Updated: May 5, 2020 1:22:57 pm
Tossing off his recent mob conquests and flushed with newfound political success, Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpayee) climbs up on a cliff overlooking the vast jungle that makes up Mumbai, the prize he covets most. He’s not just facing the sea but also talking to it. “Mumbai ka king kaun?” he roars. When flattering replies are not forthcoming the kill-machine supplies the answer himself. “Bhiku Mhatre!” Mhatre is the kingpin of Mumbai and of Ram Gopal Varma’s scintillating Satya (1998). As it turns out, that hellishly enjoyable and critical scene declaring Bhiku Mhatre as having finally arrived also marks his downfall. In that moment all the Mumbai metaphors are perfectly aligned — there’s political-criminal nexus, high-rises in the backdrop, the sea that was used in a curious mixture of poetic doom in Maqbool and at the top, the figure of a Mumbai gangster, a symbol of self-made success who wins our sympathy precisely for that reason. Like all crooks, Mhatre’s secret weapon is his wiseguy gloss. The city rewards hard work, smartassery, ambition and a hunger to be at the top. Bhiku Mhatre has all that. He just happens to be a gangster. As don Chotta Shakeel once lucidly observed (courtesy, Suketu Mehta’s Maximum City: Bombay Lost & Found), “There are blue-collar workers and white-collar workers. We are black-collar workers.”
If black-collared Bhiku Mhatre, counting Shakeel too, were a film star or a banking CEO, he would have been a respectable member of the elite society. As a gangster, Mhatre has the gun and glamour (not to mention, fawning side-kicks) but his lower middle-class native Marathi cred bars his entry to Bombay’s upper echelons, a bit like Scarface’s uncouth Tony Montana. As Montana explodes in the famous Scarface restaurant scene, telling off a crowd of upmarket diners, “You need people like me so you can point your fuckin’ fingers and say, ‘That’s the bad guy.” Bhiku Mhatre is the bad apple, but one vital difference separates the two. Montana is an immigrant, while Mhatre is the consummate son of the soil. One rules Miami, the other Mumbai. Or at least hopes to.
Sneaking into cinemas with minimal fanfare in 1998, Ram Gopal Varma’s gritty Satya was a slow-burner. But when the Bhiku fever finally caught on, there was no cure for it. Its success epitomised the sweet victory of the underdog. Nobody, least of all the film’s mafia-mad director, expected it to do so well. “On the first day, it took a 30 per cent opening,” RGV told Film Companion. “I remember I was in Boney Kapoor’s office and asked him if he can find out from his distributors how the film is doing. He spoke to someone in Indore, who said ‘Forget it, it’s gone.'” The maverick director added, perhaps tellingly, “We didn’t make the film. It made itself.” Despite being a mainstream film with a stark and bold language, a sense of visual and spoken realism that we hadn’t seen in Hindi cinema previously, Satya delighted the mass audience. We have had gangster movies before, but none that broke the mould the way Satya did. Or, was it that Satya simply said it as it was, not breaking the mould so much as doggedly following the mould? There’s no doubt that Satya pointed a way to new realism, inspiring not just films but filmmakers. It’s awashed with guns, ganglands, grime, extortion, violence and cuss words. More importantly, the mob looks and behaves like a mob, at least if those who have met the mob are to be believed. Satya could well be a fallen page from Mehta’s gripping Maximum City. It’s crucial to note that, for example, The Godfather (very much an influence on RGV) gave birth to imitators and no gangster film made after it can honestly claim to have had no truck with it. In the case of Satya, it’s Ram Gopal Varma, the man and his talent and not his creation, that led to a revolution. Think of all the top trendsetters today, be it Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan, Jaideep Sahni, Shimit Amin or AR Rahman and they all owe their breaks to Varma. So, simply put, The Godfather created more films. Satya (and the Factory that produced it) created more filmmakers.
Many critics argue that before Satya, there was Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda, an On The Waterfront spin set in the ganglands of Mumbai. “This shot is very good,” a seasoned shooter says approvingly in Maximum City, as they sit around in a hotel room watching Parinda on TV. Besides, there was also Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen, obscenely real including a shocking rape scene. Is it possible to club Bandit Queen in the gangster genre? Crime? Dacoit? In writer MK Raghavendra’s formulation, in Hindi cinema, a daku film that moves to the city becomes a gangster film (as quoted by author Jai Arjun Singh in a superb piece on gangsters, mothers and molls). And indeed, an average Bollywood gangster film romanticises not just the crime but also the city where it’s committed. Bombay/Mumbai has served as a muse to several of these films. In Bollywood, the gangster belongs to the genre picture, in the overall roster of crime. Its origins are not clear, but some critics like to point at Dev Anand’s noirs and the shadowy figures of Baazi and C.I.D. Ashok Kumar’s stylish gangster in Sangram (1950) is said to have acted as the earliest spur. His kissing of the gun after shooting at the cops made the then political establishment uncomfortable. In Hollywood, by comparison, the gangster genre flourished after the Prohibition in the 1920-30s. “Because Prohibition was hugely unpopular, the men who stood up to it were heralded as heroes, not criminals,” noted The New Yorker in a piece titled ‘Why Do We Admire Mobsters?’ Thus started the popular image of the mobster as a good man forced into the bad job. In Mumbai, he is usually born out of joblessness, revenge or simply for easy money.
Hollywood’s Paul Muni, Bogart, James Cagney, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro are synonymous with screen mob. Shorter still is Hindi cinema’s list of reel dons. As an aside, you could say that the extinction of gangs from Mumbai’s landscape has led to a decline in pictures about them. The gangster isn’t as fashionable as he used to be. (“Abhi politician sab se bada bhai hai,” says Vakil played by Makarand Deshpande in Satya). By 9/11, terrorism had replaced mafia as cinema’s favourite subject.
Among Bollywood stars, Sanjay Dutt, aka Raghu of Vaastav, can lay claim to being the prophet of mafia films. At the same time, Dutt simultaneously mocked and exploited that very screen image in the Munnabhai volumes, attempted previously by Robert De Niro in Analyze This. Amitabh Bachchan also springs to mind, who headlined Angeepath and Don respectively (both find a spot on our list). Meanwhile, if the West has Coppola, De Palma and especially Scorsese who enjoy the mafia kick, closer home the genre’s very much on the minds of men like Anurag Kashyap and Ram Gopal Varma whose resumes thrum at the rate of 20 bullets per second. If RGV made the mobster more glamorous (who doesn’t know about his manic obsession with D-Company and encounter specialists?), Kashyap turned him into larger-than-life. The GOW director alternates between hinterland crime saga and city-based thrillers, a template that sets him apart from Ramu, the inimitable city man. The main difference between Ramu and Kashyap is the one between love and passion. Ramu loves movies. Kashyap is passionate about them. Asked to distinguish between himself and his former protege purely as filmmakers, Varma once quipped that he has a tendency “to be filmy” while Anurag Kashyap riffs on reality. Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur I-II is both real and filmy, a culmination of his boyish interest in crime and violence. In hindsight, Satya and Black Friday look like necessary dress rehearsals for GOW series, an ambitious gangland epic that marries the grand and multi-generational vision of The Godfather with RGV-Scorsese-Tarantino trinity’s achingly stylish, nervously pacy style.
Take a look at our pick of all-time top 10 Hindi gangsta line-up. Tell us who’s your favourite angel of death and who you find the most charming, fearsome or brutal of the lot. Manoj Bajpayee’s Bhiku Mhatre and Sardar Khan, Nana Patekar’s Anna, Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faizal Khan, Pankaj Kapur’s Abbaji, Irrfan Khan’s Mia Maqbool, Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, or Sanjay Dutt’s Raghu?
‘Woh oonchi building mein baithke aap mereko neechi nazar se dekh ke bolte ho, ‘yeh, yeh gunda hai’ — Arun Gawli
Conventional wisdom suggests that all Mumbai mafia capers ought to end with Ganesh immersion, a day in the life of this city. Put another way, a cultural equivalent of Calcutta’s Durga Puja. But Ashim Ahluwalia’s true-life Daddy subverts this prediction, just as it does with its storytelling device. The multi-perspective lens capturing the many facets of Arun Gawli is a smart narrative flourish with a touch of documentary and newsreel realism. But the man himself remains an enigma of sorts. Neither do we fully understand his motivations. Probably why the stone-faced Arjun Rampal works as the leading man, a cross between brooding detachment and ‘what’s fucking going on his mind, is he stoned’ insouciance. It’s a sort of role that goes straight to the obituary and on to the grave — which is to say, a career-defining turn. Arun Gawli, the crime boss-turned-politician, was the creation of the Marathi angst, rampant unemployment and closure of mills in the 1980s. The film chronicles not just the rags-to-riches journey of Gawli but also the ways in which men like him shaped Mumbai’s politics and social fabric. Fondly nicknamed Daddy by his followers, Gawli (Rampal) gets his say in the end. “Aadmi ki keemat ghat gayi, zameen ki badh gayi,” he says. You can’t tell if Daddy, a man of few words, is justifying his crimes or simply sharing his thoughts. Son of a mill worker, Gawli says he helped free the mill lands but what did men like him eventually receive in return? “Who built buildings on these lands? Who’s living in them? Leaders, businessmen. You sit on top and look down on us, tainting me as a goon.” Claps. claps. That’s Rampal enjoying his “bad guy” Tony Montana moment.
‘Koi dhanda chhota nahin hota, aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahin hota’ — Raees
Unlike Arjun Rampal in Daddy, Raees is a legitimate star vehicle very much conceived to pitch Shah Rukh Khan in a role that’s guaranteed to floor the front-benchers. A throwback to the 1970s masala entertainers, Rahul Dholakia’s kohl-eyed Raees (Khan) flourishes in Gujarat’s Prohibition, using his “baniye ka dimaag” and “miyan bhai ki daring” to hurtle right to the top of the crime heap. But danger is lurking in the form of cop Majumdar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who’s hot on his trail. Nawaz, enjoying his commercial spotlight with the Khans after years of humiliation, gets the punchiest lines and he mouths them just as lip-smackingly as he does in an Anurag Kashyap thriller. But it’s SRK who looms over Raees, playing this one strictly for the gallery. Does he succeed? Khan is indeed too slick to be a hoodlum, but it’s his screen charisma that makes Raees eminently watchable — even enjoyable.
Gangs of Wasseypur I and II (2012)
‘Hindustan mein jab tak cinema hai, log chutiye bante rahenge’ — Ramadhir Singh
The Guardian hailed it as a “possible turning point in Hindi cinema.” Rightly so. Few films in recent memory have kicked up as much buzz as the Gangs of Wasseypur double bill, the first fronted by the ever-dependable Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan locked in a power struggle with Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) in Dhanbad, the dusty town of Jharkhand and the sequel by the up-and-coming Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) as a Bollywood parody. The decades-spanning, timeline-bursting epic takes us into the heart of dynastic violence with the rise and fall of the Khans, as the coal mafia in the backdrop keeps the engines of power, corruption, cash and vengeance well-fuelled. As the action rushes back and forth, the desire for revenge and the growing greed drives the violence straight to the family estate, a la The Godfather. On this vast canvas, the cine-literate Kashyap manages to hat-tip all great American institutions, including Sergio Leone, Coppola, Scorsese and Tarantino at the same time infusing it with an intimate knowledge of Bollywood, as seen from the eyes of a filmmaker with small-town roots. Sneha Khanwalkar’s ground-breaking music complements the grandness of Kashyap’s vision. So do the characters who talk tough and act rough. Nawazuddin Siddiqui strikes it big as an Amitabh Bachchan fan chided by Huma Qureshi for not being polite enough to seek “permission” before touching her. Bajpayee, the father of all bands of outsiders, is well cast as Bollywood’s ultimate outlier’s dad. But the badass lines go to the heroines and as usual, they roll it out with abrasive abandon. “Don’t bring dishonour to the family,” a heavily pregnant Nagma (Richa Chadha) does her bit in a nearly all-male jamboree when she allows her husband Sardar to have sex with another woman for the night — provided, he performs in bed and makes her proud. Anurag Kashyap at his acerbic best!
‘Billo meri aankhon ki kameeni’ — Nimmi
Shifting Macbeth to gangland Mumbai, Vishal Bhardwaj draws the plot and complex characters from Bard and unspools them like chess set pieces — all players greedier and nastier than the previous one. Pankaj Kapur gives a thrillingly memorable performance, conjuring a droopy walk and raspy, paan-inflected voice. Yet, even a performer as great as Kapur cannot escape the echoes of Brando and The Godfather. The one time Abbaji (Kapur as a dreaded Mumbai don) loses his cool, it’s a scene worth a master tutorial in acting. He grabs one devious politician by the throat, not to kill him but to force paan down his throat. “Gilori khaya karo gulfaam zubaan kaabu mein rehti hai.” Those words ring through in Abbaji’s haveli (havelis not being a Mumbai characteristic, is Bhardwaj hinting at a fictional Mumbai?), striking terror into the hearts of the otherwise avuncular don’s courtiers and the audiences watching it. The title character is played by Irrfan Khan, a loner whose solemn destiny is to serve Abbaji. Enter the seductive Nimmi (Tabu), Abbaji’s much-younger mistresses who will instigate the loyal servant against his master, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the astrology-obsessed duo (Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah as witches). Laying out the horoscope, the corrupt cop Pandit (Puri) likes to spout garbled pronouncements about Mia Maqbool and his fated takeover of Abbaji’s throne along with the old man’s woman. Another six months, predicts inspector Pandit and Maqbool, the one born with “rajyog” will not just have Bollywood at his feet, but the entire Mumbai. “King of king,” Pandit confidently anoints.
‘Asli hai asli. Pachaas tola.. kitna, pachaas tola’ — Raghu
Most mob flicks are based in Mumbai. Within that spectrum, there are the Muslim and Marathi gangsters, just as there is a Sicilian or Irish touch to the great Hollywood gangster epics. Loosely based on Chhota Rajan, Mahesh Manjrekar’s Vaastav is a reminder of how good and a natural fit Sanjay Dutt was in the role of a gangster. “I have been to jail, too,” Dutt once quipped. The star’s off-screen image, his involvement with the Bombay blast case, possession of AK-56, his mingling with underworld and an overall demeanour of a tough guy makes Sanjay Dutt a go-to for gold-standard mafiosi. Years later, Raju Hirani would riff on this aspect of Dutt’s persona, presenting him as the loveable Munnabhai. Heavily bejewelled (though not in a cartoonish Bappi Lahiri way), tilak on the forehead, Dutt’s Raghu is a bloody-minded go-getter whose meteoric rise from vada pav stall owner to a feared underworld figure is as astonishing as tragic. What is it with gangsters and their mothers, starting with James Cagney’s mommy fixation in White Heat down to Shah Rukh Khan’s “ammi jaan kehti thi” riff in Raees? Like Deewaar, Raghu’s mother pulls the trigger on her lost, psychotic son, dishing him out the much-needed moksha.
‘Mumbai ka king kaun? Bhiku Mhatre’ — Bhiku
Satya is the best film yet that Bollywood has produced about the mafia and its inner workings. There’s nothing flamboyant about the film. It is as direct and straightforward as it can be and in its realistic treatment, abusive language (the Ram-Shyam joke, the bhai slangs like supari, khokha, peti etc that entered popular currency), violence and moral darkness lies its true impact. This is not to say that Satya is devoid of genre cliches. It’s been-there-done-that, but what makes it stand apart is the sheer believability with which it tells its story. One cannot think of another film where the chawl and the kholi is portrayed with such extraordinary precision, where the gang war feels so real, where the gangsters look like gangsters (though the unshaven, smelly beardos including the likes of Manoj Bajpayee, JD Chakravarthy, Saurabh Shukla and Makarand Deshpande could just as easily belong to a Western), where the entry of a new commissioner isn’t greeted with a low-angle slo-mo and where you get a first-hand glimpse into how the gangs have turned themselves into well-run companies with paperwork and strategies in place. Gulzar steps down from his high Pali Hill elevation to pen mafia patois gems like ‘khali rikshe sa peechhe peechhe chalta hai’ and ‘goli maar bheje mein.’ We can’t say for sure how real those lyrics are but if a gangster ever decides to wake up one fine morning, and for some inexplicable reason, feels musically inclined he would sing exactly those lines. In Bhiku Mhatre, director Ram Gopal Varma gives us one of the most charismatic screen anti-heroes, a small-time hitman with an eye on the prize — a glittering pot of gold called Mumbai. Although the film is about Satya (JD Chakravarthy), an immigrant who’s too much of a non-player to be a gangster, it is Bhiku Mhatre’s show all the time. If JD’s Satya is the soul, Mhatre is Satya’s heart of darkness. In a way, Satya is also a story of male friendship, between these two and also between the dozens who populate the Mhatre gang. Manoj Bajpayee has given better performances in his long career, but what makes his Bhiku Mhatre special is how he avoids the usual trap of gangster glamour and goes for something goofier and mischievously delightful. He plays it more like cranky Joe Pesci than the squinting wackiness of De Niro. Or maybe, both. It helps that he’s a minor player, and not the boss of a crime syndicate. With that masterstroke, Varma retains a bit of innocence in Mhatre making him a character, like Bachchan’s Vijay in an earlier time, that the audience finds irresistibly worth rooting for.
‘Vijay Dinanath Chauhan, poora naam’ — Vijay
A brilliant late-career, prize-winning performance by Amitabh Bachchan, Agneepath is ignited by the powerful words of the superstar’s poet father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan. Marlon Brando led the way by altering his voice for The Godfather. Here, Bachchan does something similarly unimaginable. This was a star whose baritone defined him. Generations of Indians know it’s Big B when they hear him. But for Agneepath, Bachchan dropped his intimately familiar voice adopting a gravelly tone, and nobody seemed to mind. Breathlessly stylish and hugely entertaining with a bunch of popular lines to its credit, the film rips off Scarface with relish. Revenge has never tasted sweeter than in this Mukul Anand cult (a dud upon initial release), as Bachchan’s Vijay Dinanath Chauhan takes on the feared Kancha Cheena (Danny Denzongpa) in the famous ending amidst arson and mayhem. As Bachchan lays dying in the lap of his mother, as he had done previously in Yash Chopra’s Deewaar, one can’t think of a more perfect end to not just the film, but also to Amitabh Bachchan’s long innings. He would spend the 1990s in wilderness, awaiting the start of his second golden years. The rest is history.
‘Dhande mein koi kisi ka bhai nahin, koi kisi ka beta nahin’ — Anna
The films of Jackie Shroff and Anil Kapoor are known for their masala excitement and pop culture jukebox, with Shroff usually cast as an intense and brooding elder brother to the boisterous Kapoor. Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s genre-defining Parinda sticks to that tried-and-tested trajectory, but the lynchpin happens to be Anna, the short-tempered mob boss played with manic schizophrenia by Nana Patekar. With evident shades of On The Waterfront, Parinda stars Shroff as Kishen, Anna’s trusted henchman who wants to keep his America-returned younger brother Karan (Kapoor) away from the world of crime. But Karan, who should have been the conscience keeper of the film, much like Terry Malloy, succumbs. In a rare departure for a mainstream Hindi film, the newly-married Karan and childhood sweetheart Paro (Madhuri Dixit) are shot at by Anna. “If he wasn’t your brother, I would have burned him alive instead of shooting him,” Anna later tells Kishen, hardly expressing remorse. In a fit of vengeful anger and violence, Kishen sets his boss on fire. Slickly edited by Renu Saluja, Parinda is an influential Bollywood must-watch made by a young filmmaker who could never match the raw passion of his “first big film.” PS: Patekar is deliciously over-the-top, his wiseguyery bleeding straight into Sher Khan’s evil glee (Jungle Book) a few years down the line.
‘Are you a good person or bad?’ — Chhotu
First made in Tamil, Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan was dubbed in Hindi and remade by Feroz Khan as Davayan starring Vinod Khanna. But none have the impact of the original. Long before Rajinikanth brought Dharavi to its knees in Kaala, there was frenemy Kamal Haasan as Velu Nayakan, the slick-haired, veshti-clad, tilak-sporting ganglord modelled on Varadarajan Mudaliar, the lone Tamilian who operated in a Bombay runneth-over by Muslim dons like Karim Lala and Haji Mastan. To his devoted admirers, Varada Bhai, like Mudaliar, was Robin Hood and to others, to the cops and the system, simply another glorified criminal. Is he good or bad? “I don’t know,” says Velu. The chameleon-like Haasan brings a touch of class with his aged look. With his rooted and naturalistic style of acting, the legend transcends and outclasses himself. All great actors have many characters in them. But Kamal Haasan seems to have more than most. As the director notes in Conversations With Mani Ratnam, “It’s such a pleasure when there’s an actor who delivers more than you can imagine.” Writing on the occasion of the film’s 25th anniversary in The Hindu, Haasan admitted that “Nayakan was one of the films — along with the films I’ve done with Balu Mahendra, K. Vishwanath and, of course, my guru K. Balachander — that made me decide that I should not be doing short-lived masala movies anymore.”
‘Don ko pakadna mushkil hi nahin, naamumkin hai’ — Don
Extravagantly formulaic, slickly sexy and pure fun, Don is that larger-than-life blockbuster that Shah Rukh Khan tried to revive with both the Farhan Akhtar-helmed remake and Rahul Dholakia’s Raees, but could not match up to the original showmanship of Amitabh Bachchan. This is the kind of film that at some point stopped getting made, after its heyday in the 1970s. Directed by the one-time wonder Chandra Barot (few may have heard of him), Don hews closer to fantasy than reality, but the Salim-Javed creation is every bit enjoyable in the best traditions of mainstream Bollywood. The film explores a double angle and hence, for the audiences of the time, a double treat for the price of one. When the real Don (Bachchan) is killed, the cops use this opportunity to plant their mole, a bumpkin named Vijay (Bachchan) in a powerful crime ring to nab the elusive mastermind Vardhan. Among the joys of the film are its catchy lines, the chartbuster songs (“Khaike paan banaraswala” and Helen’s “Yeh mera dil”) and above all, a dapper Amitabh Bachchan at the top of things.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)
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