Like George Costanza, I’ve often wanted to pretend to be an architect, and an offshoot of this dream is to do some kind of major study of the architecture of evil spaces in Hindi movies. The most distinctive visual marker—physical manifestation, even—of evil in Bollywood is the villain lair. Baddies are often accessorized with snazzy clothing, cars, mansions, weapons, and a posse, but these are not always distinctive in form or kind from what heroes also have or eventually control.
The one resource villains consistently have over heroes is unique, private spaces for hedonism and violence: the lair. The hero never holds court in a hall filled with alcohol, flunkies, and a dance floor. Especially in recent years, he might be as rich as a gold smuggler or arms dealer, but his funds come from legal (or at least uninteresting) sources. He might go to nightclubs, but they’re usually public and designed to look generically cool rather than individualized, secret hangouts. He’s too goody-goody to invite dancing girls into his bed, and he certainly doesn’t have Scaramanga-style mirrors or booby-trapped rooms at his disposal. The lair reads as embodiment of manic, insatiable sinning, with resources that reflect and enable greed, pride, lust, gluttony, and wrath.
If you remember Mola Ram’s arena in Temple of Doom, you’ve had a taste of what Hindi films have offered over the decades. Maybe actor Amrish Puri, who often played eye-bugging baddies in Hindi films both before and after ToD, shared some ideas with the art department. I can’t name a Bollywood film in which still-beating hearts are ripped out, but plenty of them have giant religious statuary, chained slaves, and death traps.
Join me for a guided tour of Bollywood’s best villain lairs in song. (Oh c’mon, you knew there would be musical numbers.)
In Shaan (1980), the leads infiltrate the lair in disguise as gypsy dancers and musicians. The ruse of musical entertainment is a common infiltration technique in Bollywood, and this is one of the greatest examples because the scale is so big. The spectacular set for this underwater lair contains a golden throne, a library, and a flaming centerpiece. The owner, Shakal, is instantly recognizable in the Bloefeld mold, complete with cat, and he even gives a slow clap at the end.
Wardat (1981) indulges in one of my favorite micro-genres of song: “the wonders of ancient Egypt!”, represented here by a huge fanged sphinx and other statuary, stone pylons, and lots of sand. Dancers not-particularly-Egyptian costumes with feathers and fringe, except the hero and a chief henchman, who seem to be wearing whatever they came to the set in that day. Don’t miss our hero’s unexplained flamenco dance moves. The song gets an F for consistency but an A for refusing to submit its artistic vision to budgets or logic.
Apradh (1972) features the drunk hero imagining the woman he loves as the “item girl,” that staple of explicit dancing. There are fountains with colored lights and swimming pools full of stoned tourist extras—in Bollywood, as most other places, superfluous white people make everything worse. There are gambling tables, a revolving bar, mariachis, a stuffed tiger, and naked statues in risqué poses. Debauch-o-rama!
Chor Sipahee (1977) is the only instance in my viewing experience of a lair with a spiral slide—the safety inspector must have set egress requirements? Other more standard features include an undercover cop, whom you can easily spot as the most uncomfortable person in the room, and lots of sparkly accessories. Sadly out of view in the song is a human-sized version of those pneumatic tubes at the drive-through bank.
Paapi (1977) has everything I like in a lair—and set to music! Furniture made of sculpted naked ladies, alcohol, henchmen in white gloves, a masked man watching from behind a screen, the villain looking louche in his glittery bathrobe, and many excessive balconies. Clearly nothing respectable ever happens here.
This next one might win a prize for weirdest lair decor simply because it doesn’t read as either menacing or hedonistic—visually, it’s like 70s children’s tv. Heeralal Pannalal (1978) has sherbet-colored walls, a bar bedecked with lips, and backing ladies “playing guitar” in satin fringed bikinis as they prance around a sunken living room.
Ganga Aur Suraj (1980) is a very fine example of the trope “girl goes undercover among villains to free boy and actually illustrates her plan with her dance and lyrics but somehow nobody notices.” The semi-ruined, rural palace set is noteworthy too—the villains aren’t meticulous enough to restore everything and clear out the vines, but they do appreciate some traditional carvings. They’re also more populist, relatable in ways that the mega-rich, with their revolving bars and subterranean death traps, can never be.
My very favorite vintage lair song is from Teesri Aankh (1982) because everyone involved fully embraces the philosophy “more is more.” The space is vast and full of discordant furniture/carpeting/paint choices with a strong commitment to owl and skull motifs. There’s a bar, a slide, and bleep-bloop communication equipment. There are henchmen in satin, gladiators in headbands, and disco dancers with talons.
The masala villain lair has not died out completely. Players (2012) demonstrates the fine line between mansions and lairs. The only thing that really separates them is the villain’s illuminated spider logo and backlit map on the floor. It’s a great lair by the definitions established in earlier decades: dance area, the personal logo as decor motif, a spinning command chair, giant map, round bed, surveillance equipment. The villain smirks while the writhing good girl secretly infiltrates. It’s all there, looking just as delightfully incoherent as it did in the 1970s heydays.
There may be no better reason for a lair in more contemporary films than the script being a remake of a 70s classic. Lairs are often the site of self-aggrandizement and self-promotion, and the decor in Don: The Chase Begins Again (2006) does those things very well. If the song in Players shows the private inner sanctum of the modern villain lair, this is the audience hall. The physical contents also meet the standard requirements: racially diverse audience members that show the global reach of the evil empire, a big dance floor, a bad girl, a good girl undercover to serve the higher cause, smug facial expressions by the villain (superstar Shahrukh Khan, he of frequent wrongful detention by the TSA), and both menace and debauchery.
Here’s to the villain lair: long may its sequinned dresses swish and its death traps squish.
Watch all songs mentioned here in this playlist. It is with great sadness that there is no song set in my favorite villain lair in all of Bollywood (Parvarish, 1977), despite it having a crew of permanently-dancing women silhouetted behind a red window, but if you’d like to see it just for the design, click here.
Hidden within the walls of her very own villain lair, Beth Watkins plots her further decor improvements. Will she go full Fauxgyptian? Perhaps embrace disco and tinsel? And what is that she is marking on the light up map of the world on her floor?