His first meeting with Irfan Habib, a history professor of Aligarh Muslim University, is vividly etched in Subhash Kapoor’s mind. An authority on modern Indian history, Habib, Kapoor thought, would come crisply dressed, as most professors are. Instead, he was in a half-sleeve shirt, trousers and sandals, riding a worn-out bicycle and carrying a lunchbox and books. “I couldn’t believe I was meeting one of India’s greatest intellectuals. His simplicity left me humbled,” recalls Kapoor.
One of the defining aspects of Kapoor’s films is his use of “ordinary people with extraordinary qualities”, which can be traced to this meeting. Phas Gaya Re Obama (2010), his breakthrough film, saw the adventures of an NRI and a bunch of gangsters, both of whom are affected by global recession. His last release, Jolly LLB (2013), centred on a naive lawyer from Meerut who takes on a mighty opponent in a big case. The latest, Guddu Rangeela is about two brothers who are small-time crooks. When their first high-profile assignment, the kidnapping of a deaf-and-mute girl, goes wrong, their lives change forever. Guddu and Rangeela draw battlelines with Haryana’s khap panchayat.
Unlike his earlier films, however, Guddu Rangeela isn’t a satire but addresses a social issue in a mainstream format. “I grew up watching — and enjoying — Hindi films. I was waiting for an opportunity to tell a story in a mainstream way,” says Kapoor. The initial idea, of a buddy movie, came to him while making his first film. It has a hilarious exchange between two good-natured goons. “But I was stuck with the basic premise for a long time. Later, I decided to give it a khap panchayat backdrop,” says Kapoor.
The colour and quirks of the characters found a perfect foil in the badlands of Haryana, a region Kapoor explored during his days as a student and later as a journalist. “On one hand, you have a gleaming Gurgaon, and on the other is the extra-judicial panchayat giving sermons that are medieval and regressive. It’s a 20-minute drive from Delhi but the kind of contradictions that co-exist within the society are fascinating,” says Kapoor.