‘Daddy’ and the broken moral compass of the Bollywood gangster biopic

The film about Arun Gawli proves that Bollywood’s imagination is greater than its ability to portray reality.

The gangster genre in Hindi cinema is better off dealing with fictional characters rather than actual people. That is the inescapable truth about Daddy, the biopic of Mumbai don Arun Gawli that has been directed by Ashim Ahluwalia and steered by its producer and lead actor, Arjun Rampal.

Daddy, which was released this past weekend, is similar to Rahul Dholakia’s Raees in its ambition and its failures. Like Raees (2017), which is based on the Gujarat bootlegger Abdul Latif, Daddy charts Gawli’s corpse-strewn journey to wealth and political influence and points to the systemic corruption and behind-the-scenes manoeuvres that sustain his activities, but lets him off the hook by suggesting that he has been a victim of rival Dawood Ibrahim’s machinations and police skullduggery. Ibrahim is not named in the movie, and is instead referred to as Maqsud.

Gawli comes across as a Michael Corleone-like figure in his initial reluctance to embrace his seemingly inevitable fate, but only up until the point where Corleone kills his brother-in-law to avenge his father’s death in Mario Puzo’s novel and Francis Ford Coppola’s masterful film adaptation. The rest of the handsomely produced and slickly narrated story is far too much in thrall to Gawli’s questionable legacy, and is clouded in the haze in which hagiographies often lose themselves, never to emerge.

Scriptwriters and filmmakers have been as fascinated by the general public with the workings of the underworld, but in their attempts to dramatise this aspect of Mumbai history, they have stuck with the gun-slinging swagger and ignored the economic and political circumstances that nurture criminals. Old good-and-bad binaries have given way to either an overweening everybody-is-bad cynicism or a bad-is-actually-good dictum.

Biopics barely attempt to parse the complexity of criminal enterprise in Mumbai and unravel the knotty connections between politicians, the business class, the law and order machinery and outlaws who do the dirty work. These movies are steeped in greater realism than older productions, but their anti-heroes eventually are as white as older screen villains were pitch black.

Daddy (2017).

Modern Bollywood gangster lore is almost single-handedly the creation of Ram Gopal Varma, who in the late 1980s and ’90s directed and produced a raft of films that were ripped off the headlines of the Mumbai media. Satya (1998), one of the definitive works in the contemporary gangster genre, was based on the real-life battle between the Mumbai police force and the underworld in the ’80s and the ’90s. Yet, Satya was unmistakably a fictional yarn about the rise and fall of a migrant who chooses crime over more conventional ways of making a living. Borrowing from the films of Coppola and Martin Scorsese, Varma based his movie on real events and characters to create a fictitious mythology about a Man From Nowhere who gets Somewhere.

Movie criminals have typically been the products of flaws in the sociopolitical foundry, forged by economic factors or swirled this way and that by greater forces. Some iconic movies in the genre, such as Deewar (1975), Vidhata (1982), Arjun (1985), Tezaab (1988), Parinda (1989), Hathyar (1989) and Shiva (1990), are about the journey of lambs to the slaughter, creatures of circumstances beyond their control and comprehension. These anti-heroes demand identification and sympathy because they start out as good citizens whose faith is shaken to the point that they take the leap into the moral void. They invariably yearn to crawl out and regain their moral compasses. These movies always provide the opportunity for them to decry the forces that set them into the darkness in the first place.

Satya (1998).

Nonetheless, it is hard to shed tears for the eponymous protagonist of Satya, who chooses the hoodlum’s way after being jailed for a crime he didn’t commit. Satya’s rapid rise in the gang run by Bhiku Mhatre, who is inspired by Arun Gawli, among others, and the character’s amorality and willingness to do whatever it takes to survive differentiate him from other iconic screen gangsters. Satya makes his own bed and lies in it, and it becomes his grave.

Apart from making his own films, Varma has produced, among others, Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), loosely inspired by the various “encounter specialist” police officers who strutted across television channels in the ’90s, boasting of having killed gangsters in fearsome gunbattles that were actually extra-judicial executions. Despite its valourisation of these uniformed vigilantes, Ab Tak Chhappan manages to indicate the extent to which law makers have become the mirror images of the law breakers they are pursuing. The “system”, a buzzword in Varma’s films, creates perversions on both sides of the law, leaving us with a nihilistic world in which it has become difficult to hold on to the old good-versus-evil binary that lasted up until the ’70s.

Ab Tak Chhappan (2004).

Varma’s Company (2002) should have an epitaph for the genre. Instead, the fictionalised rivalry between Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan ended up enabling many more elaborate mythologies around real-life gangsters. Some have created a minor sub-genre revolving around Dawood Ibrahim. Randeep Hooda played a version of him in D (2005), produced by Varma and directed by Vishram Sawant. Ibrahim’s love for sunglasses even during the daytime and while indoors, second only to director Wong Kar-wai, has been enshrined on the screen to the point of parody. Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2007) has the most convincing portrayal of the fugitive gangster by Vijay Maurya.

Ajay Devgn does a fine job of channeling Ibrahim’s famed coolheadedness in Company (2002). In Nikhil Advani’s D-Day (2013), Rishi Kapoor plays a version of Ibrahim, who is easily identified by the omnipresence of the aforementioned sun-glasses and the gangster’s famed ruthlessness. Ibrahim inspired Emraan Hashmi’s upstart Shoaib in Milan Luthria’s Once Upon A Time in Mumbaai (2012). The honours in Daddy go to Farhan Akhtar, who is forever wedded to his cigarettes and shades. In Apoorva Lakhia’s September 22 release Haseena Parkar, Siddhant Kapoor plays the dreaded gangster, while Shraddha Kapoor plays his real-life sister, who, going by the trailers, is yet another victim of circumstance.

Haseena Parkar (2017).

The Mumbai underworld cannot be reduced to Dawood Ibrahim, of course. Other luminaries of the underworld have inspired movies, such as Lakhia’s Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007), based on the real-life gun battle between Mumbai hood Maya Dolas and police officer AA Khan. Dolas, played by Vivek Oberoi, gets what is coming to him, but not before he has been sufficiently glamourised through punchy dialogue and choreographed songs. Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Wadala (2013) valourises Manya Surve, played by the beefy John Abraham as a stud from the wrong side of the tracks.

All these movies depict gangsters as the heroes we seem to deserve, but without the necessary complexity or the honesty to acknowledge the consequences of their actions.

Daddy does mention Gawli’s origins as the son of mill workers, but omits his role in undermining the mill unions in Mumbai through his nephew, Sachin Ahir. The movie sets up Ibrahim as Gawli’s archrival, but another homegrown gangster was nipping at his heels – Ashwin Naik, said to have been responsible for the murder of Khatau Mills owner Sunit Khatau in 1994.

The contribution of Mumbai’s gangsters in breaking the back of the unions and engineering barely legal and highly lucrative land deals that have changed the skyline of central Mumbai awaits less hagiographic and more rigourous treatment. The irony of Gawli’s role in destroying the mills that once employed his parents, several family members, and, briefly, himself, is missing from a movie keen on depicting him as a wronged Robin Hood battling local iterations of the Sheriff of Nottingham.

Members of Arun Gawli’s family at a screening of Daddy in Mumbai.
Members of Arun Gawli’s family at a screening of Daddy in Mumbai.

Bollywood is frequently encouraged to seek inspiration from real life to anchor its movies in greater realism. However, the slew of recent biopics proves that the greater the influence of real-life characters on the movies, the less interesting and more risk-free they become. Gawli’s family has enthusiastically backed the movie based on the title given to him by his followers, and their support has been crucial to the production.

Daddy gets some things right – the fabulous Mumbai locations, the suitably grungy period design, the unforgettable array of faces and bodies who play various disposable hoodlums, and the smooth editing that uses different characters to tell the story of Gawli’s rise. At various points in the movie, prostitutes, relatives, police officers and former henchmen narrates key episodes from his busy life. Perhaps the addition of a mill owner or a mill worker would have rounded off the story better.

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