What do the following expressions have in common? “Gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.” “Nothing personal—this is just business.” And, of course, “Luca Brazzi sleeps with the fishes.”
I guess the last one was a bit of a giveaway. So, yes, you guessed right. All of these expressions come from the film The Godfather. They have passed into the language now. But watching the movie again on DVD last month, I remembered how influential it had been.
The Godfather: It changed the way gangsters looked at themselves and did business
Before there was a movie, there was a book. Mario Puzo, a not-very- successful writer, was a gambling addict who was frequently in debt. Pushed for funds, he churned out The Godfather to justify his publisher’s advance for a book called The Mafia.
Contrary to what people believed at the time, despite being Italian, Puzo knew almost nothing about the mafia. He had heard the same gossip and stories as everybody else. So when he sat down to write, he invented an underworld based on honour and a sense of family. To make it seem authentic, he included a few apocryphal stories that were then current.
For instance, it was rumoured that Frank Sinatra had mafia connections, and that when his career was on the brink, the mob got him the co-starring role in From Here to Eternity that resurrected his fortunes. Puzo invented a Sinatra-like character and included the From Here to Eternity story, adding one dramatic flourish: When the studio boss refuses to cast the Sinatra character, the mafia guys behead his favourite horse and put its decapitated head in his bed.
Stories such as this one—which Puzo dreamt up from the top of his head—made the book seem even more authentic than it really was and it became a number one best-seller. By the time Paramount Pictures got around to filming it, the Italian- American community was filled with outrage and the studio agreed to delete the words “mafia” and “La Cosa Nostra" from the script.
But the bosses at Paramount took two chances with the movie. One: They hired Francis Ford Coppolla to direct despite his complete lack of commercial credentials. And two: They agreed reluctantly to Puzo’s demand to cast Marlon Brando, whose career had gone to the toilet, as the Don.
The Godfather is one of those rare movies that is far better than the book it is based on. Coppolla wrote the script, threw out much of the junk (and sex) in the Puzo book and treated the film as a family saga. It became more than a gangster movie. It was a study of Italian immigrants who embraced the American dream with its “nothing personal—only business” credo. When the mob is at home, it is an Italian family. When it goes out to kill, it is a ruthless American corporation.
It is a measure of how old I am that I remember reading the book and then seeing the movie when it came out. I also remember the sequel, which was even better than the first movie and told two different stories: about how The Godfather got to America as a penniless small boy and about how his son took the mob legit (well, sort of) by investing in the casino business in Vegas.
The two movies revolutionized the genre. All gangster movies now became long epics (the only other crime flick that is in The Godfather’s league is Sergio Leone’s masterwork, Once Upon a Time in America), the violence was stylized and operatic and gangsters gained a depth they never had before on the screen (Martin Scorcese’s GoodFellas and Casino were still decades away). Plus, the Italian family aspect that had been missing from all Hollywood depictions of the gangster movie suddenly became an integral part of the genre.
Inevitably, The Godfather had an influence on global cinema. Feroz Khan made a Hindi version called Dharmatma starring Prem Nath (nice man, I’m sure, but not quite Marlon Brando) and nearly every Hindi gangster movie made after The Godfather borrows heavily from it (till Ram Gopal Varma rewrote the rules with Satya).
More interesting was the manner in which real life gangsters suddenly began patterning themselves on The Godfather’s characters. Till the movie came out, Haji Mastan was called a smuggler and Dawood Ibrahim was a juvenile delinquent.
But now, Mastan wanted to be treated as The Godfather. Even though Salim-Javed had based the lead character of Deewar on him, Mastan was unimpressed. I once asked him about Javed Akhtar’s conception of his Deewar character. “Saale ko kuch pata hi nahin hai,” he said dismissively. His world was really the world of The Godfather, he confided. He was a don. Had I seen Godfather Part II? That was just like his life story.
From that point on, every Mumbai goonda wanted to be called a don (Chandra Barot even made a film of that name, recently remade by Farhan Akhtar, son of Deewar’s Javed) and the media seized on the term. Mastan’s suburban sidekick Vardha (the inspiration for Kamal Haasan’s Nayakan and Amitabh Bachchan’s role model for his voice in Agneepath) actually set himself up as the Godfather of Matunga and hoodlums began using the term “Bhai” to mean “Godfather”.
I don’t know how much Godfather influenced American hoods. But because Godfather Part II was largely Coppolla’s work and was better researched, it more closely approximated the real world of the American underworld, unlike Puzo’s book which had sprung from his imagination.
I’m not sure our hoods ever had much in common with The Godfather’s characters. And when gang wars exploded on the streets of Mumbai in the 1980s, Mastan told me regretfully that the old order was dead. The world of family honour and respect for the Godfather had ended, he said sadly (Satya and its successors capture the chaos of today’s gangland).
But watching the movie again, I wondered if Puzo knew, as he sat down to quickly churn out a potboiler, that the real underworld in faraway India would never be the same again—thanks to the book he was writing.
It’s a strange thing. But even as the American gangster moved far away from the world depicted by The Godfather, his Indian counterpart longed to pattern himself on Don Corleone and to adopt the Cosa Nostra’s code of Omerta or silence.
That, I suppose, is the power of popular culture. So great is the influence of Hollywood that even real life crime in the Third World now follows the lead of the movie moguls of Los Angeles.
Mario Puzo set out to repay a gambling debt. He ended up changing the world.
(Write to Vir at firstname.lastname@example.org. Previously published columns can be found on www.livemint.com/vir-sanghvi)