When the Mumbai police ripped through the city’s underworld through a series of encounters in the 1990s and early 2000s, they severely wounded one of Bollywood’s favourite genres: the gangster film.
Glam and grit: A still from Kaminey.
If the cops are to be believed, Mumbai’s criminal networks have been smashed beyond repair. Dawood Ibrahim and Rajan Nikalje are hiding in foreign countries. Dawood’s henchman Abu Salem is locked away in a Mumbai prison, where he is pining for his lost love. What’s a film-maker got to do? Vishal Bhardwaj has a solution: Find new criminals. If they don’t exist, invent them.
Bhardwaj’s Kaminey, which opened on 14 August, suggests that if you hang around the city’s racecourse or poke your head into a Madh Island guest house, you’ll find more than just Dawood lite. You’ll meet the desi cousins of the crooks from Guy Ritchie movies. You’ll run into cocaine dealers who’re also diamond dealers, thugs who’re also politicians and (my favourite) race fixers who are also Bengalis. Kaminey’s rogues don’t care for the law and will not pass up a chance to expand their already vast cash reserves. None of them is a builder or a broker.
Kaminey’s hyper-kinetic narrative style doesn’t allow viewers to stand and stare. The film is not elegiac, like Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987), or romantic, like Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998). Rather, Bhardwaj opts for a frenetic editing and shooting pattern that perfectly suits the manic rhythms of the city that the movie is set in. Kaminey’s storytelling technique also moves away from the gangster film as defined by the man who reinvented the genre in the 1990s. Through Satya, Company (2002) and his productions such as Ab Tak Chhappan (2004) and D (2005), Varma mined public fascination for the self-contained worlds of gangsters and cops. He Indianized Martin Scorsese, Clint Eastwood and Brian De Palma and brought the battles between good and bad into the open and on to Mumbai’s streets. All these years later, Satya and Company retain their rawness and immediacy.
Varma’s salt-of-the-earth criminals were themselves a departure from the campy Hindi movie smugglers from 1970s cinema. These gentlemen were born out of import restrictions imposed by the government. Smuggling gold biscuits and watches into a socialist country seems to have been the next best thing to working for a steel company in that decade. The smugglers wore loud suits and large goggles and chomped on cigars, but they were discreet and enjoyed their ill-gotten wealth away from public glare. They operated from five-star hotels or opulent remote-controlled dens that had swimming pools inside which floated white-skinned beauties.
However outlandish the smugglers seemed, they were a reaction to the political and social environment, just as Varma’s outwardly calm but inwardly tortured souls were. Varma’s movies, which inspired many me-toos, responded to the blurring of lines between lawful and unlawful behaviour in Mumbai since the early 1990s. The bloodthirsty cop didn’t seem very different from the gun-toting gangster—an ambivalence that has been well explored especially in Ab Tak Chhappan, directed by Shimit Amin.
Kaminey tries to forge a middle path between glamour and grittiness. Bhardwaj’s sweaty anti-hero (played by Shahid Kapur) is worthy of redemption, like Varma’s Satya or Chandu. But the rest of Kaminey’s variegated public enemies could well be out of a movie by Nasir Hussain or Ramesh Sippy. Kaminey suggests that present-day Mumbai is a free for all where gangsters of all races and linguistic backgrounds are running amok and trying to hustle money from wherever they can. The word kaminey translates into crooked or greedy. In the context of the movie, it also means wretched. Given the anarchic state that Mumbai is in, it all makes perfect sense.
Nandini Ramnath is the film editor of Time Out Mumbai .
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org