One reason why we love movies is to watch people who will enact our fantasies. The Tough Guy is the male counterpart of the Sex Goddess; he’s the Mars to her Venus. While she is pleasure incarnate, he’s the embodiment of violence, just and deserved. The Tough Guy pulls off the deeds we’re forced to suppress for the sake of daily expediency, and he’s uninhibited enough not to wait for natural justice, which is seldom reliable. Born out of the collective disappointment and anger of bleak times, Tough Guys provide us with a relished sense of comeuppance.
The Bollywood Tough Guys share all the qualities of their Hollywood counterparts, they’re brusque machismo serves as a cathartic release for all our pent-up aggression. Indians live for melodrama and when they want to see violence they want the flame-burning, blood-splattering kind. The archetypal Indian Tough Guy took shape from the ancient Vedic epics of wars and fallen kingdoms and evolved into the post-Partition movie stars.
But oddly enough, the movie Tough Guy didn’t become big till well into the late ‘60s. From 1947 to 1966, all audiences wanted were romantic matinee idols. The entrenched class system, leftover from the colonial days, was still strong and working-class characters weren’t embraced as leading men. By the time Indira Gandhi came to power in the late ‘60s, the system began to break down and populist heroes were the rage in India (as they were in Europe). The workforce wanted stars who they could relate to and through whom they could vicariously live. And these actors all exuded the menace and hustle of the Bombay streets.
Amitabh Bachan is the most well known, most beloved out of all the movie Tough Guys. His looming stature, well over 6 feet (which in ‘60s India was a staggering anomaly) and his rich baritone are iconic. His physicality and grace call to mind Burt Lancaster and his penchant for playing the introspective cynic is reminiscent of Bogart. His screen persona has become a representation of all that India believes itself to be, imposing, resilient, and unabashedly vocal and patriotic. Vinod Khanna was Bachan’s angry wingman during the ‘70s. Khanna reveled in old-fashioned masculinity playing either tough, tender cops or wily S.O.B.s. There was dewy-eyed remorse to his excessive machismo, a hybrid between the Matinee Idol and the Tough Guy that was so appealing to audiences. Soon everyone from Feroz Khan to Akshay Kumar adopted it as part of their style.
By the 80s, the Tough Guys of the ‘60s and ‘70s - traditional brawny working-class rakes - evolved into grim, hard-bodied nihilists of the Bombay Underworld. Cars, guns, drugs, and all the hedonistic pleasures of alpha-manhood motivated the anti-heroes of this consumerist decade. Sanjay Dutt, son of ‘40s and ‘50s legend Nargis, emerged as the number one action star. With his cartoonishly muscular physique and bloodshot eyes, he was an Amitabh Bachan for an age with less innocence. While Bachan played lovable rogues small-time con men, Dutt mastered the role of the Bombay gangster in its elusive complexity: the vicious killer, the defender of oppressed minorities, the amoral opportunist, the prince of the mohallas.*
Then there’s Sunil Shetty, the dark horse. A true thespian in a B-movie star’s cover. This Burt Reynolds look-alike is one of the best actors in this group. Don’t let the gratuitous motorcycle stunts and kickboxing fool you. Look closer and you’ll see a startling inwardness and depth of feeling to his performances that comes across even in his tawdriest movies. Salman Khan, the youngest of the group, is the quicksilver personality—golden-boy leading man, bawdy screwball comedian, and avenging action hero. But years of fast living, brawls, and shady mob affiliations have sucked the vitality out of performances. He’s still a celebrity force to be reckoned with, but haunted by scandal.
It will be interesting to see who’ll step into the role of Tough Guy in the years to come. Ambitious young men from the arid provinces flock to Bombay daily, slaving through grueling workout regimens, queuing for hours for a screen test, waiting to be the next Salman Khan or Sanjay Dutt. Which one of them will bring something new to the screen persona?
*mohallas—a district or neighborhood; In Indian cities like Bombay and Delhi, they’re the equivalent to Manhattan’s Lower East Side—crowded, vibrant ethnic communities.
Amitabh, circa ‘70s
Vinod, circa ‘70s
Sanjay, circa ‘80s