If you’re worried that Ashim Ahluwalia, one of the more stubbornly independent directors in the country, might have strayed too far mainstream with Daddy, you can scratch that thought. More straightforward at a surface level than his last feature, Miss Lovely, this is nevertheless a genre film turned on its head. All the usual gangster tropes are summoned, then subverted. The one item number is a disco pastiche so period-accurate you’ll cringe. Gunbattles abound, but are too fast and chaotic for any heroics to register. There’s no punch dialogue—the closest we come is Arun Gawli (Arjun Rampal) saying “Mere haath gande hain (my hands are dirty)" to his rival over dinner.

You only have to look at Raees to appreciate how far Daddy is from Bollywood’s idea of a mainstream gangster film. Both films are built around a real-life don-turned-public-figure, and both contrast the misdeeds of their titular character with the love the public bears them and their devotion to their families. But Raees is devoted to the Grand Gesture (as are most Indian gangster films), from the kohl under Shah Rukh Khan’s eyes to the baroque action sequences. Daddy, on the other hand, can barely get more than a few mumbles out of Gawli, and is driven not by craftiness but by desperation, greed and fear.

Daddy tracks the rise of Gawli from a minor hood in Mumbai’s Dagdi Chawl to the head of a crime family in the late 1980s and 1990s. He starts out with Babu Reshim (Anand Ingale) and Raja Naik (Rajesh Shringarpure), and they display enough drive to attract the attention of Maqsood (a Dawood Ibrahim stand-in played by Farhan Akhtar, the film’s one piece of miscasting). In Ahluwalia’s telling (made with the consent of its subject), Gawli is a most reluctant criminal: there are at least two scenes in which he’s faced with a clear choice between crime and a normal life. He chooses the latter both times, but is swept away by events just beyond his control.

As Gawli breaks away from Maqsood, becomes a leading gang boss, goes to jail and enters politics, we’re told his story from various perspectives: his mother, his wife(Aishwarya Rajesh), a gang member named Pamphlet (a gloriously nervy Deepak Damle). The connecting thread is a cop, Vijaykar, who’s been on Gawli’s case for decades. Excellently played by actor and director Nishikant Kamat, Vijaykar is a Gawli who grew on the right side of the tracks—so unsympathetic, in fact, that Gawli starts looking less monstrous by comparison (Rampal’s face has become somewhat gaunt in recent times, which gives him a haunted look that suits this film well).

The film takes care to implicate society in the creation of Gawli the criminal, but sometimes these moments are too broad—"Uski sabse badi buraai gareebi thi (his greatest fault was poverty)" belongs in a ’70s Bachchan film. Through Daddy’s 130 minutes, Gawli remains elusive, his story obscured by multiple timelines and narrators, and his own reticence. Daddy reminded me of Paolo Sorrentino’s Il Divo, another film about a sphinx-like public figure situated at the intersection of politics and crime. As with Giulio Andreotti in that film, the more we learn about Gawli the less sure about him we become. Is he a reformed public servant trying to atone for past sins, or a gangster running an elaborate con? The film makes no attempt to pin him down, resulting in a narrative that, for all its close shadowing of Gawli, keeps the viewer at arm’s length.

There’s another angle to Gawli’s story: he was a Hindu gangster in a city dominated by Muslim crime bosses. This is an important wrinkle, and Ahluwalia addresses it as best he can without getting his film banned or censored. We’re offered the fascinating detail that, in the heyday of Mumbai gang warfare, Eid was the one day on which rivals could sit together and work out differences (the scene where Gawli meets Maqsood is scored, amusingly, with an overwrought qawwali pretty much spelling this out). Later, there’s a shootout in a mosque, followed immediately by an attack during a Hindu festival. Intriguingly, Daddy ultimately positions the overtly religious Gawli as someone concerned with the welfare of both Hindus and Muslims in his area—the gangster as secular leader, something seen in Raees as well.

Working with cinematographers Jessica Lee Gagné and Pankaj Kumar, Ahluwalia brings immediacy and telling detail to almost every scene. After his first kill, Gawli runs across a tiled roof and stows his shirt in a chimney-like young Vito Corleone in The Godfather II. Later on, he holds in his arms, at the same time, a baby, a rattle and a revolver. It feels like an extension of the idea of the Mumbai gangster as family man that Bheeku Mhatre introduced some 20 years ago, just as Daddy seems to build on the legacy of Satya while pushing the Indian gangster film into darker, more ambiguous territory.

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