Writing a protagonist — a character who can carry the weight of a plot on their metaphorical shoulders — is challenging enough but writing a hero, particularly for mainstream movies, is infinitely more complicated. It's never as simple as a handsome face or a suitably bulked-up body (although those are often the features that get highlighted by fans). A hero must walk a tightrope between being relatable and feeling aspirational. He needs to be charming to both men and women, embodying qualities that audiences across social and cultural divides will consider endearing and admirable.
In fairy tales, heroes are often lionhearted men who save the damsel in distress, vanquish villains and live happily ever after, but in the modern-day fairy tale that is Bollywood, there's a range of things that a fictional man can do to establish his heroism. Some go hammer and tongs at what they see as injustice, others flex their muscles, a few are endearing losers who nevertheless end up winning where it counts. Yet for all the differences in their actions and personality traits, what connects the seemingly-disparate heroes of mainstream Hindi cinema are inherent goodness and vulnerability.
For screenwriter Juhi Chaturvedi, among her favourite heroes is Raju from Guide (1965). "The way he understood Rosie, the way he rekindles her passion for dance, knowing very well that their future cannot be together," she said when asked what made Raju heroic. "Of course, he is flawed too. But he repents his wrongdoings. His support initially is just as a human being, for another person. He's just being a good man." That golden-hearted quality appears in many of the characters Chaturvedi has written, which include some of contemporary Hindi cinema's most charming everyman heroes, like Vicky (Ayushmann Khurrana) from Vicky Donor (2012) and Rana (Irrfan Khan) from Piku (2015).
Vicky and Rana are the kind of underachievers who most people would overlook in real life, but for Chaturvedi, what makes them heroic is that they "stick to their rights and wrongs, accept their weaknesses, cry, show up for a friend, and can accept that they have not made it yet." If she wrote them in a way that made these men stand out, the actors added to the characters' charms. Chaturvedi said they "lucked out" when Khan and Khurrana took on the roles of Rana and Vicky. "There is a freshness that Ayushmann brought in. There was no backlog, we had not seen him as anything (in films). So when you see him as Vicky, you just believe," said Chaturvedi.
In the case of Rana, from Piku, there are visible traces of Raju from Guide, but for Chaturvedi, Khan made the role his own and brought it to life. "There was a profound depth in Irrfan and it beautifully flowed into the character of Rana. He did not stop being Irrfan when he played Rana," Chaturvedi said. "His empathy in real life, or his quest to understand human nature, would naturally be part of his body language. You cannot take away someone's understanding of life from his eyes. And the camera is the most beautiful tool that can show you that depth. Rana is perhaps some small part of Irrfan."
If Rana, with his quiet wit, tenderness and readiness to let Piku (Deepika Padukone) take the lead, embodies one kind of masculine ideal, then on the opposite end of the spectrum is Arjun (Vijay Deverakonda) from the Telugu film Arjun Reddy (2017), which was remade in Hindi as Kabir Singh (2019). Hypermasculine, aggressive, domineering and violent, Arjun and Kabir see themselves as romantic protectors who know what's best for 'the girl' — it's hard to describe these heroines as women because of how they're infantilised by the heroes. The misogynist antics of Arjun Reddy and Kabir Singh gave rise to debates about what kind of masculinity we glorify in our movies, but alongside that critique is the fact that writer-director Sandeep Reddy Vanga's story about a self-destructive young man has been a hit with Telugu, Tamil and Hindi audiences. "I feel in every person there is a lot of Kabir inside them. And for every person, when he falls in love, I think everybody has that honesty in them," he said in this interview with Anupama Chopra.
There is a lot of posturing in this unruly young man whose toxic rage and unrelenting self-pity struck a chord with viewers. Reddy is keenly aware that for Arjun/ Kabir, the performance of strength masks a sense of failure and brokenness. "A person like Kabir Singh is pissing his own pants, where you don't show the hero like that. I thought there is a lot of power in it, showing him going down," said Reddy about Kabir Singh. This is, perhaps, what redeems Arjun and Kabir to many even as he thrashes his way through one plot point to the next, displaying personality traits — like getting drunk, chain-smoking, and being aggressively sexual — that one would usually associate with villains in commercial Indian cinema.
Another hero who charmed audiences despite hints of immorality was Varun (Ranveer Singh) from Lootera (2013), written by Bhavani Iyer. "I thought of who this young man would be and I realised that for him to have that fragility and that brittleness and a sense of despair about him, where it would almost be normal for him to give up his life for the sake of the woman he loves, he needed to be someone who had seen life very differently from the way she had seen life," said Iyer. In Lootera, Varun is an orphan who lets down Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha), the woman he loves, because the feelings she evokes in him are entirely foreign to Varun. Eventually, he redeems himself by becoming an emblem of hope for Pakhi.
Iyer said her understanding of what makes for a compelling male character comes from literature and singled out Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina and Graham Greene's The End of the Affair ("He is such a non-hero," she said of Greene's Maurice Bendrix). Iyer has written some of Hindi cinema's more unusual heroes. Speaking specifically about Varun from Lootera and the unsuspecting husband Iqbal (Vicky Kaushal) in Raazi (2018), Iyer said, "The strength of their moral fibre is what makes them heroes. Anything that you have to fight your heart and your mind over is tougher than a physical fight. That sacrifice is far bigger and greater than anything else. I would say they are bigger heroes than your swashbuckling action male star." Ultimately, in Raazi, Iqbal chooses duty over love while Varun picks love in Lootera. Both are righteous in their own way and both hold their secrets close to their heart, which earns them the love of both the films' protagonists as well as audiences.
When asked what makes a character lovable, screenwriter Harshavardhan Kulkarni pointed to flaws. "My tastes were more towards the Hrishikesh Mukherjee and the Basu Chatterjee kind of films. I used to really, really love them. And I was so taken by those kinds of characters, which were real," said Kulkarni. Inspired by the boy-next-door heroes that actor Amol Palekar was famous for playing in the Seventies, Kulkarni created the delightfully earnest Nikhil Bharadwaj (Sidharth Malhotra) for Hasee Toh Phasee (2014). "While the film plot was formulaic, the characters were a little anti-hero, vulnerable and at times, traditional also," said Kulkarni. Nikhil was a devoted partner, eager to make his existing relationship work, which is why Meeta's (Parineeti Chopra) entrance in his life feels disruptive.
As Nikhil, Malhotra struck a "beautiful balance" between humility and handsomeness, said Kulkarni, and he offered a sharp contrast to the arrogance that radiates out of most conventional heroes. Adding to the realism of the characters in Hasee Toh Phasee is the way they keep making mistakes, and this is as true for Meeta as it is for Nikhil. From marrying the wrong woman to helping someone steal money, he dithers between right and wrong throughout the film. "I am always going to be looking at people who are struggling because that's what life is all about," Kulkarni said.
Most heroes in mainstream movies seem too much to be true. Occasionally, some like Rana and Nikhil, feel too good to be true. And yet, as audiences, we believe in them, wilfully suspending disbelief and turning a blind eye to the artifice. Chaturvedi said the only way for a writer to ensure these fictional men feel real and endearing is to ground them in something that feels true. "Gone are the days of gimmick and writing and creating shallow half-hearted stuff. Everyone is seeking some depth," she said. "We, as a writer, as a maker, as a creator, need to look for the truth."