character— even today, his lines are repeated in a kind of ongoing homage: Kitne aadmi the; Ab tere kya hoga Kaliya; Arey O Samba; Bahut yaarana lagta hai; Joh darr gaya ... samjho marr gaya and the one that best defines Gabbar’s arrogance Yahan se pachas pachas kos door gaon mein, jab bachcha raat ko rota hai, to maa kehti hai bete so ja ... so ja nahi to Gabbar Singh aa jayega.
Can a hero ever beat that?