If Sanjay Dutt as Daroga Shuddh Singh was the highlight of Shamshera (2022) for you, join the club. Shuddh Singh's whip-wielding, ponytail-twirling menace is surpassed only by his open glee for violence. Despite Shamshera's disappointing run in theatres, Dutt's performance remains memorable, perhaps aided by the way the actor has been crafting larger-than-life, villain personas in films like Agneepath (2012) and K.G.F: Chapter 2 (2022).
Historically, villains in Indian cinema have had two defining traits. First: large, bloodshot eyes, to inspire everlasting fear. Consider Amrish Puri or Ashutosh Rana, men famous for instilling terror in the millennial generation. Their names conjure visions of enraged, unhinged faces, with bulging eyes. Second: maniacal laughter, a tradition that seems to stretch into the history of Indian storytelling, all the way to the Raavans of Ramlila plays. We don't like our villains cool, calm and collected. We want them on a melodramatic roll, revelling in their dastardly glory. Who does this better than Sanjay Dutt today, with his willingness to look bizarre (remember Kancha Cheena's eyebrows? No you don't. Because he didn't have any) and his unabashed delight for playing the bad guy.
Dutt first experimented with a morally ambiguous character in Subhash Ghai's Khal Nayak (1993) at a time when he made news for getting arrested in real life. "It's a risk that I took in my career when I played characters with different shades. It paid off because I was convinced that I could challenge myself as an actor. If I'm not convinced, then how will audiences be convinced? It was when I did Khal Nayak that I realised that I should look for roles out of my comfort zone," Dutt told PTI in an interview.
Since then, Dutt's on-screen characters have proven to be consistently murkier, eviller and more enjoyable. He's over-the-top and intense, with his droopy eyes and languorous speech channelling whichever flavour of villainy the film requires.
There is often something almost cheeky about the roles Dutt has chosen when he's played an antagonist. The characters have a playfulness that on one hand hints at a manic edge, but also serves to make the brute likeable. Shuddh Singh is fittingly lecherous, slightly foolish and drunk on power — a dangerous combination that Dutt delivers as well as he can, sometimes despite the film's tattered writing. Remember his earnestness in Shamshera when he says, "Indian dirt only Indian hand can clean. White hand get black, sir"? Shuddh Singh manages to be simultaneously obsequious and dismissive of his British superior, making it clear that he wants the foreigner to butt out of his affairs.
"It is always exciting to play the antagonist because you get to bend the rules, break the rules. I realised that when you play the antagonist, there are actually no impositions or moral boundaries. You can be disruptive," Dutt told the Times of India when talking about his role in Shamshera. In an industry that tends to trap ageing heroes in secondary roles and predictable clichés, Dutt has found a way to stay in the limelight by being the opposite of a hero. Even in a film that flounders as much as Shamshera, Dutt holds our attention, whether it's with his perfectly-pitched hamming or with the menace that underlines his every action in the film. At age 63, he's still pushing himself as an actor, occupying central roles and entertaining audiences.