In Mohanlal’s Malayalam thriller Big Brother, actor Arbaaz Khan, best known for his role in the Hindi film Dabangg (a film that he also produced) played Vedantham IPS. In his blockbuster Lucifer, it was Vivek Oberoi who was the villain challenging him. In Vijay’s Tamil film Bigil that released last year, actor Jackie Shroff played JK Sharma, President of the All India Football Federation. In the Telugu film Vinaya Vidheya Rama, actor Vivek Oberoi played Raja Bhai Munna, Bihari Kingpin.
Over the years, south Indian cinema has imported many Bollywood stars to act as the villain for many reasons.
Take, for instance, Sivakarthikeyan’s Hero in which Abhay Deol played Mahadev, a corrupt “corporate monster” who lobotomises young students for coming up with cool inventions. Abhay, who made his Kollywood debut in this film, looked dapper in a suit but his Tamil dialogues were discernibly out-of-sync.
In Rajinikanth’s Petta that came out last year, Nawazuddin Siddiqui played Singaaram, a character who grows up in a Tamil Nadu village and is spiteful of the hero. Nawazuddin is a critically acclaimed actor and he was mostly convincing, but considering the role wasn't particularly difficult to pull off, why not cast someone from the Tamil industry itself instead
The business aspect
Actor Anandaraj, who has played the villain in all south Indian languages, says that this has mainly got to do with business. “I have also done other language films. It is mainly to expand the business and actors do it to expand their market. Earlier, this was not the case. As far as the south is concerned, almost all actors take up roles across industries," he says.
This seems to be true to an extent. For instance, in Rajinikanth’s 2.0, Akshay Kumar played the villain called Pakshiraja and this was a strategic choice. While the makers hoped to capture the Hindi market (the film was simultaneously made in Tamil and Hindi), the star also had to be someone who could match the hero's image among the audience in the south.
Actor Daniel Balaji, who played the villain in films like Vada Chennai and Bigil, concurs. “Almost all films are sold for satellite rights and when they have a Hindi actor, the film might make more money,” he opines.
Telugu director Harish Shankar, who has made films like Gabbar Singh and Gaddalakonda Ganesh, however, says the trend has to do with changing times.
“There are no boundaries these days for cinema. For example, Vijay Sethupathi is also playing important roles in upcoming Telugu films. Kota Srinivas Rao sir has done in Hindi and Tamil also,” he points out.
Sonu Sood, Amit Tiwari, Ravi Kishan and Mukesh Rishi are some of the commonly seen villains in Telugu cinema, who are from Bollywood.
However, Harish Shankar adds that the industry is always looking for someone new. “In Telugu, we don't have a separate niche for the villain. Most villains here have a pre-image of playing comic roles at some point. So when we are looking for serious villains, we want someone new," he explains.
Daniel points out that while the Tamil industry had a handful of villains who would constantly be paired opposite certain heroes, the trend now is to have a variety of villains.
“MGR, Sivaji had one villain and the villains had powerful roles too. I think they don't want to write such villains any more. Just like how they bring in new heroines, the hero perhaps wants to fight a new villain in every film,” he chuckles.
Tollywood producer Madhura Sridhar, who recently made ABCD - American Born Confused Desi, says that the reason could be to bring in "stylish actors".
“In the last 10 years or so, filmmakers are increasingly choosing villains who look stylish, and so they seem to be preferring actors from north India who look stylish and have a good physique,” he says.
But Daniel Balaji is quick to dismiss this claim. “Does that mean it has to be someone from the Hindi industry? I played a very stylish role in Vettaiyadu Vilayudu,” he points out. As far as Kannada cinema is concerned, the trend is not as popular when compared to the other three industries.
Not a new trend?
Season (1989), directed by Padmarajan, is perhaps one of the earliest movies in Malayalam in which we can see an actor from the north play the villain. Late Gavin Packard, born in Maharashtra, was an actor of Irish decent, but he made his acting debut in a Malayalam film called Aryan, playing a local goon in Mumbai. In Season, he played a villain character called Fabian, antagonist to Mohanlal’s character Jeevan.
Gavin again appeared as a goon hired to kill the hero in Kamal’s Ayushkalam. By then, it was the early '90s, and it had become a trend to bring in non-Malayali actors to play villains. Puneet Issar, known for his role of Duryodhana in the Mahabharata TV show, became the villain in two Mohanlal films – Yodha and Pingami.
Director Priyadarshan then began bringing in more actors from Hindi cinema, to not just play villains but also heroes and heroines. Amrish Puri became a villainous jail warden in Mohanlal’s Kaalapani.
In Tamil too, we’ve seen Amrish Puri play the bad guy in Mani Ratnam’s Thalapathy, Salim Ghouse in Vetri Vizha, Atul Kulkarni in Run, etc. So, it seems fair to say that there have always been filmmakers who were interested in casting Hindi actors as the villains, even if the trend was not as common as it is now.
Though Arbaaz Khan is called Vedantham IPS in Big Brother, a south Indian name, director Siddique says that he's actually an officer from the north.
“I can’t say why it is generally done. But in my films, I bring actors from Bollywood only when the story demands it and the characters need to be convincing. In Big Brother, Arbaaz Khan plays Vedantham IPS, he is an officer from the north,” he says.
He also talks about his earlier film In Harihar Nagar (1990), in which the villain is a character called John Honai who comes from Mumbai.
“We brought a new actor called Rizabawa because no one knew him then and he could be convincing as a man from Mumbai. Also, we didn’t have enough funds to bring an artiste from the north back then. Now there are bigger budgets and also the industries are more open, and it is easier to bring actors who will be apt for the characters you have written. Performance or looks or style-wise, it’d be much more convincing if you bring an actor from the north to play a character from the north," he says.
Anandaraj insists that no matter the role, it is important to maintain the originality of the part.
“If they use someone who’s evidently not a native for a character who is a local, I think the film’s reach may not be as much among audience. But the audience will recognise us (the native actors) as their own. In Bigil, you would’ve seen, my role was appreciated when I came on screen,” he says.
In the Telugu film Aravinda Sametha Veera Raghava, actor Jagapati Babu was perfectly cast as the gang leader in a Rayalaseema village, but when it comes to casting villains who play greedy businessmen from the city, the south industries don't blink before choosing an actor from Bollywood.
Case in point is Vijay’s Thuppakki in which actor Vidyut Jammwal played an unnamed villain. He was just called the leader of the sleeper cell. In Kaththi, Bollywood actor Neil Nitin Mukesh played Chirag, a greedy businessman.
Daniel says, “When it is a story set in some village, they can’t get away with casting someone who looks alien to that land. But when it is city based, and when the story involves corporate setting, any face will do. I think English-speaking actors would be most suited for corporate roles, in fact. The budget might be a problem though.
He, however, adds that cinema has no language and that new actors entering the industry is a trend that needs to be encouraged.
(With inputs from Cris and Hemanth Kumar C R)