Remember young Vijay’s horse dreams in Zanjeer? They get a stylized tribute in the forthcoming graphic novel Mumbai Confidential Book One: Good Cop, Bad Cop. In the hallucinations of its protagonist Arjun Kadam, it is a giant Knight (a chess horse) soaked in sea-green chimera. The Knight makes Arjun struggle with his fractured memory.
The Hindi cinema of “inspectors” and “bhais” is the muse of California-based Saurav Mohapatra’s writing, gorgeously illustrated in sepia and colour by Mumbai-based Vivek Shinde. There is an interlude dedicated to Parveen Babi—her sexy entry scene in the film Deewar, reimagined. There is a literal tribute to Satya—in fact, the story and all the characters seem like take-offs from Ram Gopal Varma’s underworld films of the 1990s. And there is an ode to camp film titles of the past, with a poster titled “Gunda Coolie, A Kantibai film starring Balwan Khan” in crimson red.
Arjun Kadam swims in apocryphal waters. He is an “encounter cop”, the vigilante police officer who got carte blanche by the Mumbai police in the 1980s and 1990s to kill in what were termed ‘encounters’ between the police and members of the underworld. The police-mafia-Bollywood web entangles Kadam, and once a hero, he loses everything when found guilty. Through the book, Kadam is in search of a second life.
Reminiscent of Vikram Chandra’s Sartaj Singh (Sacred Games) only in his sardonicism, and a composite of the mind-boggling number of police officers we have known from Hindi cinema, Kadam is always engulfed in cigarette smoke and shadows, the lines of his face expressing paroxysms of anger and sadness.
Mumbai Confidential is a racy read sure to hook any serious Hindi film lover—the noir treatment uplifting a predictable story. Like the larger-than-life on-screen men in khaki, Kadam transforms from an upright man of a few words to a foul-talking misogynist.
Shinde and Mohapatra worked for Virgin Comics (now Liquid Comics). They are part of a gang that the insiders call “The Deflowered Virgins”, and it includes writers and illustrators such as Samit Basu, Sid Kotian, Saumin Patel, Devaki Neogi, Mukesh Singh, Shounak Jog and Harshvardhan Kadam. They all got the break in Virgin Comics, and Mohapatra says they “still serve as each others’ focus group”.
Running out of luck with Indian publishers, Mohapatra approached US-based Archaia entertainment. Mike Kennedy, publisher, Archaia Entertainment, says: “It offered a very unique addition to our library, which contains a number of noir titles from various countries, yet until now, none set in India. Saurav’s presentation and Vivek’s artwork made such a fascinating combination of familiar tropes in an unfamiliar environment (to most US readers).”
Mohapatra spoke to Lounge about creating Mumbai Confidential, meeting Shinde only in geekdom, and his love of Hindi films. Edited excerpts:
How did ‘Mumbai Confidential’ take shape?
Mumbai Confidential (MC) started off with a desire to write a hard-boiled, gritty, crime-noirish take on “encounter cops”. In a way, it was an extension of my love for pulp crime and hard-boiled crime-noir. The second impetus was to write a crime comic book set in India.
We have over-exploited the setting of “encounter cops” in Bollywood. My goal was to deconstruct from the inside-out the psyche of someone who kills other people in cold blood. I’m fascinated by the Praetorian parallels of the “encounter cop” phenomenon. It was the response of a society pushed so far back against the wall by criminals that the proverbial gloves were taken off—but what was the real cost of this blurring of lines between cop and criminal? I twisted fact and fiction to serve the narrative.
What did you read and watch for your research?
Research (if you can call it that) was watching the seminal movies Ab Tak Chhappan, Satya (and some police dramas like Shool, Zanjeer, etc.), along with hours and hours of reading through newspaper clippings. MC also draws from Hong Kong crime flicks like Exiled and from classic hard-boiled/crime-noir from the West. Crime comics like 100 Bullets, Sin City, Gotham Central were also a source of inspiration.
The underworld and the encounter police are no longer close to Mumbai’s reality. Does the subject’s immediacy matter?
As I said before, the phenomenon fascinates me. My starting point was the giving up of the moral buffer zone that separates civil society from criminals. You know the famous saying from Roman times—“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes (Who watches the watchers) ?” That was the central thesis I worked on. As the Americans say, “There’s no statute of limitation on murder” (laughs).
My goal was to de-glamorize the vigilante aspect and work on the human cost.
How do you visualize something that has already inspired so much of fiction and cinema?
The differentiator for MC is the hard-boiled noir trappings the story is set in. I chose to give Kadam, the lead character, a dry mordant wit as we follow his stream of consciousness. He’s good at self-justification, blaming the city and everyone in it for his misfortunes. That point of view encapsulates and pervades the world of MC.
Is Kadam inspired by a real character?
No. MC is pulp fiction. The initials are a nod to my favourite director Anurag Kashyap, whose work also inspired me.
What is your relationship with Mumbai?
I was born and brought up in Bhubaneswar, Orissa, and have an engineering degree from IIT, Kharagpur. I find it fascinating to study and write about characters coming apart at the seams. This slow but sure unravelling of moral and psychological fabric made me fall in love with crime-noir. I lived in Mumbai for six months in 1998 and fell in love with the city. The energy and cadence of the city swamped me and I got a few stories set in Mumbai.
How did you work with Vivek Shinde?
Vivek and I have never met. We work via email, IM, Dropbox and Google Docs. Sometimes I just pick up the phone or skype him for story conferences or corrections. The same goes for my other collaborators on the project, Sid Kotian, Devaki Neogi, Saumin Patel and Vinay Brahmania. We have envisioned it as a continuing universe—with many more stories to tell.
Mumbai Confidential will be released internationally mid-May. It can be pre-ordered on Flipkart for Rs.1,002.