[From my Business Standard column. Will extend some of these thoughts into a longer piece sometime; for now I only had the time/energy to meet the column’s word-length]
In Vikram Chandra’s superb novel Sacred Games, there is a passage where a group of Mumbai gangsters watch the film Deewaar (for probably the umpteenth time) and get tearful because they can identify with Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man Vijay, driven by circumstances to a life outside the law. Though the point isn’t underlined, one realises that some of these young thugs have modelled themselves on this onscreen anti-hero, right down to the swagger and the one-liners. (“Main aaj bhi phenke huye paise nahin uthaata.”) But it’s also worth remembering that Vijay himself was loosely based on a real-life underworld figure, Haji Mastan.
Here and elsewhere, Chandra’s book shows a sharp understanding of the symbiotic relationship between cinema and life – how they can be mirrors facing each other, producing countless reflections and counter-reflections, so that (in this context) a generation of criminals might get behaviourial cues from what they have seen in movies. A review I once read of the 1995 film Heat – in which Al Pacino played a cop and Robert De Niro a criminal – made a similar point. Speculating on the research the actors might have done, the reviewer observed that Pacino and De Niro had been playing such characters in iconic films since the 1970s: if they went out on the streets to observe real-life cops and gangsters, it’s likely that those cops and gangsters would have modelled their own personalities on roles played by these very actors 20 years earlier.
Anurag Kashyap’s epic Gangs of Wasseypur – about multi-generational gang wars in the Jharkhand hinterland – understands this relationship too. It contains many references to B-movies with titles like Kasam Paida Karne Waale Ki; a lead character, Faizal, is a version of The Godfather’s Michael Corleone (he wouldn't have seen that film, but he is mesmerised by Bachchan’s beedi-chomping, devil-may-care stance in movies like Trishul. There is even what seems like a visual gag, when someone mentions Amitabh in Zanjeer and Faizal bolts up from a reclining position in exactly the way Bachchan’s nightmare-afflicted Vijay did in his first appearance in that film). And as you’d expect, given its story, setting and pop-cultural references, Gangs of Wasseypur is rife with displays of uber-machismo: burly gangsters gun each other down, gleefully stab people on the streets and make proclamations about badla and izzat.
Yet a different tone is revealed in other scenes, such as the one where the protagonist Sardar Khan is sexually objectified – as he struts about in a loin-cloth, we see him through the entranced eyes of the woman who will become his second wife - and the one where Faizal is presented as a sensitive, new-age man, wiping tears from his eyes when a woman he has a crush on speaks to him harshly. And in this vein, the film also has a moment that runs against the grain of every gangster/killer portrayal one expects from the cinema of violence. In one of its wittiest and most sinister scenes, a character named Shahid Khan – proud, well-built, scourge of his enemies – is assassinated by a bespectacled, dhoti-clad wisp of a man with an almost melancholy expression on his face – someone who might easily have been the village master-ji in a film of earlier vintage.
This gunrunner-cum-hired gun can be seen as a cinematic cousin of another memorable meek hitman from a few months ago – Bob Biswas in Kahaani. Pudgy and unfit, Bob is a tangle of contradictions: a life-insurance agent moonlighting as an executioner; a sweet-looking Bengali babu who resembles a creepy bogeyman from a slasher-film series; a seemingly omniscient killer who is vanquished not by human adversaries but by the Kolkata traffic, which bows to no man. Looked at up close, his face appears almost to be crumbling, like one of his city’s decrepit havelis.
Watching these two improbable hitmen, one wonders if our cinema has had its fill of the flamboyant, big-talking bad guys. Don’t be too surprised to see an effetely polite serial killer on our screens in the near future. Conversely, given how life draws from film, be very wary of the harmless-looking, jhola-carrying chap you meet on a lonely road late at night.
[A somewhat related post: on the terrific documentary Videokaaran, with a protagonist who is a construct of the films he loves]