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McMafia review: Nawazuddin Siddiqui steals the show, Russian gangsters steal everything else

McMafia review: It has become increasingly common for movies and shows about India produced in the West to be more honest about our country than we are. And Nawazuddin Siddiqui knows this.

tv Updated: Feb 14, 2018 13:07 IST
Nawazuddin Siddiqui plays a small-time gangster in McMafia.

Cast - James Norton, David Strathairn, Nawazuddin Siddiqui
Rating - 3/5

Russian gangsters are an underrepresented lot. And judging by their alarmingly showy personalities, they’d probably be rather annoyed about it. Quick disclaimer: this observation is based on what the movies have shown us and not, as some of you might have guessed, on personal encounters. In any case, ask anyone what they know about Russian Mafia and they’d probably try and recall Eastern Promises, or to make a deep cut, Little Odessa. But ask anyone about the Italians, or even the Mexicans, and they’d have a wealth of material to draw from.

The new Amazon show, McMafia — which isn’t really an Amazon Original, though, as they’ve just acquired it — should satisfy every Russian gangster who tunes in. Finally, here’s an entire show about their distinct methods of doing business, although most of it — which they’d observe to their further annoyance — is not based on a Russian folktale or something by one of the Great Russian Novelists, but on The Godfather.

Such is the influence of Francis Ford Coppola’s classic on McMafia, ‘inspired’ by Misha Glenny’s non-fiction book that, were some slight changes to be made, it could easily qualify as a TV spinoff. And while that might sound like a criticism, it isn’t. Remakes aren’t inherently a bad thing (we’ve seen too many good ones to know that). And as far as remakes go, you could do worse than McMafia, a show that follows the plot of The Godfather with the adoration of a smitten teenager, cloning characters, replicating plot points, and honouring legacies.

McMafia traces the ongoing saga of the Godmans, a Russian crime family based in London. Dimitri Godman is an aging mob boss who wants to legitimise his family business, one that his son, Alex has distanced himself from. Alex, as you’ve probably guessed, is the Michael Corleone in this story. He even has his own Kay Adams. But when a hit on a big Russian ‘businessman’ leaves an empty seat at the top, gangsters from all over the world rush to fill it.

A Game of Thrones ensues, and Alex Godman, once the outcast, finds himself attracted to the thug life. But before he can cement his position as the head of the Russian underworld, he must contend with other Russian gangsters, the ones with the prison tattoos and the works. And the Russians aren’t alone. There are also several Israeli gangsters, (one gay Israeli gangster; I mention his sexual orientation because it’s relevant to the plot) a Mexican Cartel and the Indians.

Which brings us to Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and a rather important point. It has become increasingly common for movies and shows about India produced in the West to be more honest about our country than we are, to the point that we can almost rely on them for a refreshing reality check. Whether it’s politics (An Insignificant Man) or poverty (Lion), it’s a disappointing truth that we are rarely unburdened by the threat of some sort of retaliation.

One of the first words Nawazuddin’s character says sent through me a jolt of disbelief so strong that I had to rewind and note down exactly what he said. These words were spoken in what appears to be a Mumbai dance bar, to the aforementioned gay Israeli gent, during a business deal in which Nawazuddin’s character is haggling for more money, as a song from DDLJ blares on the speakers. When the Israeli gangster lowballs him, Nawazuddin says, “I’m a Muslim. In this country, every dollar is 50 cents for me. There is the police, the city hall, the Shiv Sena…” listing authorities that have to be bribed. And as expected, Nawaz is tremendous in the scene, as he is in the entire eight episode series, even though he doesn’t appear in every episode.

To hear him deliver words written by Hossein Amini, the writer of one of my favourite films of all time, Drive, is not something you’d expect, but is exactly what you’d imagine. Amini, who along with director James Watkins, is credited as the co-creator of McMafia and had previously shown that he could write stories about the Russian mob — his last film was the John le Carré adaptation, Our Kind of Traitor — proves that he’s deft with organised crime (and criminals) from around the world.

McMafia, despite being overly familiar for the first four episodes, is a well-written, carefully plotted, and impressively shot tale. Lead James Norton might not possess the raw force necessary for James Bond (for a while before Daniel Craig confirmed his return, Norton was rumoured to be in the running for 007), but he certainly has what it takes to play a tough-to-crack charmer. He navigates drama, action and romance with surprising bravado, despite a rather understated outward demeanour.

McMafia isn’t the gold standard for this sort of thing but it’s so well-made that even long stretches of inactivity (with subtitles) aren’t as dull as they could have been.

Watch the McMafia trailer here

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The author tweets @RohanNaahar

First Published: Feb 12, 2018 13:19 IST