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Of 'Godpapas', item bombs and casinos

After a brief calm, extortion calls, threats, ganglords and gangladies are back in the everyday lexicon. RA Irani writes on Bollywood’s underworld movies.

entertainment Updated: Jul 31, 2007 13:14 IST
RA Irani

Question: Underworld — what kind of images does the word throw up anyway?

Answer: dreaded mobsters scattered over the atlas, all into black suits, blacker deeds, blackest Fridays.. and then there are our movies which throw up desi Scarfaces and Al Capones.. the obsession persists with the mafiosi — urban or rural — verus the cops.. shootouts, encounters.. you know the drift.

Today, after a lull, bold black headlines are once again talking of extortion threats. Reportedly Akshay Kumar, Himesh Reshammiya and Rajkumar Santoshi (even though this director’s career appears to be in a shambles) have received those infamous cell phone calls.

Monica Bedi is said to be weighing movie offers, there’s talk that she could even go international. Nothing is clear, nothing’s clearly black or white, the colours are a blur. So what’s the deal? <b1>

Up and down
Ram Gopal Varma pursues.. his sequel to Sarkar, Mario Puzo grafted to Versova. Satya was strong meat, Company had its fibrous value.. but wasn’t the first Sarkar essentially Coppola on a tandoori chicken diet?

And does anyone even remember a frame of D which was a notso-subtle reference to the D-company? Other Factory products like Ab Tak Chhapan and James were more of the same spaghetti from the Puzo kitchen.

With a raw edge, Prakash Jha exposed the underbelly of the hinterlands with Gangaajal and Aparahan. Tigmanshu Dhulia probed the badlands effectively with Haasil.

The genre of underworld movies continues, never mind if at times, the trend is more American than Indian. We have directors who would like to be Tarantino rather than themselves, thus yielding a Kaante or even Ek Chalis ki Last Local, (albeit redeemed to by its local madcap humour).

A Korean slasher flicks was desified in Sanjay Gupta’s Zinda; as a producer, Gupta got more ground level with Shootout at Lokhandwalla.

And there have been updates of Shakespeare via Maqbool and Omkara — both films of high excellence. But can he go the bard way ever again? Not likely.. after all, beyond a point, Shakespeare has much kinship to us as J K Rowling’s Potter has to a Punjab da Puttar.

Investigative ones
Like it or not, the accurate picture is provided essentially by cinema verite, evidenced in the almost newsreel-like quality of Anurag Kashyap’s investigative Black Friday (underrated to the core) or in the on-the-spot footage and sound bytes grabbed for documentaries and television reports concised for family viewing at dinner-time.

For anyone eager to separate fact from fiction (the current buzzword is faction cinema), the current scenario can only offer clues and signposts.. a modus operandi established ever since the pre Independence era when cinema spoke of and against the Raj, through indirect means.

One of the most effective examples of this is none other than

Kismet

of the 1940s, in which Ashok Kumar played the irascible anti-hero mouthing anti-Brit dialogue between the lines.

Power of script
Be it films, separated by decades, such as the black-and-white Ujala featuring Shammi Kapoor-Raaj Kumar and the Sanjay Dutt-dominated Vaastav, they indicate a pattern.

A good-hearted soul — because of abject poverty — becomes part of a law-blasting group. He believes that there’s an element of honour even in vice, becomes a numero uno boss, and then hurtles towards hell from which there is no return.

The women are either cogs in the wheel or motivators, a child is delivered in this melee, and it is suggested that the next generation will not take to the daily diet of high crime involving booze, babes and guns. Wishful thinking?

The cops are infallibly corrupt (hideously caricatured even in the post-Telgi scam era), portly politicos ceaselessly thunder about overthrowing governments. And a dance or two is performed by an item (extremely obtrusive in the recent Shootout at Lokhandwalla). Gangsters guzzle beer and boogie to lyrics which are all about blasting bullets into patli qamars. The underworld formula, with a piffling variation, is complete.

Khallas! Mehbooba mehbooba, whatever.

Gut-level performances, for that matter, have been the highpoints of the superior quality underworld films. For instance, Sanjay Dutt was astonishingly volatile in Vaastav.

But its sequel Hathyar laid an egg, not because Dutt wasn’t upto the mark, but because director Mahesh Manjrekar ran out of cooking oil. Incidentally, Sanjay Dutt by his casual, I-am-what-I-am ease could flip over from the grittiness of Vaastav to the cool humour of the Munnabhai movies.

Thumbs up
Among the other extra-strong mafia lord performances, the most remarkable ones are of Dilip Kumar in Mashaal (a crusading journo turns godpapa after personal tragedy), Amitabh Bachchan in Agneepath, Jackie Shroff in Parinda, Kamal Haasan in Nayakan and Dharmendra as a Muslim big boss in J P Dutta’s Hathyar, and Shah Rukh Khan in Don.

Old pattern
As it happens, the mafia mobster has been a fixture of Mumbai movideom. Right from Pran and Ajit to K N Singh, Madan Puri and Jeevan, there have been the gang gargoyles in sharkskin suits, dangling cigarettes, jaunty hats and controlling henchguys by the dozen. Quite Humphrey Bogartish but still.

With time, the evolved from casino owners and gold ‘biskoot’ smugglers residing in unbelievable studio dens to unshaven gangsters hanging out in hovels shaded by a naked light bulb.

If the bad guy isn’t a terrorist today, he’s a rough-‘n’-real rogue controlling an empire of narcotics and miscellaneous contraband which is never specified. Detailing, after all, is not our cinema’s cardinal virtue.

In the past, glossy adaptations of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather have produced campy spin-offs like Dharmatma (Feroz Khan cavorting in Afghanistan like regions) and Aatank hi Aatank (Aamir Khan trying to look menacing with a cigarillo).

Mahesh Bhatt ventured into the seamier sides with mixed results in Saathi and Sir. Sudhir Mishra’s raw-edged Is Raat Ki Subhah Nahin had its credible and revealing moments but his Calcutta Mail was a disappointing neither-here-nor-there effort with the amiable Satish Kaushik miscast as a menace to society.

In the eminently forgettable Izzatdaar, Govinda strived to get into the Corleone groove with unintended comic results. As for Uday Chopra and party in Supari, the less grumbled, the better.

To wrap up, it’s obvious that the underworld is a convenient springboard for diving into the good versus evil battles.

Fair enough.. but frequently one can’t help wondering if this is our underworld or Hollywoodland’s.

Indeed, it would be interesting to see if a Monica Bedi movie is more in sync with her reality than with Julia’s, Angelina’s or Gwyneth’s.