A popular motif in storytelling is that of the hero’s journey, a tale as old as humanity itself. The first known story is the epic of Gilgamesh, a Sumerian hero-king who ran around fighting demons and heavenly bulls in his pursuit of immortality. The Ramayana, the Mahabharata, the Avengers, every single SRK film — all classic examples of one faction creating problems for another to solve.
The hero’s journey is the most exhausted archetype in Indian film. He is mirrored by the antagonists, or villains. The latter’s role is to motivate their nemesis by nefarious means — broken hearts, broken bones, broken laws — compelling the hero to go a quest filled with adventure and item numbers. The journey ends at the climax, when the hero faces the villain in an all-out battle and, inevitably, prevails.
The upcoming movie, War, follows the same pattern: Two men, Kabir (Hrithik Roshan) and Khalid (Tiger Shroff) getting ready for a military showdown. Official sources claim that action cinema lovers will be treated to an array of “never-seen-before death-defying action stunts and jaw-dropping sequences that will keep you on the edge of your seats”. In light of this, I decided to look at some of the finest face-offs in Indian cinema.
Thakur vs. Gabbar Singh – Sholay (1975)
Inarguably the greatest villain Bollywood has produced, Gabbar Singh was based on a dacoit who dominated the Chambal Valley in the late ‘50s. Though the original died in a police shootout in 1959, his terrifying spectre haunts Amjad Khan’s performance in Sholay. Gabbar was a sadist: dismemberments, rapes, murders, no evil deeds escaped his passion. When Veeru (Dharmendra) and Basanti (Hema Malini) are captured by his gang, it is upto his best friend and Jai (Amitabh Bachchan) to save them. After a bullet-ridden battle — culminating in a dynamite detonation — Jai is killed, and Veeru is about to murder Gabbar in revenge. However, Thakur (Sanjeev Kumar) takes over, telling Veeru that Gabbar must be handed over alive (But not necessarily unharmed. He first takes sweet revenge on Gabbar’s hands with his spiked soles).
Sounds a bit tame, doesn’t it? Director Ramesh Sippy later confessed that the CBFC had pressured him to edit the ending because it was, they claimed, too violent for the Emergency era — Thakur crucifying Gabbar’s face on a nail jutting out of the same pillar where the former was unceremoniously amputated. Poetic justice was not served in the final cut!
Padayappa vs. Neelambari – Padayappa (1999)
Take the impact that Sholay had on Bollywood. Now square it, and you might begin to fathom the devastation wreaked upon Kollywood by Padayappa. Of course, the hero is the titular Padayappa (Rajinikanth). But the villain, Neelambari, is the majestic Ramya Krishnan. She is in love with Padayappa, but he scorns her modern spunk for a more womanly sort of woman. For eighteen years, she awaits the day she can exact her pound of flesh from his family.
When Padayappa discovers that his daughter is in love with Neelambari’s son, he drives them to the temple, countering rocket-launchers, flying cars and hostile truckers along the way. The temple wedding is gatecrashed by Neelambari, who is toting a goddamn machine gun, in stark contrast with Padayappa’s allegorical weapon: Shakti, the spear of Murugan.
Vijay vs. Ravi – Deewar (1975)
In Deewar, the “antagonist” is Vijay (Amitabh Bachhan), the older brother who must turn to the Underworld to take care of his family. Vijay has had enough of society and its rules, spurning even the love of his mother for money, mansions and Mercedes. His younger brother, Ravi (Shashi Kapoor), is a police officer who oscillates between blood and badge for the bulk of the movie, but eventually decides to do his duty — by tracking Vijay down and shooting him in the arm. Vijay manages to escape in a hijacked car, but Ravi attaches himself to the top, begging his brother to stop, until a collision shunts him off the roof.
The movie ends when Vijay reaches the Shiva temple he had refused to acknowledge his whole life. He finally dies, cradled in maternal forgiveness — Zindagi se ladte ladte thak gaya hoon, Ma. Mujhe neend aa rahi hai, Ma.
Deewar was remade in multiple languages, one of them being the Cantonese film, The Brothers (1979) whose fight sequences were a benchmark in the development of Hong Kong heroic films of the ‘80s and, through them that, Hollywood action of the ‘90s.
Surya, Supriya & Karate Mani vs. Jimmy – Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018)
MKDNH is beautiful, a meta-masterpiece that satirises the extravagant action scenes that many Indian films unironically depict. It is also unique in terms of climax as it has three main characters, Surya (Abhimanyu Dasani), Supriya (Radhika Madan), and Karate Mani (Gulshan Devaiah) facing off against Mani’s identical twin, Jimmy in a rigged match.
All of Jimmy’s fighters fall, one after the other, as do Supriya and Mani. Now Surya must takes down the strongest opponent, Samurai Baby Face (that’s the actual name of the character!) played by Prateek Parmar. Surya breaks the rules set by Jimmy, knocking out Samurai with Mani’s crutch and ending the round. Jimmy gets super-pissed off by this so he shoots Surya. There’s all sorts of ingenious references in both the film and its ending: Bruce Lee, the Bride, Rajnikanth, all homages are given their due.
Amarnath vs. Cabinet Ministry – Chakravyuha (1983)
Another angry young man story — in Chakravyuha, “Rebel Star” Ambareesh plays Amarnath, an honest police officer entrapped in a criminal organisation swarming with unscrupulous politicians. Once he becomes the Chief Minister he reveals his true intentions to his cabinet: that he only played along so he could get them in the same room together. He pulls out a machine gun and, Scarface-style, wipes them out (inexplicably in groups of four).
Chakravyuha was one of the biggest hits produced in ‘80s Sandalwood; it became one of the few Kannada films that have been remade into both Hindi (Inquilaab) and Tamil (Mukhyamantri).
India vs. The British Raj – Lagaan (2001)
What happens when a tax-unhappy Indian village threatens the British Empire with cricket? Oscar nominations, that’s what. Lagaan is director Ashutosh Gowariker’s pinnacle, a story about rural underdogs battling the evil colonisers in a “friendly” game of cricket. Bhuvan (Aamir Khan) accepts a wager offered by a British officer: if the village wins, there will be no taxes, if they lose they have to pay three times as much. Much of the movie’s charm comes during the training scenarios. The ending, though, what a nail-biter!
The first day of the match is filled with espionage and ineffective bowling; the second day sees the redemption of the Spy, the fall of British wickets, and the first few of the desired quota of runs; on the third day, Bhuvan’s sixer is caught on the boundary, nullifying the out and giving the village their victory. It is a marvellous finish, not only because we love our cricket so much, but because, at least in fiction, this was the first time we ever played the game.
Arun, Seema & The Kids vs. Mogambo – Mr. India (1987)
India’s first run at sci-fi was a grand slam in both commercial and critical spheres. In Shekhar Kapur’s Mr. India, Mogambo (Amrish Puri) is the best comic-book villain you can ask for: bleached hair, fabric throne, devout groupies; buffoonish until he commits the greatest crime of all — the mela-bombing that kills little orphan Tina. The bizarre finale is a mess of smoke and colour: Arun (Anil Kapoor) avoiding red lights while fighting off Mogambo’s minions, Seema (Sridevi) channeling Chaplin in her battles, and those innumerable kids carroming all over the place.
Anupam Kher may have been the first choice to play Mogambo, but only Amrish Puri could have accomplished that most immortal of catchphrases — Mogambo khush hua!
Baahubali vs. Bhallaladeva – Baahubali 2: The Conclusion (2017)
The Baahubali doublet is among the best Indian films ever made. The tale of Baahubali is centred on fraternal feuds, a tedious motif, but oh my god, the amplitude of imagination, the (mostly) luscious CGI; my need is dire for more! of this ilk.
Baahubali (Prabhas) and Bhallaladeva (Rana Daggubati) are uncle/nephew, both laying claim to the hyperrealistic sets of Mahishmati. After a series of mesmerising campaigns, Baahubali enters the palace grounds. The combat scenes are beautifully choreographed: Burning bridges, tumbling statues, bleeding Shivalingas — before Baahu takes on Bhalla with his fists of chained fury, stapling his uncle’s thigh to his own funeral pyre, at which point Baahubali’s mother, the unstoppable Devasena (Anushka Shetty), upends her flame-cap and burns that evil creature to a delicious crisp.
Duraisingam vs. Mayil – Singam (2010)
Singam is yet another film about cop justice, a threadbare trope that bafflingly still results in blockbusters. You may have heard of Singham-with-an-h, the Ajay Devgn masala flick. Well, Singam is the Tamil version where it all started. Duraisingam (Suriya) is a conscientious cop, one who thinks in two flavours — how to catch crooks, and how to overthrow the shady political structures that enable aforementioned crooks. His adversary is Mayil (Prakash Raj), a despotic mafioso who has Durai’s superiors in the greasy palm of his hand. The finale is a chain of rambling shots (floating helicopters, gulley duels, a village-by-the-sea) before it enters into the hero+villain tryst phase.
Durai, with an aura of anti-gravity that would make Rajnikanth proud, obliterates the machete-wielding Mayil with an expert blend of scissor kicks, ferocious criticism — there is a whole sermon that could have been summarised into “crime doesn’t pay” — and a single bullet.
Pooja Didi vs. Staircase – Hum Aapke Hai Koun..! (1994)
Being a slice-of-rich-people-life, HAHK does not have a face-off as such. But then again, face-offs need not be always between a hero and a villain. They can be an interaction between two abstract entities, as long as the interaction forces the characters to come to a resolution. In this film, the climax occurs when Pooja Didi (Renuka Shahane) falls down a staircase and dies (there are some hilarious memes of this scene). Only with her death do Prem (Salman Khan) and Nisha (Madhuri Dixit) come to face the fact that their love might not actually be recognised by their family. Everything works out in the end, though, because that sneaky little mutt, Tuffy, spills the beans. If only humans were as honest as dogs, right?