A man sits in the shadows, head bowed, providing evasive, monosyllabic answers to a policeman’s questions, and looking up only in response to “Chal, record ke liye apna naam bata (Come on, tell me your name for the record)”. The man is the gangster-politician Arun Gawli—played here by Arjun Rampal—and the film is Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, its title referring to the term of obeisance used for Gawli in a world where “bhai” or “dada” are the norms. The scene is from one of the two widely watched new trailers for forthcoming films about the underworld.
As if to complete a pattern—to tell us that a “daddy”, or a dada, can have a mommy standing firmly behind him—the other trailer, for the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Raees, begins with the words “Ammi jaan kehti thhi… (My mother used to say…)”. It’s a reminder of how central the mother figure once was, as solace-provider or avenging angel, for Hindi cinema’s anti-heroes, who lived outside conventional moral zones. Such as the farmer-turned-dacoit Birju in the 1940 Aurat (and its more famous remake Mother India), or Amitabh Bachchan’s many Vijays from Deewaar (1975) to Agneepath (1990) via Shakti (1982).
I didn’t think of those films, though, on hearing the opening words of the Raees trailer. I thought of that ball of dynamite James Cagney and his very special relationship with an ever-lovin’ Ma in two of his best gangster roles.
Mothers, molls, modes
In The Public Enemy (1931), a film with an outlaw brother vs upright brother angle that Deewaar owes a debt to, Cagney’s Tom Powers is called “my baby” by his mom long after he has fallen in with a gang of thugs (and after his brother has dramatically rejected a wad of Tom’s ill-begotten money). In White Heat (1949), Cagney’s psychotic, oddly infantile Cody Jarrett sits on his mother’s lap during a tender scene (the actor was pushing 50 at the time), goes memorably berserk in jail when he hears of her death, and hollers “Made it, Ma! Top of the world!” in an explosive ending.
Mothers aren’t always so important to gangsters. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II are among the most celebrated and widely seen films ever, but how many of us remember any notable scenes involving Vito Corleone’s wife, who is mother to Sonny, Michael and Fredo? Though very much around in both films (and played by two actors in different time periods, much the same way Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro both played Vito), she is a silent, peripheral presence; many Godfather buffs wouldn’t even know her name (it’s Carmela).
Generally speaking, the women in this very male-centric genre play small but important roles. They can be molls or floozies who bring out the nasty in the protagonist: Watch Tom smash a grapefruit into a part-time girlfriend’s face in a famous breakfast-table scene in The Public Enemy. They can be moderating influences, or the key to a mobster’s humanity: See the warm, wise, knowing presence of Diane Keaton’s Kay in the Godfather films, and how Michael (Al Pacino) begins his fall into perdition when he chillingly shuts the door on her near the end of The Godfather: Part II. See the upwardly mobile Shoaib (Emraan Hashmi) in Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010), set in the 1970s, getting gooey-eyed as he goes to watch the romantic film Bobby with his girlfriend, instead of the action or revenge dramas of the period. Or Anita (Parveen Babi), the golden-hearted “bad girl” in Deewaar, offering a brief glimmer of hope that Vijay’s story might have a happy ending.
Even a moral compass can throw up faulty readings. In the Raees trailer, a mother’s quoted words, probably spoken with genuine good intentions, are used to justify a life in crime. The full sentence is “Ammi jaan kehti thhi koi dhanda chhota nahin hota / Aur dhande se bada koi dharm nahin hota (My mother used to say no work or business is too small / And no religion is greater than any business).” We are left in little doubt about the nature of the protagonist’s “dhanda” when a policeman, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, retorts, “Jisko tu dhanda bolta hai na, crime hai woh (What you call business, is actually crime).”
Of course, in most gangster films, crime is business, or a way of life, and a point often made is that the line between gangster and legitimate businessman may be very thin. This begs the question: How can you define a gangster, or a gangster film?
He might be a kingpin who runs large syndicates and is mostly impervious to the law (like the Haji Mastan or Dawood Ibrahim inspired dons in so many Hindi films over the years), or a small-time criminal who wields a limited degree of influence in his immediate circles and can easily get into trouble—like the eponymous hero, played by Jean Gabin, of the 1937 French film Pépé Le Moko. He could be a family man. Or a Family man, if you prefer the capitalized version; or he might be someone who insists, as the villainous Anna Seth does in Parinda (1989), “Dhande mein koi kisi ka bhai nahin, koi kisi ka beta nahin (In this business, no one is a brother, no one is a son).” There are many available dramatic arcs for these characters. A lone wolf works his way up to becoming a messiah-like figure for a community: See Velu Naicker in Nayakan (1987), based on the real-life “godfather” of Mumbai’s downtrodden Tamils, Varadarajan Mudaliar. Or he is cut down in his prime. Or a once successful gangster wants to reform or legalize, but finds that the past is too full of tangled knots for him to untie.
Internationally, the gangster genre is a clearly identifiable subset of the crime film (which includes noir and suspense). Mostly it deals with organized crime in urban settings where inequality and opportunity exist in equal measure. In American cinema, the initial wave of films, made around the Great Depression and the Prohibition era, were tied to the social phenomenon of large-scale migration to cities in the early 20th century, the consequent grappling with poverty and injustice, and the formation of criminal gangs. The cult of real-life figures such as Al Capone helped shape the DNA of movies like Little Caesar (1931), Scarface (1932) and Angels With Dirty Faces (1938), and even in these early years there were many intriguing meeting points between reality and fiction: For instance, the real-life gangster John Dillinger was killed shortly after leaving a theatre where he had watched Manhattan Melodrama, a 1934 film in which Clark Gable played a charming crook who is sentenced to the electric chair. Many decades later, movies like Barry Levinson’s Bugsy (1991) and Michael Mann’s Public Enemies (2009) would attempt to provide a distant, historical view of this period, its many colourful personalities, and its cinema.
While some gangster movies are loose biographies of real-life figures, and some simply content themselves with telling intimate fictional stories, there are also big-canvas films about the building of a society atop the twin pillars of law and lawlessness. You can often identify such films by their titles, as with Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America (1984) or Martin Scorsese’s 2002 Gangs Of New York (the title of the U2 song in its soundtrack, The Hands That Built America, says a lot too).
In the Indian context, the genre’s boundaries are harder to locate. In the early years we had hardly any films with a gangster as protagonist; such characters were more often the shadowy figures who served as nemeses or mentors (or both) for the hero: the sinister K.N. Singh leading the innocent Dev Anand towards nightclubs and gambling dens in Baazi (1951); or the more benevolent Motilal in Anari (1959), a “respectable” businessman who isn’t above letting an accidentally adulterated bottle of medicine stay in the market.
It was mainly with the growth of the dacoit film, and the outlaws played by Dilip Kumar in Gunga Jumna (1961) or Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), that the leading man took on the mantle of being a “gangster-like” figure. But this raises the question: Can a rural daku film be granted honorary membership in the “gangster film” category? Could Indian cinema have given the genre one of its few major female protagonists, via Shekhar Kapur’s hugely influential Bandit Queen (1994), about the journey of Phoolan Devi from victimhood to power?
In 50 Indian Film Classics, the writer M.K. Raghavendra proposes that in Hindi cinema a daku film that moves to the city becomes a gangster film. That seems reasonable enough, but the lines here are more blurred than in Hollywood, where the Western (with bandits operating in rural landscapes) and the city-based gangster films are clearly separate categories. Mainstream Hindi cinema, on the other hand, famously mixes and mashes genres, and some of our dramatic stories straddle both rural and urban settings.
There was a time when an idealistic binary was drawn between the village (or small town) as a site of innocence and communal living, versus the big city (usually Mumbai) as the impersonal, opportunity-and-corruption-laden place where you might find new definitions of family and friendship, but where you might also lose your soul if you weren’t careful. However, in more recent years, films like Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur have depicted a form of organized, parallel-economy crime in the hinterland, where gangsters don’t have to live as gun-toting outlaws amid barren rocks, but can be firmly entrenched in the community. And from an earlier time, there is at least one important film I can think of which suggests that a capacity for violence can flow very easily from one milieu to another.
This film is J.P. Dutta’s 1989 Hathyar, which has a small cult following today despite never having been officially released on DVD, and despite having been overshadowed in its own time by the other major gangster film of that year, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda. Considered together, these two films offer a fascinating design. Both are commercial movies, featuring big stars, song sequences and doses of high emotion, but they are unusually sophisticated and carefully crafted for their period, and both subvert some mainstream conventions: Parinda, for instance, has a startling burst of climactic violence where the romantic leads played by Anil Kapoor and Madhuri Dixit are murdered in bed on their wedding night, as well as a stylized, over-the-top performance by Nana Patekar as the main villain, who, it is indicated, killed his own wife and child (much like one of Hollywood’s baddest mobsters, the near-mythical Keyser Söze of The Usual Suspects).
An important difference is that while Parinda is exclusively a Mumbai movie—drawing partly on Elia Kazan’s On The Waterfront (1954), about one brother who has become morally compromised and another who is tainted by association—Hathyar moves between the city and the more feudal setting where the protagonist Avinash (Sanjay Dutt), scion of a Thakur clan, first learnt to wield guns as a child. Once in the city, his appetite for destruction finds new avenues and makes him a natural weapon for established gangsters.
Taken together, these films point the way forward to Ram Gopal Varma’s hard-hitting Satya (1998), a gangster-movie landmark that brought together a number of talents—notably screenplay writer Anurag Kashyap, music director Vishal Bhardwaj and the actor Manoj Bajpayee—who would have significant careers in the multiplex era to come, and would also do important work in the genre. Kashyap, for instance, made the colourful, multi-generational saga Gangs Of Wasseypur as well as the more sober Black Friday (2004); not a “gangster film” exactly, but one that offered a plausible depiction of the real-life underworld don Tiger Memon (played by Pavan Malhotra). Meanwhile, Varma himself went on to make other underworld films with varying degrees of success, notably Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005).
Melodrama and style
We usually take it for granted that commercial Hindi cinema reshapes established international genres to make them more melodramatic, or masaledaar. To a degree, this is true of the gangster genre: Consider such films as the Godfather-inspired Zulm Ki Hukumat (1992), which sugar-coated the patriarch (Pitamber, played by Dharmendra), clearly spelling out that he wouldn’t ruin the lives of innocent youngsters by trading in drugs; the story thereby enabled his two brothers, the opportunistic Shakti Kapoor and the noble Govinda, to fit into a bad guy-good guy classification in a way that Sonny and Michael Corleone never could.
But as should be clear to anyone who knows the form, even outside India the gangster film has always lent itself naturally to being dramatic, larger than life, full of panache (as critic David Thomson noted, “The gangster can do and say things that are over the top.”). This is true not only of the wonderful films of the early 1930s, a time when sound cinema was in its infancy and the recording equipment was as undeveloped as the patois of some of those street rowdies; it is also true of the second great movement which began in the more “naturalistic” late 1960s with films like Arthur Penn’s Bonnie And Clyde and Scorsese’s Mean Streets.
Even The Godfather, which looks stately and subdued from a distance—two of its defining characteristics being cinematographer Gordon Willis’ use of lowlight photography, and the mumbling “understatement” of the method acting school—has plenty of showy things in it: Look at the languorous camera movement, sadistically stretching the moment out for the viewer, when the horse’s bloody head in the bed is revealed; look at nearly everything James Caan’s Sonny Corleone does, including his assault on his brother-in-law, and the death scene he gets at a gas station. And—at risk of putting you off, dear reader—one of my favourite moments in Coppola’s trilogy is the magnificently melodramatic ending of The Godfather: Part III, the scene on the opera-house steps (such an apt setting) where the death of Michael’s daughter is followed by his silent scream, set to Pietro Mascagni’s lush Cavalleria rusticana score (as well as the wailing of a large and vocal Italian clan).
It can be very stimulating when the sensibility of a film-maker who isn’t afraid to use style for style’s sake is married with a story and a protagonist that demand flair: Think of the two films Brian De Palma made with Pacino: the 1983 Scarface remake (about a gloriously unrepentant drug lord) and the mellower Carlito’s Way 10 years later (an ex-con wants to escape the past and start afresh, but can’t). There are many other delightfully show-offish scenes: Marsellus Wallace and his verbose hitmen Jules and Vincent in Pulp Fiction (1994); the shoot-out on the Union Station steps in The Untouchables (1987), and the long tracking scene in the same film where the camera follows a newspaper’s journey all the way to the hotel-room bedside of Al Capone (played by De Niro); the visceral ending of The Public Enemy, Tom trussed up in a body cast, like something out of a horror film, falling forward when his family opens the door.... I could go on, but you get the drift.
The moral question
However, the stylishness of the genre also raises what might boringly be referred to as the ethical question: If gangster films are fast-paced and thrilling, can they also meaningfully critique the lifestyles they depict?
Mainstream Hindi cinema has traditionally required a comeuppance for the bad guy or for the faltering anti-hero, but even in the Angry Young Man of the 1970s you could sense film-makers straining to break free from the “rules” and to be unabashedly amoral. This was achieved to a degree by the dual role in Don (1978), which allowed Bachchan to play a good guy (the bumpkin double) for most of the film, but also gave us a glimpse, in the original Don who dies 40 minutes into the story, of a ruthless man who doesn’t have the trappings of a tragic backstory or a suffering, Nirupa Roy-like mother.
But even a film that does explicitly state a moral position can take on a life of its own and veer away towards nihilism or the celebration of crime. I’m thinking again of the opening of Hathyar, where a little boy is gifted a rifle by his Thakur uncle. The father objects and tries to take it away, but the son says, “Nahin, hum khelenge (No, I will play),” and the close-up of his little hand clutching this “toy” dissolves into one of the adult Avinash lovingly loading bullets into a shiny rifle to a tuneful background score. It’s a seductive scene, and there are others in this vein later; though Hathyar’s “crime and violence doesn’t pay” message is spelt out, and there is a fine role for Rishi Kapoor as the voice of reason, one can wonder if the film compromises itself by making the violence too thrilling (incidentally, Rishi Kapoor played a deliciously profane Dawood Ibrahim-like character in Nikkhil Advani’s D-Day about 25 years later, and seemed to relish it more than his goody-goody Hathyar part).
The Hollywood gangster films of the early 1930s were required by the production code to include a prologue and epilogue stating that the protagonists were menaces and that their activities needed to be condemned and fought. Yet, as more than one reviewer of the time pointed out, this felt like a token gesture. In both The Public Enemy, where he groans “I ain’t so tough” before collapsing in the gutter, and in Angels With Dirty Faces, where his character “turns yellow” before being executed, Cagney had to do things that would make him seem like a loser to impressionable youngsters watching the film. But given the actor’s charisma and the force of his best scenes, it probably didn’t work.
Here is the conflict: The most enthralling protagonists—the tragic anti-heroes whom we are sympathetic to, the psychopaths whose wildly over-the-top actions we are excited by, the characters who make our pulse race—are the same people whom the “ethical film” is expected to condemn in the end. Given that Shah Rukh Khan is, to put it mildly, a charming actor with a fan following, it’s likely that these questions will be raised again when Raees, and other gangster films, hit our screens.
Jai Arjun Singh writes the column Above The Line for Mint Lounge and is the author of The World Of Hrishikesh Mukherjee.