In this space, I hardly ever write anything related to the week’s cover story. To be on the cover, it has to be the whole story; it does not need preludes or caveats. This week, I can’t resist. It is about gangster movies—not my favourite genre, but one I feel very strongly about. Jai Arjun Singh, one of my favourite Indian film writers, takes you on a fascinating journey through the genre.
The old-fashioned gangster is immoral, greedy, drunk on power. Gifted film-makers make him amoral, fallible, human. Martin Scorsese the Boss, and then numerous others like Fritz Lang, Francis Ford Coppola, Brian De Palma, Takashi Miike, Quentin Tarantino. Gangster-cool is a combination of the intensity of the actor, how the character is written, and the style in which the director imbues the universe he rules and fights, his or her cinematic canvas. In the age of high-tech economic crimes, corporate fraud and ubiquitous terrorist violence, the gangster is quaint. He always has wads of cash, so in a demonetized world he is an oddity even, or at least a petty criminal like millions.
For the old-fashioned gangster, the woman is mother or moll, or a lover he is fiercely protective of no matter how free-spirited she may be. That unforgettable lover in Hindi movies is Saroja, played by Manisha Koirala in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002).
The tables have turned in the few women gangster movies we have seen in Hindi cinema. She is ruthless without the luxury of retaining her feminine desires. She turns into a man without molls, lovers or mothers. In Vinay Shukla’s Godmother (1999), Shabana Azmi plays Santokben Jadeja, who ran mafia operations in Porbandar, Gujarat, in the late 1980s and early 1990s and later turned politician. Azmi was electric.
In the best gangster movies, the aura the mafiosi gets on screen (created most rivetingly by Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather trilogy) challenges moral frameworks and makes the man and his battle irresistible.
The amoral allure and the stylishness come together perfectly in my favourite Indian gangster film, Satya (1998). It is also a film unflinchingly rooted in Mumbai, and set in the heydays of the Mumbai underworld. It will be every Hindi film lover’s favourite, I suppose. Ram Gopal Varma shattered movie tastes with it, inventing a new language. A leap from romances and family dramas, from the polarity of good and evil. It broke the hierarchy of virtues that Hindi films endorse—modest heroine, enticing vamp, good hero, angry but good hero, globalized hero without much power or nuance but charming enough to finally get the girl. A large number of Hindi films still adhere to that hierarchy, so Satya is refreshing even today. I watched it this week after a long time without wanting to fast-forward scenes I remember so well.
Is Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpayee) your guy or is Satya (J.D. Chakravarthi)?
Will Bhiku, in death, really get to own a part of Mumbai, as he proclaims earlier in the narrative in that explosive monologue, “Mumbai ka king kaun, Bhiku Mhatre (Who is the king of Mumbai, Bhiku Mhatre)!”
Nobody came out of the theatre unprovoked after watching Satya. It was rivetingly amoral, it stung. It was also the product of a culture that Varma was establishing in the movie trade—influencing film-making style and production methods by unearthing talent outside the family-run circles of Hindi film-making.
Satya was made for around Rs2 crore and it made around Rs15 crore. An unforgettable hit, it is still the pinnacle of the gangster film in India.