Whatever you make of Sanjay Gupta’s aesthetics after sitting through his 150-minute exploitation flick Shootout at Wadala (SAW), you have to hand it to the filmmaker’s command of commerce.

SAW, which opened on 3 May, won’t be shown to film students as an example of how movies should be made (except perhaps ironically), but it will be cited approvingly as an example of successful marketing. The movie had a healthy opening weekend, said Girish Johar, head of distribution and acquisition at Balaji Motion Pictures, which has distributed the film and co-produced it along with Gupta’s company, White Feather Films. “We clocked 10.10 crore on day 1, with a marginal drop on Saturday collecting 9.75 crore, we were up in full swing on Sunday and got 10.85 crore." The total weekend collection is 30.70 crores according to Johar, even though the movie opened during the Indian Premier League and has an Adults only certificate.

Shootout at Wadala has “performed the best in the Maharashtra region", Johar said, which is not surprising considering that the movie claims to be a biopic of Manya Surve, a Maharashtrian extortionist and bank robber who was the first criminal from the underworld to be targeted in an encounter killing by the Mumbai police. The police pumped bullets into Surve on 11 January, 1982, outside Ambedkar College in Wadala, a neighbourhood in Mumbai (hence the title). The urbane and Anglicised John Abraham’s often risible attempts to portray a working-class Marathi speaker cannot have been the force that drove audiences to cinema halls. We take three guesses: item songs, a Hindu don, and the use of Marathi in a Hindi movie.

The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) inadvertently contributed to SAW’s pre-release buzz. The board initially objected to the item song Babli Badmaash, which was released on the Internet and on television before the movie’s release, and gave it an A certificate. Another song, Laila Teri Le Legi, featuring Sunny Leone, was changed to Laila Teri Loot Legi only for the television promotions—the movie keeps the original lyrics.

The steady stream of news reports about the item songs did the trick. By the time SAW landed in cinemas, audiences were already primed to the possibility of forbidden material. The CBFC gave the movie an Adults only certificate—and a good decision that was too. Filmgoers can see Gupta’s attitudes towards women without any meditation.

All three item songs in SAW draw attention to the physical attributes of the dancers featured in them. Ahmed Khan’s choreography invents dance moves that accentuate the women’s upper bodies, just in case the cleavage-baring costumes don’t do the trick. In Babli Badmaash, A-list star Priyanka Chopra does a shooting gesture from either side of her body, with her pointed fingers at level with her breasts.

Why single out Laila Teri Le Legi or Babli Badmaash? The sole aim of the item song is to titillate audiences. The industry claims that the phrase is pejorative, but it neatly sums up the way dancers are depicted in such songs—as goods on display. They are expected to wear revealing clothing, mouth come-hither lyrics and dance suggestively in the middle of a group of men. A tastefully done item song is an oxymoron. The fact that even kids gyrate to songs like Munni Badnaam Hui and Chikni Chameli at family functions and weddings proves that most people don’t get too worked up about the lyrics or the choreography.

Because SAW is an Adults only movie, Gupta doesn’t restrict himself to item songs. In one of two love-making scenes, a charged-up Surve forces himself on his reluctant girlfriend, tearing at her clothes. She soon gives in to his rough treatment because that’s what women really want, right?

The movie’s taste for tastelessness isn’t restricted to its depiction of female characters. Shootout at Wadala is a lost opportunity to fictionalise a significant moment in organised crime in Mumbai that has little to do with Surve and everything to do with the police. Surve was, in the words of a seasoned crime reporter who chose to stay anonymous, “riff-raff." SAW sets up Surve as a serious challenger to Dawood Ibrahim, who is called Dilawar in the film. The movie unabashedly identifies Dilawar as a bad Muslim don and Surve as a misguided Hindu one. In one sequence, Dilawar and his men say their prayers before embarking on a killing. In another, Dilawar asks Surve’s Muslim accomplice, Sheikh Munir, “Will you die for a cowardly Hindu?" The answer, that Munir is a good Muslim who will die for the right cause, is inconsequential.

The plot points are broadly taken from one of the chapter in S. Husain Zaidi’s Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia (Roli Books). Zaidi, who shares a story credit with Gupta, calls Surve “Mumbai’s Hadley Chase ." Surve would plan heists, robberies and murders after poring over James Hadley Chase’s potboilers, Zaidi writes in his chronicle. Abraham, unfortunately, doesn’t go anywhere near a book. Surve “terrorised the people of Bombay with the most violent crimes that the city ever witnessed". Zaidi claims, but the movie character’s crimes are valourised because, in Gupta’s final analysis, Dilawar is irredemable due to his religious leanings. Of course, Surve died a decade before the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the vendetta serial blasts in 1993 in Mumbai that Ibrahim is accused of having facilitated, but let’s not allow history get in the way of mythology.

In the years following Surve’s death, encounters became state policy in Maharashtra as the police force hunted down gangsters and killed them rather than arresting them and bringing them before a court of law. SAW has no place for the ethics of encounter killing units and the problematic practice of cops matching bullets with criminals.

An opening credit placard warns audiences that the screenplay is a hybrid of fact and fiction. The movie ends with another placard informing us that Surve graduated from Kirti College with 78% distinction. The movie portrays him as a diamond in the rough, a good man corrupted by the police. Abraham’s Surve is actually modelled on Chhota Rajan, Ibrahim’s trusted lieutenant who had a well-publicised falling out with his mentor. The rift between Ibrahim and Rajan was fictionalised to far greater effect in Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002).

The third factor that seems to have swung fortunes in SAW’s favour is the use of Marathi in a Hindi movie. It’s now a fad among filmmakers to aim for street cred by creating Maharashtrian characters who pepper their speech with the odd Marathi sentence. Abraham has illustrious predecessors, among them Manoj Bajpai, whose brilliant performance as Maharashtrian don Bhiku Mhatre in Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998) is marred only by his distinctive Uttar Pradeshi accent, and Ajay Devgn’s cop in Rohit Shetty’s Singham, who clearly identified as a Maharashtrian (his name is Bajirao).

Anil Kapoor played an upper-caste Maharashtrian named Mahesh Deshmukh in N. Chandra’s Tezaab (1988), but he didn’t mouth any Marathi dialogue. Cut to SAW, where Kapoor’s inspector character throws in the odd Marathi phrase to remind audiences that he is a son of the soil. When even Ronit Roy, who plays an inspector in Kapoor’s team, starts speaking in Marathi, it’s time to quote the front-bencher line from Singham, “Ataa majhi satakli (I have finally lost it.)"