In ancient Greece, the hero was always mortal as opposed to the gods who were immortal. Only after he faced death could he become immortal. He had to achieve the most perfect death and the moment of death was to be recorded in ‘kleos’, meaning ‘glory, fame, that which is heard’.
|Action heroines like Quentin Tarantino’s avenging bride in Kill Bill have become more visible over the years
The human imperative to have heroes and to celebrate them through story and song is an old one. I’m reminded of this when Ihear of a Dastangoi performance on Saadat Hassan Manto to celebrate the writer in his centenary year.
Dastangoi is an ancient form of storytelling, which originated in Persia, and has been revived by a group of theatre artists who perform around the country.
“Dastans were epics, often oral in nature, which were recited or read aloud and in essence were like medieval romances everywhere,” says the Dastangoi blog (http://dastangoi. blogspot.in).
They often had heroes battling impossible enemies and “in the process of telling the story the narrators freely borrowed tropes and themes from other stories...” This freedom allows the current troupe to pick Manto as their theme for the evening. It’s an ideal platform to eulogise a literary hero.
The fact that Manto was a drinker and a borrower of money doesn't make him any less so. “What makes a hero? Courage, strength, morality, withstanding adversity? Are these the traits that truly show and create a hero?” asks Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Notes from Underground and it remains a relevant question.
For heroes come in many tints, spring from disparate origins and survive in as many states as regular people. The latest Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises (2012), has Bruce Wayne languishing for much of the movie in a pit far below the earth, battered, broken and helpless.
In the latest re-interpretation of The Amazing Spiderman (2012), Peter Parker is a nerdy schoolboy when he’s not embarking on arachnid escapades. He’s also arrogant, self-indulgent and a little silly.
Despite swelling sounds, swish effects and outlandish gear, both heroes are flawed, weak, and dangerously human. But we love a hero whom we can identify with. The scenario for women is a bit complex.
Warrior women or action heroines have become more visible over the years. Those that leap to mind are Quentin Tarantino’s avenging bride in Kill Bill (2003) and Lara Croft in the Tomb Raider movies (2001, 2003).
Croft, for example, first appeared in a 90s’ computer game and has since sprawled across video games, comic books and film. Her fighting faculties are advanced and she can pretty much do anything a man can.
But apart from being super skilled, she’s also super sexualised — and this is true of many female heroes. The unreasonably tight costumes, the overly voluptuous drawings or actors, the emphasis on them being beautiful, underline that it’s not enough for women to save the world and finish the bad guys.
They have to look great while doing it. This month we mourned another unlikely hero. Rajesh Khanna, whose expressive hands and endearing smile, set many hearts aflutter in the seventies (and long after), died last week.
As a hero, he couldn’t have been less like the climbing, flying, muscular hunks popular today. He rarely cracked, clunked or kaboomed villains into oblivion.
But he was diligent in his pursuit of happiness, preached it like a credo, sang some neat rhymes and specialised in love. (He could romance anyone around a tree — or off it for that matter.) If heroes signify our deepest aspirations, those aren’t a bad set to cultivate. Modern movies seem to have run out of heroes.
On the one hand, we have insipid men like Saif Ali Khan’s character in Cocktail (2012), a forty- something man who chases skirts, plays the fool and does little in the way of extraordinary, or even ordinary, work.
Or the entirely forgettable trio in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara (2011) whose motto was to cram as much hedonism into as little time as possible and indulge in some good ol’ bourgeois angst about work-life balance in serious moments.
On the other hand, we have the anti- heroes of the Don series (2006, 2011), or Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). I wonder what this says about us.
(Nalin Mehta’s column will be back next week)