Sunday, November 6, 2011
Bollywood is famous for turning out musical confections, and they do indeed make a lot of those, the best of which are pretty cool, in a musical confection sort of way—but what are less well known, over here at least, are their gangster flicks, some of which can easily stand comparison with good HK and American stuff. Fact is, there’s an extremely savage side to Indian society, and Bollywood filmakers haven’t been too shy about depicting it.
A little history.
First off, there’s been a ton of sectarian violence over there—in 1947, a million people were killed in the upheaval resulting from the British withdrawal, and partition. In 1984, when the national government went after Sikh separatists in the Golden Temple in Amritsar, hundreds of people were killed in the shrine, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her Sikh bodyguards, and that touched off a wave of rioting and bloodshed throughout the country. Indian-Pakistani conflict over Kashmir has resulted in tens of thousands of deaths. And then there were the Bombay bombings in 1991, and lately that attack on Parliament, the recent Bombay attacks, and the Hyderabad bombings, etc. This is all tied in with the underworld and politics—there’s a very tight nexus between a lot of pols and underworld thugs who provide them with muscle. In some cases, the underworld folks stand for parliament themselves—witness the case of Phulan Devi, the notorious Bandit Queen, who killed loads of people, ran for parliament, served for 12 years, left office, and was blown up.The political and sectarian stuff ties in with terrorism—Moslem mob bosses back Moslem terrorists, and Hindu mob bosses back Hindu nationalist terrorists. The best of the Indian mob movies, Company, was based on the life of Daud Ibrahim, a Mumbai gangster with very close ties to the Pakistani ISI (chief sponsors of Al Qaeda and the Taliban); his organization, D Company, was heavily wired into the ‘91 bombings, and one of his guys supplied guns to that big Indian movie star, Sanjay Dutt, who was just jailed on firearms charges. Pretty badass over there. No accident that the word thug is Indian...after all, the Thuggee cult was organized crime, big time.
While I’m finishing up Part Two of my Top Twenty War movies list, (and working on Cainville, my own contribution to the crime genre) I thought I’d tell you about a couple of Bollywood gangster flicks that you might want to check out. They show up on the pay-per-view...
SHOOTOUT AT LOKHANDWALA.
The first half of our mob double feature was produced by Sanjay Dutt, (yeah, the one with those pesky legal problems) and directed by Apoorva Lakhia...it’s based on a genuine blood-drenched incident from back in ‘91, and, as nearly as I can make out, it’s pretty close to the facts....lot of stuff was filmed in the actual locations. Unlike most Bollywood flicks, it’s fairly short and to the point, the impression very much reinforced by the pace. There’s some kind of violent biz every four or five minutes or so, until the last third, which is all violence....quite cringeworthy...film is very bad tempered. There a couple of musical numbers, but they’re set in bars where the gangsters wickedly ogle scantily-clad women, and the numbers don’t really take you too much out of the action. The babes are very easy on the eyes in any case.
Story revolves around the war between the ATS (Anti Terrorist Squad) led by ACP Khan, played by the aforementioned Dutt, and a very cocky crazy gang led by Maya(Vivek Oberoi.) The ATS (also known as the Assassin Training Squad and the Allah Transport Squad), is made up of Encounter Specialists—Mumbai cops who specialize in killing criminals in ostensible shootouts. In real life, these guys are true murder meisters, and some of them have wiped out scores and even hundreds of hoods...sometimes at the behest of other hoods.
As the story begins we learn that ACP Khan and his boys have just greased a clutch of thugs in an incredibly violent shootout in which thousands of rounds have been expended. Khan’s under investigation by a prosecutor named Dinghra, played by Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan (known as Amit Ji and Big B to his adoring fans)...Dinghra is mighty damn skeptical about Khan’s methods...Khan responds...story unfolds in flashback. For much of the movie, we get a series of short, sharp vignettes, almost all of them memorably vicious, depicting, alternately, Khan’s greatest hits, and Maya’s, and showing how the two guys wind up coming so spectacularly to blows. Egged on by his venemous mother, who loves lording it over her fellow slum-dwellers because her son’s a gangster, Maya builds a up fearsome rep, then goes to work for Bhai, an absentee ganglord who rules Mumbai from Dubai, and who’s modelled on the aforementioned Daud Ibrahim. Maya’s content to take orders for a while, then decides to strike out on his own, and lean on guys who are already paying off to his boss...Bhai takes this very ill indeed, and sics the police on his ertswhile henchman. It’s unclear whether the ATS guys are being paid by Bhai, or whether they’re just acting on his tip but...they descend on Maya’s Lokhandwala hideout, and all hell breaks loose. In between fusillades, the gangsters, knowing the police aren’t going to give them any quarter, call up their loved ones to say goodbye (this stuff is all pretty effective), then meet their respective awful fates...a TV and a coat-rack peg are put to amazing use, although there’s also a great deal of riddling with bullets. Once the gangsters (and one poor innocent) are all exterminated, Khan and his guys are put on trial, but Dinghra has decided Maya and Company all really had it coming (forget about that innocent guy, I guess because he was fat and hairy), and the cops get off.
Now, civil libertarians would find much to piss them off here, as I think I’ve made clear...one of the startling things about Indian crimers is just how how much they take it completely for granted that cops murder their prisoners, torture them, do all kinds of nasty stuff...and are completely justified.It’s much more extreme than anything you get in American movies. Even after the movie suggests that Khan and crew might be taking bribes from Bhai, it kinda lets them off the hook. We sure don’t want to emulate this way of doing things, but... it sure is interesting and instructive, about a side of India that we rarely get a glimpse of. On its own terms, the film works quite well. It’s fast, it’s intense, and it builds.The bad guys are maniacal, and the violence really puts the hurt on you. There’s a scene with a sidewalk curb which will probably stay with you for the rest of your life.
This was directed by Ram Gopal Varma, the guy who made Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag, that remake of the most famous Indian flick of all, Sholay. Aag tanked completely; it re-imagined an Indian Western as a Bombay crime flick, and wasn’t a very good idea in a lot of respects, the one exception being the main bad guy, played by Amitabh Bachchan, who was one of the heroes in the original. But even if it had been great, it still wouldn’t have done too well, in all likelihood, because it was a remake of such a beloved classic.
In truth, Ram Gopal Varma has done much better work. As I said, Company is the best Hindi crime movie, and maybe the best Hindi flick period; highly recommended. If you like gangster epics, you should definitely take a look. It’s full of all sorts of gangster stuff that you never thought about, Mumbai hoods running their rackets from Hong Kong, Mumbai hoods slaughtering each other in Kenya, things like that. It also features this great song called Kallass, which is about as cool as Barra Barra from Black Hawk Down.
But on to Sarkar.
Basically, it’s a remake of The Godfather. One says to oneself that RGV is a very ballsy guy—also that he can’t have very much sense, that he’s basically putting on a big kick me sign. Then you see the film and, gasp---.it’s genuinely worthwhile. It has no business being any good, but it is.
The word Sarkar means a Lord, a head of government, or also, the government itself; in the film, it refers to Subhash Nagre, the Mumbai capo de tutti capi. He’s played by Amit Ji (him again!), and he’s a very honorable gangster, which is of course bullshit, but Bachchan is so charismatic and has such gravitas that he pulls it off. He’s only got two sons, not three like Brando; one, Shankar(Amitabh’s son Abhishek), is plainly modelled on Michael Corleone, and is being groomed for a big legit career; he’s just come back from the States. The other son, Vishnu, is sort of a cross between Fredo and Sonny...he’s an older brother who’s no good for anything, a producer of lousy films, who’s weak and vicious at the same time.
Everything seems under control at first...Subhash, who’s the real government for most of Mumbai, rules wisely and only does bad things to bad people...all the other gangsters are kissing his butt. There’s a reform politician, Khurana (played by the excellent character actor Anupam Kher) who’s causing him some difficulties, but Subhash respects him, and isn’t pushing back as hard as he might.
But underneath the surface, the other gangsters are conspiring, advised by a deranged-looking gangster swami (Jeeva)...they bump Khurana off and make it look like Subhash did it, then throw their weight behind a venemous Dubai-based gunrunner named Rashid (Zakir Hussain), this movie’s Solozzo, who asks for Subhash’s blessing on his ventures, then goes to war when he doesn’t get it. Subhash winds up in prison, which is controlled by enemy cops...he gets shot but doesn’t die...it’s up to Michael to save the day, even as the “bad” gangsters get their hooks into Vishnu. It all ends with lots of killin,’ which RGV is quite adept at directing.
All in all, it’s very well done...the photography is moody in much the same way The Godfather’s was...the acting is uniformly good, and the film is, like Lokhandwala, downright succinct for an Indian movie. There aren’t any musical numbers, which is a good idea. The film is overscored, but I managed to ignore that...the biggest problem is the fact that Subhash and Shankar are just too damn...nice. Yes, they kill people, and they apparently have criminal enterprises, but mostly we see them helping out poor folks, going easy on politicians who are trying to bring them down, and hampering gunrunners. That being said,the movie's well worth seeing, and an excellent vehicle for Amitabh Bachchan, who’s only gotten better with age, and is a screen presence about on a par with Sean Connery.
Really, you should check this flick out—Company too. They just might change your mind about Bollywood.