It was the dawn of the new millennium when Hrithik Roshan made his acting debut in Bollywood. Directed by his father Rakesh Roshan, Kaho Naa… Pyaar Hai (2000) — a sweeping romantic saga — saw Roshan Jr. in a riveting double role, playing the down-on-his-luck musician Rohit in the first half, and the cool, suave Raj in the second. Sonia (Ameesha Patel), who has just moved to New Zealand, is waiting at a signal when a motorcycle pulls to a stop next to her car. When she looks over, she sees Raj, a perfect look-alike of her deceased lover. But this version of him is coolness personified: He wears a black leather jacket, has slicked-back hair and seems to be chewing gum, a pair of rimless glasses resting on his regal nose. An easy insouciance radiates off him. When the light turns green, he speeds off into the distance. What remains is the bike-riding, sophisticated hero — etched in the public memory, soon to be revived in the actor’s future projects.
Roshan embodied one of Bollywood’s first superheroes with the Krrish franchise, in which a young man has a chance encounter with an extraterrestrial being called Jadoo, causing his son to exhibit supernatural powers. In the opening of Krrish (2006), we see Krishna (Roshan) racing a horse. There are close-ups of his sinewy arms, bare chest and broad back as he cuts his way through the air. But the film simultaneously chooses to focus on his forest-green eyes, his face set in an expression of determination, his long hair billowing behind him. In the climax of Krrish 3 (2013), Krrish is killed by the villainous Kaal (Vivek Oberoi) and brought back to life by his father’s sacrifice. As he flies above the crowd and strikes a fatal blow to Kaal, the focus is once again on his eyes, glistening with tears and reddened by the fury of losing his father. There is a vulnerability to Hrithik Roshan’s action, an earnest tenderness that distinguishes him in the testosterone-soaked action landscape. Where the focus in most action films tends to be on the hero’s physical strength and feats of daring, such as Ajay Degvn ripping off a lamp-post in Singham (2011), or Salman Khan leaping off a bike and latching on to a flying plane in Ek Tha Tiger (2012), a glimpse into his emotional turmoil is refreshing.
Roshan’s action heroes sport a kind of a bravado that rarely feels narcissistic, often graciously extending limelight to the women cast as his love interests. The same year as Krrish, he played Mr. A, a thief with an international imprint in the second instalment of Yash Raj Films’ Dhoom franchise. Roshan famously whisked the audience’s attention away from the film’s protagonists, ACP Jai Dixit (Abhishek Bachchan) and Ali (Uday Chopra). Along with glossy action sequences on top of a train (where, iconically, he disguises himself as Queen Elizabeth) and bike chases galore, A’s sizzling romance with Sunheri (Aishwarya Rai) — his partner-in-crime and a competent thief in her own right — is given equal space within the narrative. A’s love for Sunheri becomes both his undoing and his eventual salvation, but her purpose is not solely that of his redemption. She has ample screen-time, and an arc that exists without him necessarily in the frame.
Similarly, Bang Bang! (2014) feels as much like Katrina Kaif’s film that it does Roshan’s. In the film, Kaif plays an introverted bank receptionist who is swept up in the thrilling life of a spy. The two of them frolic on tropical beaches and zip through the streets of Prague, always trying to stay one step ahead of their adversaries. Deepika Padukona’s Minni in Fighter also shows exciting promise as an airforce officer who stands shoulder-to-shoulder with Roshan’s character, going by the promotional material of the film so far. Contrast this with the Tiger franchise and Pathaan (2023) of YRF’s Spy-Verse: They feature women in the roles of badass spies — but, at the end of the day, these action films are still in service of a traditionally male format, with the hero taking on the bulk of the action and screen-time.
There is a beauty and grace to Hrithik Roshan’s action. His Greek god persona lends to his avatar as an action hero, and his experience as a dancer adds a lithe fluidity to his movements. This is particularly obvious in the actor’s collaborations with director Siddharth Anand, from Bang Bang! to War (2019), whose action sequences are sleek and aesthetically pleasing. Typically shot in stunning international locales (such as War’s pivotal bike chase in Portugal), Anand communicates the urgency and thrill of his action with quick cuts and dynamic camera perspectives. The fights themselves are slick, stylised and executed with knife-like accuracy. Roshan naturally exudes a smooth, urbane charm in his roles in these films, whether it is a rogue intelligence agent or a dashing airforce officer. The confrontation at the end of the song “Tu Meri” from Bang Bang! sees a group of thugs chase Rajveer (Roshan) out of the restaurant in which he’s just met Harleen (Kaif). He fights them off with the same effortlessly choreographed precision with which he danced a few minutes earlier. He jumps high in the air, both his legs stretched in a perfect split, kicking two bad guys in the head. Roshan is sexy and stylish in a way that few Bollywood action heroes are, his characters framed as desirable for both the audience and other characters within the film.
Roshan’s entry in War, a film whose homoerotic undertones have sparked much conversation, is captured entirely through the ogling of his protégé/nemesis (Tiger Shroff): Roshan’s Kabir steps out of a helicopter and approaches his waiting team, biceps threatening to burst out of his T-shirt, his skin tanned golden from the sun — all while Shroff’s character stares at him with an inscrutably charged look on his face. Roshan’s aesthetic holds a unique allure in an action space whose target demographic is presumably straight men, many of whom routinely wax eloquent in YouTube comments about how they cannot keep their eyes off the actor. Contrasted with the discourse around actors like Shah Rukh Khan and Ranveer Singh (both have dipped their toes in the masala action genre, with Simmba (2018) and Pathaan) whose beauty and charm is believed to cater predominantly to the female gaze, Hrithik Roshan’s rugged masculinity appears to invite attraction, aspiration, as well as a curious mix of the two.
There is a sense of purpose to Hrithik Roshan’s action, rather than being mindlessly gratuitous violence for the sake of it. In Kaabil (2017), his character Rohan is a blind man avenging the assault and murder of his wife. He taps into his other senses and intuition to take down the goons, and, in the climax, punishes the antagonist with an intensity befitting his rage. As he points the gun at the villain’s head, Rohan swears to deal a death as painful as the one his wife had to experience. In Vikram Vedha (2022), which is based on the 2017 Tamil film of the same name, Roshan is Vedha, a deadly, deranged gangster on the run from the police — forced into a life of crime by circumstance, and cognisant of the nuances of good and evil. Ruthless and cocky with a streak of mania, Vedha also possesses a roguish charm, jumping in at the end of the film to fight alongside his longtime sparring partner-turned reluctant ally Vikram (Saif Ali Khan).
The role of the action hero is one that comes instinctively to Hrithik Roshan; in fact, the actor has been vocal about his long standing affinity for the genre. Over the years, Roshan has put his own spin on the archetype, from the bright-eyed idealism of Krrish to the determined composure of Kabir. With his upcoming role in Fighter, it is clear that the actor has carved a niche for himself within the genre, bringing to the table a practised ease, his characteristic charm and singular appeal as a modern action hero.