Mogambo, General Dong, Thakral: Why Amrish Puri is the Bollywood Villain You Couldn’t Hate

Bollywood

Mogambo, General Dong, Thakral: Why Amrish Puri is the Bollywood Villain You Couldn’t Hate

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

My most enduring memory of an Amrish Puri role is not Mogambo. It is not even Bauji from Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, which was my favourite movie for the better part of my early teenage years. It is in fact a particularly disturbing outing in a highly forgettable Tahalka. Amrish Puri played General Dong who happened to be a vicious, sadistic, outrightly monstrous dictator of a fictional country called Dongrila.

Ridiculousness of the premise aside, General Dong was the stuff my childhood nightmares were made of. There was something strangely disturbing about the way Amrish Puri played this over-the-top, almost caricaturish character. In the hands of a lesser actor, General Dong would have been easily reduced to a ridiculous, comical self-parody. But Puri injected a kind of alluring menace that exuded a perfection of tone that befitted a classic comic book villain.

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Amrish Puri injected a kind of alluring menace that exuded a perfection of tone that befitted a classic comic book villain like General Dong.

Shantketan Films

Such was the impact of General Dong on my childhood psyche, that for the longest period of time, I couldn’t believe Bauji and General Dong were the same guy. Amrish Puri played Bauji with a mixture of old-school tough guy vibe, and a disguised vulnerability that was antithetical to the very idea of Mogambo or General Dong. Bauji wasn’t a villain – he was a staunch, conservative family patriarch with a heart of gold, who reminded me of my older uncles and grandfatherly relatives. If General Dong and Mogambo were megalomaniacs who belonged to a fantasy Bollywood land of expensive hideouts and trembling henchmen, Bauji was the guy we had all met. And it was a measure of Puri’s greatness as an actor, that he did not feel like a misfit in either of the roles. Especially given that Amrish Puri was a part of an era where typecasting was a norm and the very idea of a villain had been beaten to an extent that it had become a stereotype.

Every bad guy Puri played came with a distinct personality due to him infusing an individuality that humanised their overreach.

Every bad guy Puri played came with a distinct personality that was not just a function of his carefully chosen appearance, or mannerisms, but due to him infusing an individuality that humanised their overreach. One of the things that made Mogambo so memorable was the fact that despite all the grandiosity and delusion, he still came across as very human. Puri made sure of it. The terror and fascination that Mogambo inspired was not just because he wore that silly costume. It was because he felt real. And that was terrifying.

The actor’s entire filmography is a lesson in the delicious diversity of evil that traverses the length and breadth of the human condition. He’d long perfected the rich, bad guy template, like Ghatak’s slimy Balwant Rai, Meri Jung’s suave Thakral, Koyla’s white haired and sleazy Raja Sahab and Karan Arjun’s amusingly trite but effective Ranaji. But it did not stop him from experimenting with the outright bizarre like Nagina’s snake charming occultist Bhairon Nath or get political like in the case of Nayak’s Balraj Chauhan, the narcissist politician who the actor played with an overt cruelty that almost seems prophetic in the present times.

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Steven Spielberg had once called Amrish Puri his favourite villain and said that he was “the best the world has ever produced and ever will”.

Paramount Pictures

Despite being one of the most influential villains of our cinematic history, Puri never really needed the theatrics to make his roles work. It’s for no reason that Puri went on to become the shorthand for a Bollywood villain in our collective conscience. Steven Spielberg had once called Amrish Puri his favourite villain and said that he was “the best the world has ever produced and ever will”. The legend is that to lend credibility to his Mola Ram in Spielberg’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Puri shaved his head and is said to have liked the look so much, that it went on to become his signature style. That’s as good as an endorsement can be. In a way, the characters he played might have been evil and flawed. But Amrish Puri, who introduced an entire generation to the idea of a bad guy, was perfect.

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