1 September 2014

The Confidence Man

Yesterday's Mumbai Mirror column:


Emraan Hashmi has perfected a persona whose unapologetic appetite for the good life (both sex and money) makes him a rarity in Bollywood - and crucial to it.

Emraan Hashmi is Bollywood's under-acknowledged seamy side. Over his decade in the film industry, he has built a massive devoted fan following. Most of his films come from the Mahesh-Mukesh Bhatt stable, (Mahesh Bhatt's mother and Hashmi's grandmother were sisters, and Emraan began his career assisting on Vishesh Films' Raaz). 

Many of them are franchises - films that bear a common name and broad theme (Raaz, Jannat, Murder), but whose plots, narratives and cast changes completely from one film to another. The one thing that unites them is Emraan. 

We're talking of an actor who is the main draw for a stream of films that are as close to dependable moneymakers as is possible at our notoriously fickle box office. And yet he and his films are barely mentioned in the growing list of synthesizing books about Bollywood, or the column inches regularly devoted to the transformation of Hindi cinema. We go on about the 100 crore club, and act as if the Bhatt films don't really count. 

Yet Hashmi is probably among the most successful leading men in the industry. And more importantly, he has a persona that seems to give him rather more moral leeway than most mainstream heroes still have. 

I'm not talking just of erotic action, which has been almost expected of Hashmi ever since his breakthrough hit Murder (2004) saddled him with the silly 'serial kisser' tag. But his characters do enjoy a degree of sexual openness rare in Bollywood; his audience seems to forgive him whether he is a frequenter of whores (as in Jannat 2), the obsessive stalker of another man's wife (as in Murder), or the rakish lover who dismisses the heartbroken woman he's been sleeping with for three years as an "aadat, aur kucch nahin" (as in Murder 2). 

The films themselves are less judgmental or apologetic about sex than most of contemporary Bollywood, where sex still must come attached to love. A Murder may not advocate an extramarital affair, but it seems to understand it. Murder 2 by no means romanticises the flesh trade, but its money-minded pimps and resigned call girls produce a slightly less black-and-white version of that world than say, a Mardaani

The moral leeway with regard to sex is even greater when it comes to money. Hashmi is always a smooth-talking hustler. And he's always the lower middle class man with a heart of gold - at least as far as the poor and the "deserving" are concerned. But whether he's a small-time cardsharp or pulling off multimillion dollar cons, he is never plagued by high-minded ideas about honesty. Not for him the staid middle class job, or even the relative risks of binness (think a Rocket Singh or a Band Baaja Baraat). 

No, for Emraan it must be a gamble, and with the highest stakes. "Jeb khali ho tabhi toh sapnein dekhne chahiye (It's when your pockets are empty that you should dream)," says his character in an early scene in Jannat (2008). A little later in the same film, he falls in love with a girl wandering through a mall because of the sadness on her face as she admires objects she can't afford. Their whirlwind romance involves his using his roommate's flat deposit to buy her a diamond ring he saw her gazing at, then swamping her telephone-shopping helpline with so many credit card purchases that her monthly target is met in an hour. Their first romantic duet involves sneaking into a shuttered Home Store and trampolining on a display bed that has 'Sale 20%' off signs all around it. 

Hashmi's hero is always out to inhabit the good life - beaches, yachts, fast cars and beautiful women, whom he wines and dines and most crucially, beds, in immaculate hotel rooms from Turkey to Capetown. "People who save money are those who don't know how to make enough of it," says Raja in this week's Raja Natwarlal. But even if they don't necessarily make an appearance - like in the joyous heist pulled off in Raja Natwarlal - there are hidden costs to this good life. So Emraan Hashmi's cinema toggles constantly between a surface sheen and the darkness that is its necessarily obverse - porn, sex work, adultery, trafficking, kidnapping, murder. 

Credit is what makes this world go round. Dons show their creditors 'trailers' of the violence that awaits them if they default on payments (Jannat). Loving mentors might only be pretending to tot up loans in blank notebooks (Raja Natwarlal), but even unwritten debts can accumulate. "A man's body burns when he dies, but not his debts," goes a dialogue in Murder 2

I wonder if the films of Emraan Hashmi are the 21st century inheritor of the 70s Amitabh Bachchan legacy: the bad boy with a good heart, who wants to live the good life at any cost. Only the bets are bigger, and the heroines purer arm candy, who must ask no questions about the provenance of the money showered on them. 

Two things have changed, though. One, it no longer matters that he doesn't have Ma (in fact parents are usually long dead, unable to stop our hero hurtling into his future). And two, he doesn't have to die at the end. Instead of Bachchan's celebrated tragic deaths, Emraan Hashmi has perfected the art of staging his own death. Plenty to think about there.

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