They may not be pretty, smart or successful, but they strike a note. Why is it that some of the most lovable characters in popular culture have been far from perfect, flawed even?
By Reya Mehrotra
In 2018, American singer and television personality Demi Lovato took to Instagram to share pics of “cellulite, stretch marks and extra fat” on her body. The reason was simple. Lovato wanted to tell the world that it’s okay to be flawed. “I was on Instagram and I started comparing myself to these Instagram models and I just thought to myself, someone needs to show my fans and anybody that’s looking at my account that what you see isn’t always what’s real, and so, I decided to embrace my flaws and—I don’t even like to call them flaws, it’s just a part of who I am—and show the world that I’m imperfect, but that’s what makes me beautiful,” Lovato was quoted as saying in an interview.
Closer home, actor Lisa Ray, too, recently took to Instagram to post a picture of her sans makeup, as well as several other pictures showing her scars from cancer treatment.
More and more number of celebrities are increasingly embracing their flaws, even flaunting them, and it’s a trend that people seem to have taken to enthusiastically. Social media trends may oftentimes set practically impossible standards to live by, but people today wear their flaws with confidence, thanks in part to celebrities like Lovato and Ray whom they try to emulate. The writing on the wall is clear: move over picture-perfect supermodels and unrealistic standards. Today, realistic content with imperfect and honest characters is the order of the day.
Interestingly, this trend also spills over into literature and celluloid, where the most alluring and appealing characters remain those that are flawed. One of the oldest such characters would perhaps be Suppandi from Tinkle Comics—the village simpleton, in fact, turned 33 years old on April 20 this year. An entire generation grew up with the hilarious character who taught us that it was okay to make mistakes. Not surprisingly, he is the most famous character from the comic series. “Suppandi first appeared in 1983 and, nearly four decades later, we still have children voting for him as their favourite.
He started out as a simple, but lateral-minded servant. However, over time, he has chosen to share his bumbling self across professions, from acting as assistant to archaeologists and photographers to working obliviously under smugglers. Consequently, his look has also changed with time. We launched the book Suppandi: Back to Work on his birthday… it’s a collection of Suppandi comics down the years and the ninth book in the collection. We also distributed Happy Birthday Suppandi, a mini e-magazine for free, featuring six of Suppandi’s comics, including the very first one,” says Rajani Thindiath, editor-in-chief, Tinkle.
Recalling how the fan favourite character was created, she says, “Tinkle lore goes that a reader called Vardarajan sent a story on the Tamil folk character Chappandi. The story was so loved that the first editorial team of Tinkle decided to adopt it as a series in 1983. The iconic look for the character was given by legendary artist Ram Waeerkar whose daughter Archana Amberkar now continues to draw the character.”
While Suppandi might be the most famous, the Tinkle universe boasts of many more such flawed and humane characters who are quite popular. “Flaws make the character interesting and fun. Shikari Shambu is everything he doesn’t appear to be. Although known as a shikari, he is a conservationist and wildlife expert. He is known for his bravery, but is secretly terrified of animals and has no love for adventure. But trouble always finds its way to Shambu and luck finds him a way out. Tantri the Mantri is a minister at the court of King Hooja.
He is the man who protects the king from danger and acts of treason—he is also the man behind them! Tantri wants to become the king of Hujli by hook or by crook. But all his plans to get rid of Hooja backfire in the most comical and bizarre ways. Then we have the Defective Detectives and the name says it all. Rahul and Ravi are the infamous Defective Detectives who have vowed to solve every mystery on this planet. And if there is no mystery, rest assured they will invent one,”
Not just children, for grown-ups, too, fallible characters hold a special place in the heart. Kaveri Singh, a 25-year-old Young India Fellow from Ashoka University, says her favourite character is detective Jake Peralta (played by actor Andy Samberg), an arrogant, immature but talented detective from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, a police procedural comedy television series. “He is the classic fallible character and has literally got ‘how-to-live’ wrong. But he’s an amazing detective with an even more amazing vibe. He almost messes up what he sets out for, but in the end, always gets it right,” says Singh.
There are many other such on-screen characters who have captivated hearts and minds with their humanness. Chris Gardner (played by actor Will Smith) in The Pursuit of Happyness, Jordan Belfort (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Wolf of Wall Street and Nina (played by Natalie Portman) in Black Swan are loved by many for their vulnerabilities. People have also loved Arthur Fleck (played by Joaquin Phoenix) in Joker. It’s not surprising, given that it’s often the flawed anti-hero who walks away with the lion’s share of applause and appreciation compared with the idealistic protagonist.
A reason behind the popularity of such characters is that they are relatable. “Fleabag, the dry-witted titular character from the series Fleabag, is fallible. She is at her worst at the beginning of the series, dealing with personal and professional crises. My takeaway from the series is that a female protagonist could be portrayed as such an iconoclast… her expression of pain at her fallibility and the desire to be cared for is relatable on a primal level. She confesses that she doubts her conviction in feminism, worries she is morally bankrupt and expresses her need to have somebody take complete control of her life. I guess it shows her self-doubt, brutal honesty and non-conformist attitude,” says Rangzen Dolma, a 26-year-old student based in Dharamsala.
There are many Indian characters, too, that have won over hearts of people. Greater Noida-based dentist Vaishali Yadav admits she loves the lively character of Geet played by Kareena Kapoor Khan from the movie Jab We Met. “She is full of life and happy. I love the dialogue where she says ‘I am my favourite’. It teaches you self-love, confidence and to follow your dreams. She does not always make the right choices, but she is a fun person and lives life to the fullest,” Yadav says.
For Delhi-based Kamini Kumari, media consultant, ministry of social justice and empowerment, the riotously funny Sheldon Cooper from the TV series The Big Bang Theory takes the cake. “I love the unconventional genius played by Jim Parsons. The entire series will be remembered for his witty and snarky comments. He is smart yet goofy because he doesn’t really understand human emotions that well and ends up being rude to his friends sometimes. I also love him for his idiosyncrasies like insisting on sitting on the same couch, which he calls ‘my spot’ in the living room. And during this quarantine time, all I can remember is his almost OCD tendencies, where he would insist that everyone washes hands for at least 20 seconds and use hand sanitiser,” she says.
Interestingly, Cooper isn’t the only flawed character loved by fans from the TV series. Bengaluru resident Sweta Patra, a 27-year-old physics teacher, says she loves the metrosexual character of Rajesh Koothrappali who is shown to be suffering from selective mutism on the show. “The character is Indian, so you can relate to it. He is a brilliant astrophysicist, but has his share of quirks. Initially, he couldn’t even speak to women without getting drunk. He falls heads over heels in love with every woman he meets.
Being an effeminate man, his relationship with his best friend Howard or his pet dog is often joked about. He depends heavily on his father for financial support. Despite all that, he is a genuinely good-natured person, quick to apologise and a true friend,” says Patra.
There are many more such characters loved by loyal fans. “I love Dr Smith from Lost in Space, Joey from Friends and Jethalal from Taarak Mehta Ka Ooltah Chashmah. They are all stupid, funny and fallible. Dr Smith teaches you to never be arrogant, Joey teaches you to be fun-loving and have no ego, and Jethalal teaches you to not make mistakes,” shares Agra-based Gaurang Saraswat, who serves in the merchant navy.
As per Thindiath, flawed characters are appealing because they are real and one can empathise with them. “Flaws add depth to the character and make it interesting and funny. For all the perfect-sounding fairytales, we know that real life is not idyllic or ideal. Suppandi’s interesting logic, for instance, shows kids another way of looking at things. Shambu’s fear of animals is so common, but don’t we all try to put up a brave face? As for the Defective Detectives, all of us have wanted to solve mysteries and form a gang with our friends at some point or the other. In real life, we don’t turn out like those hotshot detectives of fiction. Most of our theories and actions are flawed and closer to the Defective Detectives,” she says.
Author and journalist Meghna Pant explains what authors must keep in mind before portraying fallible characters: “Let your character do contradictory things, like a schoolteacher who hates kids. Your character can have one or two stereotypical characteristics, like a stingy Gujju or a loud Punjabi, while also being an individual and complex person who is developing and growing. Think of Railway Raju from The Guide, a corrupt tour guide who becomes a holy man. Your story is real only if your character is real. These characters were authentic, genuine, lively and believable because they behaved like real-life people. Character building is important in both fiction and non-fiction,” says Pant, adding, “The etymology of character names is something you must pay careful attention to… something which I’ve mentioned as critical in my book How To Get Published In India, where I write about character development. Ravana, for example, means ‘a loud wail’. Howard Roark, from the novel The Fountainhead, has a name containing the words ‘hard’ and ‘roar’, underlining the steely and cold character that he is.”
Talking about her favourite flawed characters, Pant says, “One of my most favourite fallible characters is Dexter, both from the book by Jeff Lindsay, as well as the show of the same name. Dexter is a blood spatter analyst with the Miami Police by day and a murderer by night. His character is relatable for two reasons: he only kills people he thinks deserve punishment—which makes us think of him as a crusader and not criminal—and he has a heart-wrenching backstory that makes us relate to him.”