Arjun Rampal on his Arun Gawli biopic: ‘It doesn’t have one opinion that is thrust down your throat’

Ashim Ahlulwalia’s movie is neither a puff piece nor a hatchet job, says the actor who plays the gangster.

Arjun Rampal’s office is sparsely decorated. Standees of his production Daddy occupy pride of place and a smattering of framed posters of American gangster movies and The Beatles hang off the walls. After playing a crooked film producer in Om Shanti Om, a guitarist in Rock On!! and a politician in Raajneeti, Rampal now steps into the gritty, realistic world of a Mumbai don. Directed by Ashim Ahluwalia, Daddy is a biopic of Arun Gawli, the gangster and politician who rose to prominence in Mumbai in the 1980s and ’90s as a counterweight to Dawood Ibrahim. Gawli, who is referred to by his followers as Daddy, was convicted for the murder of a Shiv Sena politician and is serving out his sentence. His bail application comes up in September, in time for the movie’s release on September 8.

How did the former ramp model and actor transform himself into a bespectacled and gaunt gangster in a Gandhi cap? Excerpts from an interview with Rampal.

Looking at the posters around your office, you are clearly a fan of the gangster genre.
Yes, I love the genre. Some of my favourite films are Godfather, On The Waterfront, Goodfellas, Carlito’s Way and Scarface. These films have had a strong influence on me because they are realistic and have authenticity, style and a different demeanour. There are good qualities to these characters, but there’s also a very scary side at the same time. As an actor I was extremely greedy to play such a part.

Daddy (2017).

How did you go about putting together the story of Arun Gawli?
Besides news reports, we met people who were part of his world. His family was initially hesitant to share information, but over time we earned their trust. We also met people who may have had an impression of him or had met him occasionally.

We also wanted the point of view of his rivals and of the cops. Most important was to get the perspective of those who may not be alive anymore – those who had close interactions with Daddy. Initially, Gawli himself was not accessible as he was in jail. We were able to amass great stories moments and incidents and then started putting them all together. It was then that I started getting obsessive. I started writing the story and then took it to Ashim.

How did your collaboration between Ashim Ahluwalia come about?
I knew Ashim from the advertising films we had done together. I like his sensibility. He’s quite a reluctant filmmaker and I knew that even if he doesn’t want to direct the film, he would at least give me honest feedback. But he loved it and came on board, with the proviso that I had to get the look exactly right and that we had to create the world – from the 1970s to 2012 – exactly the way it was.

We also decided that the film must not have one opinion that is thrust down your throat – that he’s a good Samaritan, or the underdog or the don. What we liked about Gawli was that he was quite an accidental don and that he’s called Daddy, not Godfather or Dada or Bhai, or Ustad, but Daddy. In Dagdi Chawl, his wife is called Mummy. So we figured out that the film should be from the perspective of various people.

Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.
Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.

When making a biopic of a living person, especially a gangster, were you conscious of keeping the story balanced so as to not upset him?
The best way to not have to worry about that is by being honest. Whether you piss him off or not is not why you are making the film. When you meet Gawli, it’s very hard to read him. There is no way I would have made this film without his consent.

The first meeting was about what he wants to do for people, his political career and the terminology of a kind of Robin Hood. Then you say fine, that’s one aspect¸ but what about the other aspect? This film is not Robin Hood. This film is about Daddy. So who is he? What was his journey, what was the relationship between Babu, Rama and Arun [his early gang mates] What’s his psyche? He says he is a reformed man today, so what’s his stand now? We had to coax him to show us the depth in his life so that the film would not be shallow.

Recent biopics have tended to veer towards hagiography. Were you not concerned about criticism that you could be glorifying a criminal?
This is a valid question. That was a concern for me too. But I am not worried because we have not glorified anyone. One is not trying to promote this lifestyle or this world. We are just putting it out there. I didn’t want to portray a one-sided opinion. What excited us was that he has many different faces and facets. He even stood for an election and won, so he must have done something right.

Equally there must have been a lot of people he pissed off and hurt. We were interested in possible feelings of paranoia and understanding why he made Dagdi Chawl his fortress. Our challenge was to make this movie both real and accessible. For that it had to have authenticity while also being entertaining.

Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.
Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.

Postponing the release to wait for Gawli’s bail gives the impression that the movie has his stamp of approval.
We already have that. He allowed us to make the kind of film we wanted to. Even his family is on board. But he didn’t impose even one sanction. He did watch the film and observed it very closely, bringing up detailed notes such as how a particular headline was wrong or a date needed to be corrected and pointing out how Babu wouldn’t have reacted in a certain way. In fact he got quite emotional about Babu and Rama.

Anyway there is no guarantee of him getting bail.

You underwent quite a physical transformation to become Daddy. What was your process?
If you are making the true story of a man who is alive, who has a following and is very recognisable – with a distinct nose, style, the cap, the kurta – the look is critical. But in the ’70s and ’80s, he was not dressed like that. He was thinner and had different hair.

Ashim was clear that in order to play him, I had to look like him and also feel like him. So I had to shrink a lot. I stopped going to the gym. I lost 11 kilos. I had to look like a normal person who has never lifted a weight. I lost all that muscle and that was very difficult for me because I love going to work out. And then to sit there and think: we have come all this way where we have a script, I am producing, we are going to shoot, Ashim is directing but what if I fail this look test? Then what? I decided that if that happened, I would still produce and we would just cast another actor. But with the costumes, make up and prosthetics, it all came together.

Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.
Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.

What reactions did you get when you went to the real locations to shoot dressed as Gawli?
We did not get very good reactions when we went to Agripada and crossed the road into Nagpada. It was a bit hostile. We needed police protection. Here we were with a large crew of some 200 people and me dressed as Gawli. And we had to recreate that era, dress up the place with props. People were curious to know what was going on. Those areas were not very shooting friendly, and there were a few disruptions with guys asking why we are shooting, who gave us permission and abusing the crew. Then the shooting would stall for a bit till the cops diffused the situation.

But it was great, actually, because it created that tension which you needed. There was an urgency to get it done. At one point I asked Ashim, why the hell are we doing this? And he said, “You see, you see, it’s going to be beautiful.”

Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.
Daddy. Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.
We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Changing the conversation around mental health in rural India

Insights that emerged from discussions around mental health at a village this World Mental Health Day.

Questioning is the art of learning. For an illness as debilitating as depression, asking the right questions is an important step in social acceptance and understanding. How do I open-up about my depression to my parents? Can meditation be counted as a treatment for depression? Should heartbreak be considered as a trigger for deep depression? These were some of the questions addressed by a panel consisting of the trustees and the founder of The Live Love Lough Foundation (TLLLF), a platform that seeks to champion the cause of mental health. The panel discussion was a part of an event organised by TLLLF to commemorate World Mental Health Day.

According to a National Mental Health Survey of India 2015-16, conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS), common mental disorders including depression, anxiety disorders and substance use disorders affect nearly 10% of the population, with 1 in 20 people in India suffering from depression. The survey reported a huge treatment gap, a problem that is spread far and wide across urban and rural parts of the country.

On 10th of October, trustees of the foundation, Anna Chandy, Dr. Shyam Bhat and Nina Nair, along with its founder, Deepika Padukone, made a visit to a community health project centre in Devangere, Karnataka. The project, started by The Association of People with Disability (APD) in 2010, got a much-needed boost after partnering with TLLLF 2 years ago, helping them reach 819 people suffering from mental illnesses and spreading its program to 6 Taluks, making a difference at a larger scale.


During the visit, the TLLLF team met patients and their families to gain insights into the program’s effectiveness and impact. Basavaraja, a beneficiary of the program, spoke about the issues he faced because of his illness. He shared how people used to call him mad and would threaten to beat him up. Other patients expressed their difficulty in getting access to medical aid for which they had to travel to the next biggest city, Shivmoga which is about 2 hours away from Davangere. A marked difference from when TLLLF joined the project two years ago was the level of openness and awareness present amongst the villagers. Individuals and families were more expressive about their issues and challenges leading to a more evolved and helpful conversation.

The process of de-stigmatizing mental illnesses in a community and providing treatment to those who are suffering requires a strong nexus of partners to make progress in a holistic manner. Initially, getting different stakeholders together was difficult because of the lack of awareness and resources in the field of mental healthcare. But the project found its footing once it established a network of support from NIMHANS doctors who treated the patients at health camps, Primary Healthcare Centre doctors and the ASHA workers. On their visit, the TLLLF team along with APD and the project partners discussed the impact that was made by the program. Were beneficiaries able to access the free psychiatric drugs? Did the program help in reducing the distance patients had to travel to get treatment? During these discussions, the TLLLF team observed that even amongst the partners, there was an increased sense of support and responsiveness towards mental health aid.

The next leg of the visit took the TLLLF team to the village of Bilichodu where they met a support group that included 15 patients and caregivers. Ujjala Padukone, Deepika Padukone’s mother, being a caregiver herself, was also present in the discussion to share her experiences with the group and encouraged others to share their stories and concerns about their family members. While the discussion revolved around the importance of opening up and seeking help, the team brought about a forward-looking attitude within the group by discussing future possibilities in employment and livelihood options available for the patients.

As the TLLLF team honoured World Mental Health day, 2017 by visiting families, engaging with support groups and reviewing the successes and the challenges in rural mental healthcare, they noticed how the conversation, that was once difficult to start, now had characteristics of support, openness and a positive outlook towards the future. To continue this momentum, the organisation charted out the next steps that will further enrich the dialogue surrounding mental health, in both urban and rural areas. The steps include increasing research on mental health, enhancing the role of social media to drive awareness and decrease stigma and expanding their current programs. To know more, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of The Live Love Laugh Foundation and not by the Scroll editorial team.