What was once cutting edge Indian cinema fast seems to be becoming a mainstream celebration. Gangster movies, which exploit the real-life oddities and explore the underbelly of crime, have been getting an overwhelmingly positive response in Bollywood.
A slew of releases this year — D - Day, Shootout at Wadala, Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster Returns, Zilla Ghaziabad and soon to be released Once Upon a Time in Mumbai Dobara — deal with organised crime, often with the protagonist posessing grey shades.
While the last two decades have seen a steady supply of gangster movies — right from the original Amitabh Bachchan starrer Agneepath back in 1990 to Satya released in 1998, Vaastav in 1999 to Company in 2002, however this year is seeing the highest number of gangster movies released in quick succession. Released earlier this year Shootout at Wadala, the second in the Shootout series by Sanjay Gupta which depicted the first ever registered encounter by Mumbai police of gangster Manya Surve, received a 65% opening occupancy and collected Rs 10.19 crore on the first day. While Saheb, Biwi aur Gangster Returns without any superstars managed to net Rs 21.25 crore at the box office.
Last year’s release Agneepath, a remake of 1990 Amitabh Bachchan starrer of the same name, broke all records of opening day success in Bollywood and did a worldwide gross business of Rs 1.93 billion. Gangs of Wasseypur based on the coal mafia in Jharkhand, though not a huge hit commercially (Rs 508 million for both parts) was screened at Cannes and Sundance festivals, earned the distinction of a modern cult film by critics. The remake of the classic Don (1978) in 2011, Don 2, netted about Rs 147 crore in India, making it eighth highest grossing film of all times and Shah Rukh Khan’s second 100 crore movie. According to ad filmmaker Prahlad Kakkar, “The trend has moved from the soft romantic and family movies of the 1990s and 2000s to that of crime thrillers representing the present angry mood of the society, which is dejected with lawlessness and corrupt politicians.” While amongst the 90s and early 2000s top grossers were Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, Raja Hindustani and Kuch Kuch Hota Hai to Kaho Na Pyaar Hai and Mohabbatein, “Today, adds, Kakkar, “even when the public responds to Dabangg, (2010 top grosser with Rs 225 crore business worldwide) it is because the good cop is seen going against the law to bring greater good to public, and acting just like a gangster himself.”
Angry young man, again
Clinical psychologist, Ann Sim John, says, “We are living in an unkind atmosphere of corruption, joblessness, failures and security threats, dejected with the system, somewhere we are looking at those who challenge these boundaries as the real heroes.” Trade analyst Taran Adarsh agrees, “Today crime has become real, look at the newspaper headlines and news on TV, there is so much negativity around us.”
The trend is working for Bollywood actors too. For stars, portraying a character with grey shades has become a rite of passage to showcase the actor within. A Bollywood image advisor shares on anonymity that some actors who were relegated to the lower end of the Bollywood totem pole are looking to play these grey characters at a pittance in a hope to revive their career.
Experts also point out a difference between the gangster movies in 80s to the ones now. Earlier as an equaliser we would invariably have the criminal accept defeat in front of the greater good. Today it may not necessarily be the case. Psychologist Sim John, also points out a link between the mindsets, then and now. “There is a lot of psychological literature with records in rehab centres showing that the adolescents of the 80s took to violence and addictions to counter frustrations, just as we are romanticising a gangster who dares the system today,” she says. Experts say the 2000s were similar to 1970s when most youngsters wanted to settle down, get married, have children. A fact reflected in various mushy family movies of the time.
Restless for success
Gautam Dutta, COO, PVR cinemas says, “While all genres get equal representation in cinemas, the major blockbusters tend to be superstar movies for the obvious hype around them. However when you see a following for gangster movies that may not have any superstars, you can judge that the public relates to the subject.”
Another factor going in favour of Gangster films, some of them set in small, rural towns, is pure commerce: they appeal to both metro and tier two city audiences. Amit Sharma, professor, cinema and culture, Jawahar Lal Nehru University says, “Gangs of Wasseypur and Udaan, two recent films showed the rural kasbah life in Jharkhand, a place which was shown in Bollywood for the first time in 100 years.”
Sociologist Shiv Visvanthan says, “The genre also depicts that the public wants to see greater realism. Crime shown in a family setting, say a feud between brothers may not be a concern of youth. So the script has to get intense.”
Dutta also observes that the trend shows a dangerous curve, “The larger trend emerging is that in many of these movies, the gangster becomes rich and powerful because he took shortcuts in life. The stories are fuelling the fantasy of youth who want to gain instant success.”
Sim John agrees, “The movies withmachismo as an ongoing subject are showing heroes such as Ajay Devgn in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, who though a gangster has a softer side too. Despite that a lot of content remains inappropriate.” However, professor Sharma thinks that the trend, only represents the cyclic nature of Bollywood and will give way to another genre in due time. He says, “Amitabh Bachchan became a super star with his angry image in 80s, followed by an era where Sridevi and Madhuri Dixit ruled with their dances. Today the gangster may be a favourite subject but it will give way to another new twisty plot.”