Stories of heroes are also stories about villains. The arc of a heroes’ journey may be the very stuff of the plot, but it’s the existence of villains that compels that rise.
We see the same in 3 Bahadur, the latest film from Pakistan that’s all the rage.
Also read: Why you should watch 3 Bahadur, Pakistan's first animated film
A trio of heroes — school friends Amna, Saadi and Kamil — gain superpowers when they demonstrate a desire to combat the thugs that terrorise their town, Roshan Basti. The thugs are underlings of the evil overlord Mangu who gained his superpowers after pledging allegiance to the devil incarnate, Baba Balaam. The heroes' acquisition of superpowers is staggered; the more bravery they show, the more powerful they become.
The heroes are adequately fleshed out — there's Amna, whose speed, strength and sass make her the centre of attention; smart and serious Saadi with a tragic backstory; and Kamil, who's endearingly silly but kind to a fault. There's a balance of brawn, brains and heart in this superhero trio.
But one feels that the portrayal of the villains is not so nuanced; in fact, it wouldn't be a stretch to say that very little is known about the villains, nothing except their evil intentions and ultimate defeat.
Baba Balaam is fiery, fanged and in Mangu's words, "so hideous", which is indication enough of his devil-on-earth status.
Mangu is large, intimidating and malicious enough to pose a credible threat to the 3 Bahadurs, and his slightly kooky gang of thugs, drawn in a variety of shapes and sizes, flash enough steel to have us convinced of their menace. But the inner psyches of these villians are left largely unexplored.
What ever happened to back stories?
Who Baba Balaam actually is, where he came from, and how he came to amass all the evil power in the world is left to each viewer's subjective interpretation.
Which is fine, because we assume him to be the devil incarnate, and don't as such need further explanation of his evil. But the lack of explanation continues with the other villainous characters...
We wonder: why is Mangu a kidnapper (which, by the way, was his job even before he became a supervillain)? And why does he want to rule the world? There is a tangential reference to his lust for power — "Did you not want superpowers so that you may rule the world? Isn't that why you kidnapped the little girl today?", asks Baba Balaam of Mangu — but it's difficult to connect that with his kidnapping gig.
We don't know what made Mangu go over to the bad side. Was it jealousy, like Snow White's stepmother who is envious of her beauty? Was it wrath, like the Fairy Godmother in Shrek who resolves to have Shrek's head because she felt her son, Lord Farquad, who was hopeful for Fiona's hand, had been slighted? Even Maleficent had a broken heart. But no explanation is given for Mangu's drive to take over the world, at the expense of other people's misery.
Moreover, why are Mangu's cronies carrying out his bidding? Is it easy money? Are they jobless and poor? Is loyalty to Mangu their safety blanket? We can infer several reasons for their thuggery, but the film's intended audience of kids, however smart, may need more information — and here's why:
When I was younger, I used to think of chors (thieves) as a different breed of human, and wonder where they came from. This view of the world was incorrect and unfair, and thankfully I grew out it, eventually coming to the realisation that while human beings can become deeply flawed over time, no one is born rotten.
Why is it important that we understand the roots of evil rather than writing it off as preordained?
For one, we would like kids to learn compassion and empathy, to understand that even the worst people around us are like that for a reason. Identifying that cause of cruelty or injustice helps dismantle it in a more long-lasting way. We have to arrest the dangerous tendency to wish away, or execute, or banish people who are unlike us. Even if they're scum.
In the absence of any context for or explanation of the evil in 3 Bahadur, we may be telling kids that it's okay to think of people as inherently evil, rather than the product of their environments, and thus incapable of reform.
(Spoiler alert) In real life, criminals can't be sent hurtling through the fourth dimension, like Mangu's end, nor can they fade into oblivion, like his thugs. We need to be more realistic.
A deeper characterisation of the villains would not only humanise them, but also enhance kids' understanding of the many messages in 3 Bahadur.
(Spoiler alert) By the end, the 3 Bahadurs have trounced the thugs and maimed Mangu, but in an interesting and literally last-minute twist (in a scene shown after the credits rolled), the devil remains undefeated. Maybe we should expect a sequel, one in which the 3 Bahadurs are meant to come to a more nuanced understanding of evil.
If we give 3 Bahadur the benefit of the doubt, it makes sense for a franchise to build its foundation and place all the focus on the heroes in the first installment. After all, the heroes are what draw the audiences in and have their colorful characters plastered on all sorts of merchandise. Perhaps that's why the villains of 3 Bahadur are one-note, just serving to necessitate the trio's ascent to superheroic status.
Generic villains may work for Marvel and DC, but for a film that aims to teach kids a thing or two about good and evil, villains work best when fully realised with backstories and motivations that go beyond simply taking over the world.
3 Bahadur did half the job in setting the stage for deeper exploration of evil, but barely addresses its root causes or the possibility of reform. Maybe the sequel will address these angles, but it's a lesson delayed.
Is 3 Bahadur teaching our kids the right lessons about good and evil?