In the year of the lord 2023, Sunny Deol, who turned 66 this October, returned to Indian cinemas with Gadar 2 and grabbed the spotlight like it’s a hand pump in Pakistan, thus making a thundering comeback as an action hero. Deol wasn’t the only Bollywood elder to set the audiences’ hearts on fire. As far as mainstream Hindi cinema is concerned, this year is all about the Angry Old(er) Man, but while the likes of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan make an effort to impress upon audiences that age hasn’t taken away their muscular bodily charms, Deol simply roared his way back into audiences’ hearts.
Among action heroes, Deol may have once been known as the “Indian Rambo”, but he has always been known more for his dialogues than his body. The actor has delivered some of Hindi cinema’s most beloved mic-drop lines, particularly in the Nineties when he first became a star. From “Pinjre me aakar sher bhi kutta ban jaata hai (in a prison, even a lion turns into a dog)” to the “dhai kilo ka haath (the hand that weighs two and a half kilos)” that seems to blur the line between Deol’s on and off-screen personas, the hero Deol is known for is a man of action, who is also a man of words. Not bad for an actor who has cheerfully admitted to not having read a single script that has come to him, let alone a book (he has dyslexia). This feat also points to how good a dubbing artist Deol is, which is perhaps the only subtle element in his performances. His range of facial expressions may be limited to two and a half — stoic, furious, and slightly cross-eyed in an attempt to suggest romance — but Deol’s dialogue delivery is distinctive and powerful when the lines are well-written. Just listen to him as Govind the lawyer in Damini (1993), who enters the film in its last chapter and turns an extended cameo into a hero because of Deol’s incandescent performance.
While most of his peers began as romantic heroes and turned to action when they aged, Deol isn’t known for ever having displayed a softer side on screen. This is despite him making his debut in Betaab (1993), an out and out romance. In sharp contrast to his later roles, Sunny in Betaab is a man who’s trying to seduce his audience. In his second scene, Deol is stripped down to his briefs and the camera positively ogles at the rippling muscles of his bare back. Later in the film, he slips a kiss on co-star Amrita Singh’s lips, and in one scene, a moody Deol’s modesty is preserved by a pink scarf and a guitar.
The film was a hit and even now, if you’re driving around Pahalgam in Kashmir as a tourist, you’ll be pointed towards Betaab Valley because parts of the film were shot there.
However, Deol sidelined romance and pivoted towards action very early in his career, embodying a machismo that resonated with many because he played men who seemed unvarnished, unapologetic about their lack of grace, and relatable. Often, they came from small towns rather than big metros, which helped establish Deol as a hero among audiences of tier-two cities in north India. And they were strong. Whether as the boxer in Ghayal (1990), or the wrestler-turned-killing-machine in Ghatak (1996), or the superhero truck driver of the Gadar series, Deol has always embodied strength. In itself, this isn’t unusual. Strength has long been an assumed physical attribute of heroes, but in the course of his career, Deol has transformed from embodying a standard to becoming a counterpoint — mostly by refusing to change himself.
In the Nineties, Deol belonged to the set of gym-bro heroes who were known to be serious about their physical fitness. Along with actors like Sanjay Dutt and Akshay Kumar, Deol was very much the embodiment of the muscular hero whose masculinity could barely be contained by the ganji he wore. There’s a rigidity to this generation’s notion of manliness and it emphasised the need to conform to fixed formulae. Much of what we understand today as toxic masculinity — manifesting a hardness that is seen as impregnable; expressing only certain emotions like pride and anger, because other emotions are considered signs of weakness; being aggressive; valorising violence; dominating women with performances of protective behaviour — was reflected in the Nineties’ hero’s antics. The success of films like Kabir Singh (2019) suggests it's a stereotype that remains popular among Indian audiences even today.
Ideals of masculinity expanded slightly in the late Nineties, allowing men to cry tears of sadness rather than only those of rage, and the aesthetics changed sharply around 2000, with actors like Hrithik Roshan, Salman Khan and John Abraham introducing to Bollywood a more sculpted (and hairless) torso that emphasised a Western-inspired smoothness (literally and figuratively). By the mid-2000s, the cult of the six pack had arrived and two decades later, a gym-sculpted body with defined musculature has become a basic requirement for an actor. If these bodies often look unnatural and almost like something out of a comic book, there is plenty of gossip about how they’re created.
Earlier this year at a press conference for his film Kisi Ka Bhai Kisi Ki Jaan (2023), Salman Khan tackled rumours about his muscled torso being the work of visual effects artists by unbuttoning his shirt, revealing the slabs that are his pectorals, and saying, “VFX nahi, asli hai (they’re real, not VFX.)” Ever since a video was leaked (and quickly deleted) that suggested the musculature in at least one shirtless scene in Ek Tha Tiger (2012) was the result of computer-generated imagery, rather than hours at the gym, Salman Khan has been the subject of such speculation. That he feels the need to address these rumours is an indication of how much of a pressure actors feel to subscribe to the ideals they themselves have created. Festooned across social media are workout videos that hope to convince viewers that the sculpted bodies on display are real. Countering those are other videos that enlighten viewers about how much details like lighting, time of day and sucking in one’s stomach can do to create an illusion of fitness.
Having witnessed Deol’s unfortunate toupée period, we know that the actor isn’t immune to self-image issues and public opinion, but when it comes to his physical body, Deol has determinedly remained in his own lane. There are no scenes of Tara Singh tearing his kurta in Gadar 2. (In fact, with his turban, beard, shawl and kurta-pyjama, he’s positively swaddled in fabric and body hair.) Consider as a contrast Jawan (2023), in which the camera practically swoons over Shah Rukh Khan’s gleaming muscles. No such thing in Gadar 2. Neither are there elaborately choreographed spectacles, made glossy and fantastic by sophisticated visual effects. Instead, Deol in Gadar 2 is the action hero who does his own stunts and pulls off ridiculous action sequences that feel almost nostalgic because of how analogue they are. Particularly as Vikram Rathore, Shah Rukh Khan puts on a display of muscularity that is laced with a subtext of desire and sensuality, weaving seduction into its performance of alpha male power. With Deol, there’s little by way of subtext, but there is an understated defiance in his insistence upon being an action hero without fulfilling the contemporary demands of that genre. He expands the idea of masculine strength and heroism to include the grumpy old man whose body is gently bulging rather than taut, unwittingly offering a counterpoint to the conventional standards of mainstream Hindi cinema today.
For more than 20 years, Deol has been an actor who has not changed and this constancy has proved to be both a stumbling block as well as an enviably sturdy foundation for fandom. Audiences know there will be no surprises from a film in which Deol is the hero — he’ll rage, he’ll fume, he’ll threaten civic infrastructure, and he’ll leave the men in the audience feeling a little more seen than they did when they walked into the cinema. For the time that he is on screen, Deol becomes the strength audiences want in themselves; a power that is rooted in rage and despair, rather than an upper-body workout.