February 1 marked three decades of the release of Amitabh Bachchan’s Hum, directed by Mukul S Anand, who had made Agneepath just a year earlier. While Agneepath gave us an update of Bachchan’s ‘Angry Young Man’ trope within a template revenge story, Hum chose to do something radical. Written by Ravi Kapoor and Mohan Kaul, Bachchan’s anger, or rather the lack of it, became the film’s central narrative motor. For context, Bachchan was then the biggest Indian star with the kind of stardom that could power large-scale hydroelectric projects. His anger was central to this persona, and to write a script in which he’s in control of this rage is pretty much like writing a version of Thor, but without his hammer.
Of course, the film begins with Tiger (Amitabh Bachchan) getting to kick butt, playing the saviour to voiceless dockworkers working for the elegantly-dressed Bhaktawar (Danny Denzongpa). But when a fight leads to the death of Tiger’s father and step-mother, he has to move away with his two siblings (played by Rajinikanth and Govinda) to shield them from the netherworld-like life at the docks. He even has to chumma Jumma goodbye.
Cut to 20 years later, and our Tiger seems to have lost his tooth. He exchanges his greasy uniform for outfits that suit a dignified timber merchant settled in Ooty. He is now Shekar Malhotra. He grows a thin moustache, wears spectacles and his brothers have grown to become a police officer and a college heartthrob. Though he’s loved and respected by this family, he’s not exactly the action hero he was in his ‘pichhle janam’. In one scene, Rajinikanth looks at him and says, “Is duniya mein aap se darpok aadmi mein kabhi nahi dekha (I have never seen a coward like you).” A scene later, Shekar lands up at a night club to pull his two brothers away from a deadly fight/dance off. The two brothers even suggest a remedy to fix his cowardice…marriage.
Two up-and-coming stars calling THE superstar a coward isn’t exactly an idea you’d find in many mass cinema toolkits, but the script could afford the ‘emasculation’, because it was building up to a payoff.
Later, as Shekar and his family look for his missing sister-in-law at a bus station, a driver pushes his buttons a bit too much. Looking at her photo he says, “Anyone will kidnap a beauty like her.” Shekar, patient still, looks back and asks him to speak with “tameez.” “Or what?” he replies, to a shot of Shekar removing his glasses, his hair flying and with him looking down for a split second. From senti violins, Laxmikant-Pyarelal now switch to a set of blaring trumpets that sound like a siren forewarning an explosion. An explosion it is, and Tiger is zinda again.
It is the scene where Bruce Banner becomes Hulk or when Dr Jekyll turns into Mr Hyde. In the thesaurus of mass cinema, we got an entry for the ‘transformation scene’. And for audiences all over, the scene led to mass hysteria and uniform piloerection.
The unwritten rule for this effect goes thus: the ecstasy one feels at this transformation is inversely proportional to the emasculation the hero/heroine faces until that point. In Rajinikanth’s Baasha, the humiliation his character Manickam faces is two-fold. At first, he is tied to a lamppost and beaten to pulp after he begs a gangster to punish him instead of his younger brother. The insult is then doubled when Manickam’s sister is molested by the same gangster at the town centre.
For Rajnikanth fans, it’s already more than an hour of their God being beaten and insulted. After his inability to retaliate, even the villain (Anand Raj) believes that Manickam is a wimp. So when a goon runs toward Manickam after he saves his sister, his punch is stronger thanks to an hour of great screenwriting choices that create the effect of a dormant volcano, finally erupting.
Talking to The Hindu, its director Suresh Krissna remarked that, “It’s no joke to write a Rajini film’s first half without a fight; in fact, he runs away whenever he sees commotion. When I first narrated the screenplay to the team, everyone was aghast that there was no fight or comedy in the first half. And the worst part was that Rajinikanth, a Superstar, gets tied up to a lamp-post and beaten.”
In Dhanush-Vetrimaaran’s Asuran, a layered and political film that uses the skeleton of Baasha, the humiliation is even more painful. To get the dominant-caste landlords to spare his older son and family, Sivasaami is asked to prostrate and touch the feet of every male caste member of the village. He does that.
Until that point, as a drunkard and an irresponsible parent, Sivasaami is seen as a weak, broken man who is willing to let go of his land for peace. But when the landlords’ henchmen finally catch up to him escaping, we see Sivasaami transform into his old self — the man who once massacred many in revenge.
In Vishwaroopam, the transformation scene doesn’t take until the end of the first half to happen. Playing an effeminate Kathak dancer, Viz becomes his RAW-agent-self in a matter on minutes. With a siren playing in the background and the sound of bones crushing and eyeballs squishing, we see it becoming a different film with just one great action scene.
The Double Life And The Secret
But there’s more to the ‘Baasha Formula’ than this ‘weakening’ of its lead character. A year before the release of Hum, we also saw the release of a film that would contribute another important fixture to this formula. This was Sathriyan, a Vijayakanth starrer, written by Mani Ratnam. Even in Sathriyan, the hero we meet is considered weak, who retreats to a bottle each night and mundane work during the day. So when Bhanu (Bhanupriya), an outsider, enters his family, she’s disgusted at his lack of involvement in the crime happening around him. In The Hero’s Journey, her appeal is the ‘Call To Adventure’, which is met with his ‘Refusal Of The Call’.
Our feeling about him, at this point, is exactly that of Bhanu’s. ‘Why isn’t this man doing anything?’ Instead of humiliation, what makes Paneerselvam appear weak is his indifference. And what works doubly to create this impact among the audience is that we do not know his backstory. Without knowing the suffering he has gone through to make the decision to step back, it’s only natural that we feel what Bhanu feels.
In Hum, since we know right from the start the events that led to Tiger’s ‘taming’, the transformation always feels like a matter of time. But in Sathriyan, and in Baasha, later, the screenplay ensures that we wait patiently to be introduced a new person altogether.
It is this hybridisation of the scripts of Hum and Sathriyan that finally coalesced into Baasha. In Baasha, the secret of his second identity is more complex. In Hum, his violent past is not known to anyone in his family. But in Sathriyan, his previous life is unknown only to Bhanu and us, the audience, because we meet him through her. And by the time we get to Baasha, we know as little about Manickam’s double life as his family members. As a result, Suresh Krissna can afford to use a series of reaction shots to mark this departure. Along with this family, since we too are new to this information, it doesn’t feel like a overkill when he places seven (!) reaction shots before Deva’s theme goes “Baasha Baasha”.
Vijay’s Theri, written by Atlee, is a fine mix of Sathriyan and Baasha. His character is again introduced to us as a wimp, the kind whose little daughter is braver that he is. He is a baker and is shown to be generally non-committal to the issues around him. Through his daughter’s schoolteacher, we see this side of him, before an attack on his daughter leads to the eruption of the dormant police officer he once was, removing him from the ordinary world, back to the special world of good buys and bad.
The reason why this secret identity is so effective in Baasha is the placement of its flashback. Several films that used the Baasha format choose to place the flashback at different places, almost always for the same effect. In actor Dileep’s Kochirajavu, we get an interesting jumbling of this structure. At the start, we’re shown that he’s a man who has just come out of prison, so his troubled past is predictable. But curiously, it is in the flashback that we see him play an auto driver, that too with a silly, if harmless, love story.
The film, written by Sibi K Thomas and Udayakrishna (who would then reuse bits of this formula in Runway and Twenty:20), even uses another iconic scene from Baasha, where a character from his previous life (the police officer in Baasha) returns to his present life to give us a glimpse of who he really is. The effect is repeated in Chiranjeevi’s Indra too, when an angry governor (played by Prakash Raj) retreats once he realises that the man he has come to attack is in fact, Indrasena.
Telugu blockbusters that released post Baasha chose to use a longer flashback that takes up almost the majority of the second half. In both Indra and Balakrishna’s Samarasimha Reddy, the film spends a longer time taking us back to their more prosperous past life, leaving us with little expectation for a final showdown when we return to present time.
In Kamal Haasan’s Vishwaroopam, the flashback becomes the film itself. This is so, given that the film is a two-parter and also because his identity as a Kathak teacher (in a bad marriage) is just a cover to protect his TWO previous identities, one as that of an Al Qaeda operative and another as a part of India’s Research And Analysis Wing.
The New Identity Or The ‘Paavamisation’
Even though the use of flashbacks varies from film to film, one thing that’s consistent is the way these films write the new, timid identities of the lead characters. Switching between cowardice, physical weaknesses or indifference, the way the ‘Manickam’ character is written in these films follows interesting patterns. In most cases, the new character is shown to be financially weaker than he was in his more dangerous and affluent past. In Indra and in Ajith’s Vedhalam, they both play innocent taxi drivers operating in Varanasi and Kolkata, respectively. Their clothes remain earthy shades of brown or red and, often, vibhuti takes precedence over a red tikka. In Mohanlal’s Ustad, a film that’s closer in spirit to Hum than Baasha, we see him play Parameshwaran, a simpleton who will only wear a mundu and white shirt, although he is wealthier.
In Samarasimha Reddy, he works in a humble eatery, serving food, making batter and doing other odd jobs. In Mammootty’s replica of Baasha titled Rajadhi Raja, he runs a roadside petrol bunk. Vijayakanth is a mechanic in Sathriyan, Vijay a baker in Theri and Jr NTR plays a domestic help (albeit an important one) in Simhadri. And in the case of both Vishwaroopam and Narasimha Naidu, the new identity is that of an effeminate dancer, to further push the contrast between the real and undercover identities.
In films that merely use the ‘transformation’ sequence of Baasha, they stick to using the lead character’s physical weakness as the reason why they do not answer the call to action. In Pandiyanaadu, Vishal’s character’s lack of courage is coupled with a stammering problem. Vishal then gets another weakness in Naan Sigapu Manithan, where he falls asleep if his heart rate is lowered. And in Anniyan and Prithviraj’s Puthiya Mugam, they both come from extremely conservative Brahmin backgrounds who have some trauma from their childhood.
Their ‘innocence’ is even reflected in their names in Telugu and Malayalam films. Balakrishna goes by Abbulu, Chiranjeevi is Shankar, Dileep is Unni and Mohanlal is Devan (in Twenty:20) before their real ‘powerful’ identities get revealed along with caste titles such as Samarasimha Reddy, Indrasena Reddy, Suryanarayana Varma and Devaraja Prathapa Varma.
Even film titles in this format use either the exact name of the character in the flashback or a title alluding to their brevity. Baasha, Rajadhi Raja, Asuran, Vedhalam, Samarasimha Reddy, Indra and Kochi Rajavu are examples, with the only exception being Simhadri (his secret identity goes by Singamalai).
Among the films mentioned above, which used either the whole formula or part of it, there’s no denying the amount of success achieved. Either ways, duality in our leads is a trait that has captivated audiences for centuries. Until these films, what was more common was this effect being achieved through the same character playing two roles. In MGR’s Enga Veetu Pillai (1965), Ramu plays the innocent coward or the archetype that would later belong to the Manickams/Shekars, just as how the Ilango would play the angrier tough-man that would accommodate the Baasha personality.
Even in the more recent Enthiran, Rajnikanth himself gives us Vaseegaran, the coward-like nerd (Manickam) and 2.0 (Baasha). But with Sathriyan, Hum, Baasha and the many many versions it spawned, the audience got their absolute wish-fulfilment. Not only do they (me included) see a reflection of them in their inability to react and respond to the things happening around them in the first half, they also get to see the fantasy of these personal cages being cut open to see them become the Hulk-like, Hyde-like, Tiger-like monster that’s a part of us. In a sense, it’s a film that gives us a character that’s exactly like us and also the character we would like to be. Without an ability to get our own transformation scenes, we are best limited to watching a version of Baasha, not once, but a hundred times. Given that the formula has already led to films that have earned thousands of crores in multiple languages, it’s unlikely that they will stop. Which is your favourite iteration of the film?
PS: And, the next time someone makes fun of Bollywood hits, calling them remakes of South Indian movies, I guess it’s better to remind ourselves about the blockbuster legacy of Hum.