Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi had four sons: Harilal, Manilal, Ramdas and Devdas. One of them turned out to be a rebellious drunk and was disowned by the Mahatma. Which one? If Devdas was your answer, in all probability, you were heavily influenced by the Dilip Kumar/SRK classic about a drunken loser who gets sloshed to forget his true love. That’s what well-etched characters do to you. They grab precious real estate in your mind by becoming indelible makers for a definitive set of traits. Which is why screenwriters and directors spend countless hours debating every little detail about the character, right from the name (Phunsukh Wangdu in 3 Idiots) to how he laughs (remember The Joker’s hysterical cackle?) to what she reads (Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana is spotted with the book When Eight Bells Toll) to what she wears (the Catwoman suit).
Since we are name-ophiles, let’s stick to the theme of movie character naming. When George Lucas was once asked about how he goes about it, he quipped that a name should telegraph what a character is about. For example: Han Solo, the captain of Millennium Falcon in Star Wars, is a lone-wolf by nature. His surname is indicative of his one-man-army thinking.
Key character names are not randomly plucked from thin air. A lot of research goes into it. When Salim Khan and Javed Akhtar were hunting for a suitable name for the villain in Sholay, they opted for Gabbar Singh aka Gabru, a real life dacoit from the 50s who had a gruesome reputation of lining up 22 children and shooting them.
Even while christening the baddie in Mr India, Javed Akhtar was seeking an African-ish sounding name that felt exotically evil. He rummaged through very many Hollywood titles before settling for a 1952 Clark Gable movie called Mogambo. Quentin Tarantino invests as much ingenuity on his minor characters. One of the diamond thieves in Reservoir Dogs is Mr Pink, ostensibly a nod to Pink Panther, the fictional diamond with a distinctive flaw that resembles a leaping panther.
More often than not, the name choice is whimsical. Like in Forrest Gump, the protagonist Gump is named after a racist general just to serve as a reminder that ‘sometimes we all do things…that make no sense’. Whatever the source of inspiration, the big trick in naming characters is that the name should have some character.