The world laid before us, closer to reality, isn't all black and white. There is no universal good or evil. There is no one 'hero' who protects and mandatorily does the right thing, no one 'villain' for him to constantly be in struggle with, to finally overthrow and bring balance. I believe we are now part of a growing cinematic revolution where such labels are starting to look a little outdated as dynamic characters with grey shades (whether placed as antagonists or protagonists) continue to allure us.
This lure towards villainy partly lies in our inclination to give meaning to something we are unable to fully comprehend – trying to understand the 'why', at times empathizing or even identifying with these flawed, raw human beings. It's probably why we love Loki, feel for the wounded human being Joker ultimately is, celebrate the relatable imperfections in anti-heroes like Vincent Gomaz in Raajavinte Makan or a more recent Thomas Shelby in Peaky Blinders. Sometimes, it is pure performance that overshadows all kinds of reason, say, Mammootty (Munnariyippu), Manoj K Jayan (Anandabhadram), Tabu (Andhadhun), Saif Ali Khan (Omkara). They run free, smashing the shackles of society and more often than not, it feels as if we are wired to find beauty even in their tragedies.
Though Indian cinema, particularly, is popular for dramatic, flamboyant villains like the iconic Mogambo or even to a certain extent the powerful Khilji in Padmaavat, I have always been more fascinated by what I would like to call the minimalist villain – as, here, 'less is more'. They are not your typical outcasts but holds scars deeper than one could possibly imagine. These quiet-masters-in-mystery add to the tension in the plot and keeps you guessing till the very end. They are made so unpredictable and complex that they seem to neatly fit in, which makes them truly terrifying. A feminine touch to such nuanced writing makes it all the more charming, which is why I feel the unnamed woman Urmila Matondkar plays in Ram Gopal Verma's Kaun? is just pure villainy.
Written by Anurag Kashyap and one of Ram Gopal Verma's best works, the film is a psychological thriller where Urmila is pictured as a totally vulnerable, defenceless woman living all alone (except for a pet cat) in a huge mansion. She gets terrified on listening to the news of a serial killer on the loose. The tension that sets in right from the beginning is only enhanced through many a hybrid elements, like the void white space in the bungalow, the never-ending rain and thunder, the sound of the doorbell and finally the three living, breathing characters – a creepy Sameer who "hates cats" (played by the stellar Manoj Bajpayee), a puzzled Qureshi (Sushant Singh) and our frantic woman (Urmila Matondkar). Their conversations, the carefully placed minimal dialogues, are truly killer. Enlivening the suspense, it makes the film all the more fascinating and complex.
She is presented to us through her psychological state, which gets deconstructed as the film progresses. The isolation we find her in, the unease that sets in, her paranoia, strained facial expressions and fidgetiness are all that fall within our purview. We never get to know anything of this woman or her past, or why she is the way she is; intriguing us further. We are left free on how to view her or feel about her and all we know is this horror-struck state we find her in. The fear, nervousness, shock and even her slight stutter and shudder makes way into an eccentricity that feels so familiar for her, in her ; as she gets rid of the troublesome strangers and finally sits comfortably on a wall of her open terrace like a child on a swing, enjoying the rains and humming a tune, totally at peace with herself.
It remains one of my favourite performances from Urmila Matondkar. She sinks in so effortlessly, retaining an aura of mystery until the very end (to a certain extent, Isha, Kajol's character in Gupt is also a good example in this respect). Urmila went onto play characters with a grey shade in movies like Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya and the brilliant Ek Haseena Thi, but Kaun? was truly something else. I love how her angelic eyes speak volumes – transforming into menacing ones; as she moves from this innocent-looking, terrified woman into one of strength and certainty. The presence of an unknown maternal figure in the beginning and the very end when she addresses someone as 'Ma' (over a disconnected phone) reminded me of Norman Bates from Hitchcock's 'Psycho'. Though the theme remains unexplored, it does evoke a similar atmosphere – an identity who might have had a huge influence or even control over her.
On a closer look, the way she emotes, even her fixed, prolonged and deadly gaze, looked as if she was trying hopelessly to overcome the paranoia, which might have roots going back to her childhood. Like an awfully hurt, wronged child who turns aggressive and revengeful to protect herself from getting hurt again; her actions ultimately felt like desperate attempts to cope up with her fears of the outside world, a world that threatens her peace and quiet. It was then that I saw a human being in deep psychological distress within the mask of a serial killer.
Over the years, many movies have explored themes involving mental disorders – some realistically, some sympathetically and some in grossly inaccurate, inadequate and incompetent ways. But, even when it comes to the authentic ones, we praise the protagonists say, Saji (Kumbalangi Nights) for seeking therapy and still tend to envelope psychiatric problems along with the ensuing violence as just another side to the 'madness' of our villains say, Shammi (Kumbalangi Nights). Nevertheless, at a risk of being misinterpreted or misunderstood and with certain misconceptions about criminal behaviour and mental health sometimes getting reinforced through inept writing and dramatized portrayals; I still believe in cinema. Being a visual platform, done sensibly, cinema can definitely open up positive discussions and debates on sensitive topics like mental distress and break stigmas surrounding mental health without entirely equating it to villainy.
We, certainly, have come a long way from a generic, one-size-fits-all profile into more developed, well-researched character sketches for a true villain. Be it in the whirlwind of the labyrinthic world Churuli creates or in something as (dare I say) mainstream as Kahaani (Dhritiman Chatterjee as Bhaskaran we often tend to overlook and a brilliant Saswata Chatterjee as Bob Biswas) or Super 30 (Pankaj Tripathi as Devraj); villainy isn't just about 'being the beast' anymore. Rather, it has transformed into a bold sketch of a society, of an individual riddled in deeper psychological patterns.