Leading men in Bombay film-speak are referred to as “heroes.” The word means something different in India than it does in Hollywood, and when it’s spoken in lilting Hindi, (“heeeero”) it encompasses an entire culture’s vision of unironic idealism and reliability. The men here are not the aggressive Tough Guys of the masala action movies or the earnest Ever Guys in breezy romantic comedies. They’re the handsome matinee idols audiences long to see onscreen, reminders that male beauty is still present in a squalid, fast-paced world.
Matinee idols were a common mainstay of the ‘30s and ‘40s, but the arrival of the Kapoor brothers, Raj and Shammi, signaled a new way of looking at the leading man. Influenced by the reigning Hollywood stars of the time (Clark Gable and Cary Grant) Raj Kapoor was a dapper, graceful presence onscreen. His frequent pairing with the enchanting Nargis made them the first iconic screen couple of Indian cinema. But Raj Kapoor’s real contribution was as one of the most innovative and commercially astute directors of all time. Inspired by the Chaplin’s comedic style - a melding of slapstick and the somber - Raj Kapoor directed and starred in
, a Preston Sturges-like on-the-road tale about a rakish Bombay street hustler and the idealistic schoolteacher who longs to reform him.
Throughout the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s, the hits kept coming: Andaz, Awaara, and Barsaat, to name a few. By the time Raj Kapoor retired from acting and focused solely on directing in the ‘70s, he revealed an uncanny ability to tap into the desires of the mainstream audience. He knew instinctively the kind of movies people loved to see - unrequited love stories, family melodramas of the love-against-all-odds sort - and was brilliant at making them. It’s not acknowledged as much these days, but the Bollywood of today owes a great deal to the inventiveness Raj Kapoor. He, more than any other star or filmmaker, knew what a commercial powerhouse it could be.
Raj’s younger brother, Shammi, was a phenomenon in his own right. Few male stars in India have inspired the kind of hysteria that Shammi Kapoor induced when he’d swivel his hips and lip-sync to ‘60s Hindi pop. His Elvis pompadour, arresting attractiveness, and keen comic timing made him the reigning heartthrob of his day: part Ricky Nelson, part Rock Hudson, all verve and masala.
Dev Anand was the one of the early pensive, introspective leading men in Indian cinema. There was a Gregory Peck quality to his steady onscreen presence, particularly when he was serenading his costar with a melancholy ghazal, a controlled, lingering technique he mastered for the camera. It seems easy, but it is really quite difficult for most actors to simply look and be graceful. Dev Anand’s thoughtful performances and his inner sense of grace are rare qualities for most Indian male actors, many of whom are jaded by internalizing the day-to-day grind and hustle of living in Bombay.
Raj Kumar, like Dev Anand, made up the last of a handful of urbane, sophisticated leading men of the ‘50s. Raj Kumar reminds me so much of the great, now relatively unsung, matinee idol of the Hollywood silent era, John Gilbert. The similarities are uncanny—the chiseled, dark handsome, mustached face, the graceful sense of movement, and (in spite of the masculine presence) the almost squeaky, high-pitched voice (what finished poor Gilbert when the studios transitioned to sound). Raj Kumar is more famous now for being glorious arm candy for legendary actresses like Nargis in Mother India and Meena Kumari in Pakeezah (“Pure One”). It was his role in Pakeezah however, as the young nobleman who defies the wrath of his grandfather to defend and marry the woman he loves - a prostitute - that made him beloved to all. It was the sort of Officer and a Gentleman type part that every sentimentalist roots for and remembers. He was such a standard in Indian cinema that for years, from the mid ‘50s up until the early ‘70s, he epitomized the quintessential leading man.
Dharmendra was the first movie star to really exude sex appeal. It’s amazing that for the initial 50 years of Indian cinema, the popular leading men were of the elegant, sexless variety. The country’s conservatism preferred safe, reliable men, dapper in tailored kurtas who loftily recited Urdu love poetry and with quivering, feigned passion, railed about defending the family izzat (“honor”). But the by the late ‘60s, things loosened up as India joined the Sexual Revolution. Mia Farrow and The Beatles rocked out with the Maharishi, bras came off, pants fit tighter, Bollywood actresses frolicked in bikinis, and Dharamendra burst onto the movie scene with the charisma of Marlon Brando - simmering male sensuality. Physical presence aside, Dharmendra’s appeal was also that of a deft comedian, his earthy Punjabi rustic humor added playfulness and vitality to his movies, Sholay (“Flames”) and Seeta aur Geeta (“Seeta and Geeta”). Both starred his wife, Hema Malini). Even in his most conventional he-man roles, Dharmendra’s intelligence shines through to reveal a sly, vulpine knowingness behind the movie star smile.
Hrithik Roshan, one the most talented leading man of the last ten years, has been in danger of not being taken seriously simply because of his appearance—his green eyes, his lithe six-foot-something frame, his alabaster complexion and his chiseled, Greek sculpture features. He’s just too handsome to be true (He’s the real life embodiment of what Derek Zoolander deems, “really, really, ridiculously good looking”). His debut film, the masala modern-day mythological revenge saga, Kaaho Na Pyaar Hai (2000, “Say This is Love”) stunned audiences with the presence of an actor who possessed the kind of kilowatt glamour rarely seen in most stars. On top of it all, his dancing abilities are the best of any Indian star before him. The Fred Astaire-fluidity of his movements is so deft and graceful that Hrithik Roshan seems like a special effect, a celluloid phantom darting across the screen.
Saif Ali Khan was born into talent and glamour. His parents represent everything rich and exciting about India: his mother, the celebrated ‘60s starlet, Sharmila Tagore, a descendant of India’s great national scribe and Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore, and his father, “Tiger” Pataudi, a former captain of the Indian cricket team and a prince who can trace his lineage back to the Mughals. It’s easy for any child of such illustrious parentage to become intimidated or complacent, and subsumed into anonymity within the family legacy, but Saif Ali Khan has carved out a niche for himself as an interesting and intelligent actor. After several mediocre, smiling, handsome-young-man parts, he struck gold with Parineeta (2005, “The Bride”) as the wealthy, spoiled son of an industrialist growing into his own humanity. He played the sinister Iago figure in Vishal Bhardwaj’s adaptation of Othello, Omkara (2006) with the perfect amount of sexual charisma and malice, and more recently, the reluctant heir to a Rajasthani kingdom-state who finds himself reevaluating his morals to protect his father in Eklavya (2007).
Though the actors in this group are all unequivocally good-looking and charming, none of them are predictable. They’ve resisted the banal conventionality that can come with being an attractive star by broadening their range as actors, playing villains, losers, men difficult to tolerate or forgive. The entire country looks to them as a source of unwavering heroism, so venturing into challenging acting material is a bold risk that usually means.
Raj Kapoor, ‘50s
Shammi Kapoor, ‘60s
Dev Anand, ‘50s
Dharmendra in Yaadon ki Baaraat, circa late 70s
Hrithik Roshan, circa 2000
Saif Ali Khan, Parineeta, 2005