Indian cinema has a long history of action films. Although it may not seem that way from the get-go, the action-packed blockbusters from the 70s will have you believe otherwise. After all, the majority of the films made prior were predominantly family dramas or romances tangentially focusing on action.
But there are nuances to this. In the 1960s, Dara Singh, a prominent wrestler gained popularity and began to work in low-budget Hindi films. These films were never dubbed as action films but were instead called ‘stunt’ cinema.
In a sense, one can also say that Singh revived the genre that was widely popularised in the 1920s. For context, The Sharda Film Company was set up in the mid-20s, successfully formalising the ‘stunt’ film. It also gave rise to the first action star, Master Vithal.
There is much debate about why the ‘stunt’ films were a success. A primary reason could be the influence of American films of the time. However, others insist that ‘physical culture’ and ‘physical performance’ shows were popular in India before the invention of cinema. And the popularity seeped into the newly-devised genre.
Unfortunately, as mentioned before, action films faced a setback after the 1930s. Suddenly the focus shifted from ‘stunts’ to romantic or social melodramas in the 50s. Films such as Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Raj Kapoor’s Awara tapped into storylines that centred around characters that have fallen in deep waters.
On the other end, some of the films from the 50s may have had some action sequences, but it was never a key ingredient.
In the 60s, with Singh’s films’ however, that changed. Action was the central part of the narrative. But these films were relegated to the margins.
One such film, Samson, revolved around the mythological titular character who must contend against a wizard and protect Princess Shera. These films were said to be inspired by the Italian peplums – which can be described as costume dramas.
After the steady decline of Dara Singh’s initial success in the 70s and which was his claim to fame, he shifted gears and joined the cast of Ramanand Sagar’s Ramayan, wherein he played Hanuman - generations would continue to recognise him for the latter in the 80s.
The Angry Young Man
Blockbuster actioners were brought to the fore in the late and mid-70s with films like Deewar and Kaala Pathar. The ‘angry young man’ figure was epitomised in the 70s by Amitabh Bachchan. The antihero going against the system to bring a modicum of stability to an unstable environment was the key plot line in most films.
Bollywood as a term was coined in the 60s and 70s by film journals. The films, under the larger umbrella of the genre, were mostly action, comedy, romance and melodrama driven. Therefore, 'action’ became a key ingredient in Bollywood, which was not the case earlier.
After Bachchan’s films became a major crowd-puller, Mithun Chakraborty’s films also began to imitate a similar archetype. In the 1990s, Suniel Shetty and Sunny Deol’s films followed the same trajectory.
With the liberalization in 1998, there was a shift to extravagant romances depicting affluent lifestyles. Hindi films started catering to the middle classes and the NRI audience. But action movies still continued to enjoy a place in Bollywood.
Modern Day Action
Ajay Devgn and Akshay Kumar were known for their action dramas - they were a one-man army that could take down their sea of enemies. Films like Khakee and Khiladi were the classic massy entertainers that Bollywood was known to churn out.
It was a rung lower than the romantic melodramas of the time - Shah Rukh Khan's Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge would be an excellent example. After all, the actor rose to fame as a romantic hero but he was also part of films like Karan Arjun and Baazigar.
However, with time the action genre became divided - on one hand there were the sleek action-thillers employing the latest technologies, and on the other emerged stories from rural areas. The template saw a complete makeover. Films by Anurag Kashyap, and Ram Gopal Varma changed the landscape of action films.
The 2010 film Rakta Charitra and the 2012 film Gangs of Wasseypur did away with the hackneyed tropes to bring out character-driven stories.
Shootout at Lokhandwala, which came before the two, by Apoorva Lakhia, also stepped out of the Bollywood masala template to give films a new raw twist.
Parallelly, films such as Dil Chahta Hai, Lagaan and Rang De Basanti were being made that completely challenged the idea of the Bollywood-esque films that journals prior had unceremoniously pigeonholed.
But action films and the experiment with the genre continued. Salman Khan emerged as the undisputed action hero, with films like Wanted and Ek Tha Tiger. While Shah Rukh dipped his toes into the genre with his superhero film Ra.One. Aamir Khan managed to take it a step further with films like Dangal.
With the release of Shahid Kapoor's Bloody Daddy, an adaptation of the 2011 French film Sleepless Night, a long history of adapting successful films from the West comes to light. For instance, Amitabh Bachchan's 2003 film Kaante was adapted from Quentin Tarantino's 1992 classic Reservoir Dogs.
Bloody Daddy does not follow the action hero archetype that is a staple in Bollywood movies. The sequences aren't larger than life, but sleek. It reminds us of mainstream Hollywood films like Fugitive, and Air Force One among others. They are edge-of-the-seat thrillers packed with action.
But there is a marked difference in said action-thrillers as well, unlike neo-noir thrillers like Prisoners, which have a certain depth to their characterization. Films like Taken, and by extension Bloody Daddy, depend largely on the choreography of the action sequences. This is not to say, it does not have well-written characters, but it's not a pre-requisite. The mass appeal of a film like Taken is good enough for the audience to flock to the theatres.
Shahid Kapoor's film, however, may not hold the same appeal that a Taken does in the scope of its larger audience base, especially in the Indian context, which uses action differently from Hollywood. But considering the OTT boom, cine-goers arguably see action films from beyond the lens of Bollywood now. And only time can tell the variations in which action can be used as a key ingredient.