When Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada in mid-April this year, he travelled to the city of Vancouver and its suburbs and interacted with the local Indo-Canadian community. Within a couple of days of his departure, local media reported a murder that highlights an ill that has afflicted the community there for a quarter-century – gang violence. On April 19, Arun Bains, the 22-year-old nephew of an MLA in the British Columbia Assembly was killed in what the Royal Canadian Mounted Police believe was part of a cycle of violence involving drug-trafficking outfits.
The gangs that prowl Vancouver and suburbs like Surrey and Abbotsford, with their large Indo-Canadian populations, aren’t quite known of outside that metropolitan region of Western Canada, but that could change with Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s latest film, Beeba Boys. “Everybody, when you go East of the Rockies, has a collective amnesia of what happens in Vancouver. It’s insane when you think about it as a Canadian, an Indo-Canadian, a Punjabi-Canadian. I had no clue this goes on,” Mehta said in an interview as her film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.
Her ‘primary source’ of material on this conflict was veteran Vancouver Sun reporter Kim Bolan who has tracked the phenomenon for nearly two decades. “Right now in Surrey, there’s another explosion in gang violence. Young men are attracted to the outlaw life, they think it’s cool,” Bolan pointed out.
In that region, they have sometimes been described as the Punjabi mafia, though Bolan and the police repeatedly point out that the gangs are often multi-ethnic in nature. The predominance of Indo-Canadians in those controlling crime like drug running in places like Surrey is due to the high percentage of the population form and that’s reflected in the gang composition. Of the 160 gang-related killings in British Columbia between January 2006 and March 2014, over 21% were of South Asian origin. As Bolan reported: “Violent crime is up by 36% in Surrey this year, due in large part to a gang turf war that led to an unprecedented number of public shootings.”
Canadian broadcaster CBC described Abbotsford-Mission in BC’s Fraser Valley as the ‘gangland murder capital of Canada’. Gang members have a life expectancy of 29.7 years.
In fact, Indian actor Randeep Hooda, who plays the lead role of don Jeet Johar in Beeba Boys, recalls that he first became familiar with the story eight or nine years back when a photographer from Vancouver approached him to make a film on the topic. “But then he came back after a year or so and said we can’t make it, they’re going to shoot me. That’s when I realised, ‘Hey! this problem exists,” Hooda said.
“What we’ve seen is a spike in violence in the Surrey/Delta area, between two gangs fighting each other over street level drug trade. We’ve seen a similar spike, long simmering, in the county of Abbotsford,” said Sgt. Lindsey Houghton of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit – BC, the province’s anti-gang unit, an integrated policing agency (the largest in Canada).
The gang culture ‘exploded’ in the early 1990s with the arrival of the flashy Bindy Johal, who sometimes sensationally took to the media to threaten his enemies, mainly the Dosanjh brothers. As the Dosanjhs were gunned down in 1994, Johal was charged but acquitted. In December 1998, he was executed gangland style in a Vancouver nightclub. But his early death created an aura that has resulted in him being a legend among some of the community’s youth. “We see young people who were not born when he died make YouTube tribute videos to Bindy Johal,” Sgt. Houghton said.
Beeba in Punjabi is good. The gangland boss Jeet Johar lives and cares for his parents and son; his mother even launders his underwear. But as the protagonist anti-hero of Indo-Canadian director Deepa Mehta’s Beeba Boys, Johar leads a ruthless group of gangsters who use handguns (and one occasion, a kirpan) to underscore their arguments.
Mehta’s film, her first since the cinematic adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and heads, fittingly, to the Vancouver film festival in late September, since this is the area where Indo-Canadian gangs thrive. She started researching the film in 2010 and once the script was completed, arrived at casting decisions like having Mumbai-based actor Randeep Hooda plays Jeet Johar.
“I didn’t expect getting a gangster flick from Deepa,” Hooda said. But Mehta, known for her intimate films like Fire or Water, doesn’t feel she’s ventured into alien territory: “I did a film called Earth, about sectarian violence. That was also really violent in its own way. Violence is a part of life. For me, it’s a dramatic film about gangsters. I don’t feel it’s a genre film.”
While Beeba Boys will release in mid-October in North America, the filmmakers are looking for a distribution deal to take it to India.