Crime is a world in itself — with its own set of twisted rules and ethics, hierarchy and set-up, honour and vendetta...
Crime is a world in itself — with its own set of twisted rules and ethics, hierarchy and set-up, honour and vendetta... And it has its own superstars — gangsters who are the stuff of modern lore and legend, and protagonists of Bollywood films.
A spate of recent and upcoming Bollywood films are based on the lives of gangsters and revolve around the underworld — Shah Rukh Khan’s forthcoming Raees (reportedly inspired by ’80s don Abdul Latif of Gujarat), Daddy (based on gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli), Rajinikanth’s Kabali (rumoured to be inspired by a real-life don based in Mylapore, Chennai), the recently released Main Aur Charles (based on Charles Sobhraj), Haseena — the Queen of Mumbai (based on mafia don Dawood Ibrahim’s sister Haseena Parkar)...
Bollywood has a special love for these bad boys and their murky world. And the affair is going strong.
Lords of the underworld The gangster as a character is often larger than life and his dark world has a certain sheen of glamour to it. Most mob movies are not just about shootouts and bloodbaths, but are thinly disguised moral dramas with carefully balanced emotional engineering, believes noted writer-director Sanjay Gupta, who has zoomed in on the underworld in several of his movies. “There’s something about good guys that doesn’t resonate with a cinema-going audience. They won’t behave outside any moral compass. ‘Extreme acts’ of good and evil are what attract people,” he says, adding, “Even though they (gangsters) hurt and kill for money, they torture rivals, steal, sell drugs, traffic people for sex and terrorise neighbourhoods, many gangsters have been known to be generous towards friends while being violent towards their enemies. Despite their streaks of violence, vengeance, intimidation and abuse, they continue to fascinate.”
Even though filmmakers stay far away from showing any of these characters as inspirational, there’s something strangely attractive about them — this sense that they can do anything, the fact that they take risks that we would never take in real life. Often there’s a good-looking actor playing the lead. They look cool, wear fashionable clothes. They are shown mixing with celebrities, politicians and society figures before their downfall, and have a legend-like sheen to them.”
The cinematic construction of crime in its manifold dimensions is a well crafted blend of facts and fictional narrative — staying true to truth, and portraying it in an engaging manner. Among the slew of upcoming films aiming to flesh out the lives and times of actual gangsters, Rahul Dholakia’s SRK-starrer Raees is set in Ahmedabad of the 1980s and has him playing Gujarati don Abdul Latif. Daddy will see Arjun Rampal playing the ‘Robin Hood of Dagdi Chawl’ Arun Gawli, and the actor met the jailed gangster in the hospital last December as preparation to step into his shoes on screen. Robot director Shankar’s upcoming Kabali has Rajinikanth sporting a salt-and-pepper look as a powerful gangster who is trying to keep everyone under his control. The film is currently being shot in Malaysia. Apoorva Lakhia’s Haseena — The Queen of Mumbai is a biopic based on the life of the notorious crime boss Haseena Parkar, kingpin Dawood Ibrahim’s sister. Parkar, who reportedly controlled a large portion of the dreaded gangster’s massive business operations in Mumbai, operated out of the city’s Nagpada area and died of cardiac arrest in July 2014. Sonakshi Sinha, who will be playing the title role, recently tweeted that the script is “brilliant” and she can’t wait to play the role. Sanjay Gupta is making not one but two gangster-based movies: Ek Tha Gangster featuring Abhishek Bachchan and Mumbai Saga reportedly starring John Abraham. Ek Tha Gangster is reportedly based on the book Byculla to Bangkok and will trace how youngsters were recruited and went on to become goons like Arun Gawli, Ashwin Naik and Chhota Rajan. The film will also feature characters inspired by real-life cops Vijay Salaskar and Pradeep Sharma.
Intrigue value Trade analyst Komal Nahta feels that the most important aspect of the underworld that attracts both makers as well as viewers to narratives based on it, is its being unfamiliar and mysterious territory. He says, “This is a world that not many people know much about beyond the surface that they have barely scratched via the media. They don’t understand how it functions, what goes into its dynamics, what determines the behaviour patterns of its people and no matter how many films are made with stories drawn from it, there will always be more of its dimensions to explore. So, the world of gangsters and underworld crime syndicates has a certain intrigue value unique to itself that is always ripe with novelty.”
It isn’t a typically happy world that paints a rosy picture of life and because so many other films do, films that explore this seemingly faraway murky territory that exists closer to you than you think, tend to catch your attention fairly quickly. “In terms of the industry, it takes one or two such films to click for more and more producers and filmmakers to want to follow them up with movies of their own, featuring a new gangster every time. After films like Company and Sarkaar did as well as they did, Bollywood found in them another genre that was worth tapping into,” says Nahta.
Moral Prism Simple morality and gangster films have had an uneasy relationship. Although movie viewers expect criminals to fail, which means prison or death, the bad guys are sometimes viewed sympathetically as victims of circumstances as much as they are perceived as psychopaths or social misfits. “I didn’t see him (Sobhraj) as a criminal,” says Randeep Hooda, who played Bikini Killer Charles Sobhraj in his recent movie Main aur Charles. “I felt his power and brain were his enigmatic quality. On the entertainment front these evil men seem to inhabit a more glamorous world than most. Money, fast cars, sex — films continue to show a lot of the upside as there’s still a romanticisation of the gangster. Gangsters are often shown as colourful characters. A lot of audiences don’t want to see the truth of what these people did. If you put that on screen, they are repulsed by it. They want to believe in the legend and not the truth. For example, a few think that Charles is like Buddha, whereas many label him a badmaash, several others describe him as a serial killer and a whole lot dub him a devil's agent or the devil himself... so, the guy has an unquestionably multi-layered personality that lends him perfectly to a movie plot.”
Talking about gangster films running the risk of glamorising mobsters in a manner that might entice the audience towards crime, Milan Luthria, director of Once Upon a Time in Mumbai and The Dirty Picture, says, “When we talk about the fascination for grey areas of life — be it gangsters, murderers, rebels or people against the system — one has to understand that historically, this is a part of drama and such characters have always been there. You may call a person a gangster today but many years ago maybe he was a thief, and in an epic maybe the evil cousin or the warrior who turned against his king. These are dramatic foundations for our popular grey characters. There is no sense in pointing out that filmmakers are glamorising gangsters today and presenting them to the audience, as though that’s the only reason why people will take to crime. In any history, literature or mythology you will find both sides of the coin and human beings will make their choices on the basis of their mental framework or leanings.
Simply put, filmmakers are storytellers and while some of us are attracted towards the dark side of the dramatic world, others love to explore the sweeter and rosier side of life. For instance, I’m not a filmmaker who can make a film about a sweet family or about two people coochie-cooing. I like dark and aggressive characters and I like to make entertaining films with such characters.”
He adds, “Assassinations, cold blooded murders and robbery have always been a part of society. Filmmakers, authors or playwrights didn’t sign any contract nor are they obliged morally or contractually to keep society safe and secure. Our job is to reflect what’s happening and to dramatise it and present it to the audience. The portrayal of bad boys always changes from one film to another. For instance, you will have a film where a gangster is filled with remorse and ends his life while sometimes he may not be regretful of his actions. Gangsters, dacoits, pirates or spies with multiple shades to their personality and swashbuckling life make for an interesting subject for the audience to get hooked to. What stays in the minds of viewers is a larger than life character with an interesting dark history.”
Reality and entertainment There are broadly two types of gangster films — the fictional and those based on real stories, notes filmmaker Anurag Basu. “In Bollywood we are inclined to make movies on the latter. But these involve a ‘fine balance’ between entertaining audiences and showing the reality,” he says. “This is particularly so as many people who knew these gangsters’ victims will still be around. Also, to put it simply — gangster movies are born out of media’s sensationalism too. The media sensationalises the secretive, deadly nationwide conspiracies of criminals and public curiosity is aroused to know all the law enforcement proceedings of the investigation. The testimony of experts and the appearance of gangsters talking about the right to remain silent as a defense against self-incrimination shocks even a child and thereon, this story lends itself to books, films and TV series on the mafia and the underworld. Films provide a clear, concise, narrative account that puts events into comprehensible language. As the sensational arrests and prosecutions are accompanied by disclosures of political corruptions which some describe as the ‘political and criminal nexus’, a lot of characters besides the protégé build up the imagination of the creator. However, that doesn’t mean that films aren’t bound by certain laws in much the same way that music is governed by rules of harmony, melody and rhythm. These rules are established by rigid aesthetic criteria. Films too, for all their freedom, permit filmmakers to play with the physical forms of space, time and causality, if not escape them completely.”
While dabbling with the crime genre, right research and the approach of a filmmaker is what matter the most. Luthria says, “Today a lot of research material is available for the filmmakers. An in-depth research of your character is an essential pre-requisite. Getting into the shoes of your character is essential in order to do justice to the character.”
Fleshing out the character of the gangster is a dexterous exercise of dodging the rigid and strict boundaries of right and wrong, and filmmakers use their ingenuity to include some ambiguity to achieve that. But however glamorous the anti-hero, however fascinating the gangster, the end, mostly, sticks to the morally right stance and the expected course. Affirms Sanjay Gupta, “In the end, they all have to die and we have to depict the age-old phenomenion of good over evil."
Inputs by Aditi Pancholi Shroff and Nandini D. Tripathy