A tough-as-nails gangster story is not automatically associated with a song. But Indian filmmakers have always found a way to do the shimmy. In Indian gangster films, a must-have situation is the song set in the gangster’s lair, where the baddies are entertained by a seductress. The quintessential Mumbai gangster film has an added responsibility: to include the Ganpati song which portrays the gangster as a part of the milieu.
Ashim Ahluwalia’s Arun Gawli biopic Daddy, starring Arjun Rampal, has both, honouring time-tested musical traditions of the genre.
Among the early gangster’s lair songs is Tadbeer Se Bigadi Hui Taqdeer Bana Le from Baazi (1951). The desperate, out-of-luck hero Madan (Dev Anand) is about to leave the gambler’s den in Star Hotel until the seductive Leena (Geeta Bali) strums her guitar and the Geeta Dutt classic kicks in. Leena sings, “Apne pe bharosa hai to dav laga le” (If you trust yourself, place a bet), and Madan feels compelled to return to his gambler’s ways.
In another Dev Anand starrer, Jaali Note (1960), Anand is an undercover police inspector hobnobbing with criminals in their underground den beneath the Paris Hotel, where they are entertained by a then-unknown Helen dancing to Nigahon Ne Pheka Hain Panje Ka Chakka.
And in yet another hotel, this time in Howrah Bridge (1958), Prem Kumar (Ashok Kumar) too tries to get cosy with the bad guys who may be involved in his brother’s death. The hotel’s biggest draw, the beautiful Edna (Madhubala), is fond of Kumar and charms him with Aaiye Meharbaan, while the villain Pyarelal (KN Singh) looks on.
Latter-day songs such as Jalwa Dekhoge Kya Ji from JP Dutta’s Hathyar (1989), Jawaani Se Ab Jung from Vaastav: The Reality (1998) and Khallas from Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) continue the tradition of women dancing along while gangsters relax, conduct deals, or are joined by a silent enemy.
The gangster’s lair song gets an unique update in Don (1978), in which the impostor Vijay (Amitabh Bachchan), posing as Don, entertains his guests, cronies, and, of course, himself with Main Hoon Don. It’s a self-celebratory moment for the crime lord. Bachchan is in peak charm mode and his theatrics are punctuated by shots of his chums (Kamal Kapoor, Mac Mohan, MB Shetty) nodding in appreciation.
The song situation gets a Mumbai-flavoured update with Ganpat from Shootout At Lokhandwala (2007). Ganpat appears in the film right after the interval and is a functional item song with no attempt from director Apoorva Lakhia to tie it to the story. The boys, drunk and out of booze, sing their own praises (“In the Mumbai, all over India, we are the bhaai”), declare their influence irrespective of the party in power (“Congress smart party ya phir hove BJP, sabko to hoti hai only tere bhaai ki”) and list their usual weaknesses (“Shaam ko daaru, raat ko ladki aur neend aa jaye.”)
Ganpat, however, draws more from two 1998 songs than anything else. One is Goli Maar Bheje Mein from Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998), another song in which the gangster lifestyle is described and celebrated. Alcohol is involved, as usual. Gulzar’s lyrics describes the gangster’s code in broad, philosophical strokes (“Bheje ki sunega to marega”, “Tu karega, dusra bharega” or “Yede, woh marega jo darega”).
The other is the Hinglish rap song Mumbhai from Kaizad Gustad’s directorial debut Bombay Boys (1998). Javed Jaffrey provides the vocals for and dances to Mumbhai in a colourful video where he describes what an “ ekdum danger place” Mumbai is. Much before “bhai” or “bhaigiri” became commonplace with Rajkumar Hirani’s Munna Bhai M.B.B.S (2003), the terms were used with wild abandon in Mumbhai. With its strange mix of English lines, Hindi lines, lines in Bombay Hindi and tapori-speak (“Hoenga woh khallas”, “Udharich reh jaata hai”), Mumbhai paints a picture of the city as a kill-or-get-killed place.
In Company’s Sab Ganda Hai Par Dhanda Hai Ye, Varma strips the fun out of the this-is-how-we-gangsters-are song and admits that it is just dirty business (“Vote mein note, dhoti pe hai khot”, “Matlab ke yaar, aage se pyaar, peeche se waar”). Sanjay Gupta adds a touch of romanticism in Rama Re from his Reservoir Dogs-meets-Heat saga Kaante (2002). Here, the gang comprises a ragtag bunch of Indian expatriates in Los Angeles who are desperate for money and join hands to rob a bank. They are fearful of their life choices, and even regret it, but they march ahead without a choice – “Soch na hai kya? Jo hona hai hoga. Chal pare hai fikr yaaron dhuey mein udake, jaane kya hoga rama re.”
The nihilism of the gangster life is explored without inhibition and coyness in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). The hopelessness reflects in most of its songs’ lyrics: Keh Ke Lunga, Chhi Chha Ledar and Aabroo in particular. While these songs don’t describe the cosmetic details of a gangster’s life (that purpose is somewhat served by the Bihar anthem Jiya Tu), they speak of the violence and twisted eye-for-an-eye code prevalent in their lives.
Another fixation, particular of the Mumbai gangster film, is the Ganpati song. Ganesh Chaturthi is Mumbai’s biggest religious and cultural festival, and gangsters singing praises of Ganesha or being filmed amid celebrations are recurring elements. This song situation has the dual function of portraying the gangster’s close ties to his community and giving a bird’s eye view of Mumbai’s ethnography.
Ganpati Apne Gaon Chale from Agneepath (1990) is one such song, as is Deva Shree Ganesha from its 2012 remake of the same name. Sindur Lal Chadayo from Vaastav: The Reality is a particularly popular one. The 2006 remake of Don by Farhan Akhtar has one too.
Now, Ahluwalia has brought back the tradition with Aala Re Aala Ganesha in Daddy. The video shows Gawli (Rampal) and his wife Asha (Aishwarya Rajesh) celebrating a Ganesh puja with his supporters and patrons. Towards the end, the joy is punctured by assassins, as one of them takes a shot at Gawli, sending a reminder that all it takes is an unexpected bullet for the music to stop.