That gangsters and police officers are two sides of the same coin is an idea that is nearly as old as cinema itself. And if gangster films are to be believed, what is a respectable don without a passion of the finer things in life? In the website 101 India’s web series Dinner with..., host Vishal Chopra dines with a variety of guests with blood on their hands – from an encounter specialist with 116 kills to his name to a Hyderabadi don who is now a marriage counseller.
The series has been inspired by Vice documentaries that attempt to give an insider view of the underbelly. Dinner with... began life in June 2016 as vignettes with dons from the Dongri and Nalasopara neighbourhoods in Mumbai. The series features conversations with evocatively named men such as Salim Chopper, who says he was inspired by Sanjay Dutt’s character in the movie Vaastav (1999). Gangsters also hold forth on Mumbai’s fabled street food.
The gangsters featured in the series are reformed criminals who talk dispassionately about chopping victims into countless pieces. Like the Vice documentaries, the information is unverified and unsubstantiated. However, stylish visuals and intimate access to flamboyant characters conveys a sense of time and place.
In one episode, Vishal Chopra visits Dindigul, referred to as the “crime capital” of Tamil Nadu, to meet local don MK Tevar. Chopra’s easy camaraderie with the mobster leads to the hilarious moment when Tevar agrees to be interviewed at a graveyard along with his dog, who is named after India’s cricket captain Virat Kohli. Tevar speaks about his abiding love for biryani, which he says should be his final meal.
The most comprehensive explorations of India’s underworld take place in the infamous Chambal valley, which has been immortalised in numerous films including Bandit Queen (1996) and Paan Singh Tomar (2013).
The first of the Chambal episodes looks at Ramesh Singh Sikarwar, who surrendered in 1984 and became a farmer. Sikarwar answers the question that plagues everyone: Who is the Samba to his Gabbar?
In the second part, Chopra meets police officer Ashok Bhadoriya, who has been involved in numerous encounters in the Chambal Valley and had a near-death experience during a shootout. Bhadoriya is a fascinating character and speaks candidly about his past encounters.
At the end of both episodes, Chopra asks his subjects whether they feel any remorse about the numerous lives they have extinguished. With their answers, both law-breaker and enforcer become equals. They have no regrets except a fleeting one over the innocent lives lost in the crossfire.
It is in these portions that the shortcomings of the series become apparent. The gonzo-style investigation has its limits. The intimate access comes at the expense of genuine sociological insight. Both gangsters and officials allow only as much detail as they want to reveal. While the time spent in the underworld locales is thrilling and pregnant with dread, Dinner with... is unable to what Tigmanshu Dhulia’s biopic Paan Singh Tomar did admirably – enter the grey area between cop and don and uncover the ethical and moral dilemmas plaguing both.