‘Daddy’ Is a Well Mounted but Listless Tale of 1980s Bombay

The 1980s settings and the emphasis on verisimilitude create an excellent mood but the gloss fails to hide the incoherence in the script.

Gawli himself is a man who remains stone faced and stoic and Rampal slips into the role. Credit: YouTube

One hazard of making a film about a gangster is that the end product is likely to end up making him look cool. Tarantino’s gangsters are the epitome of cool, not just because of the clothes they wear and the calculated slow motion walk, but also because the crimes are shot almost lovingly.

Ashim Ahluwalia avoids falling into the trap. His Daddy, a biopic of Mumbai’s gangster-turned-MLA Arun Gawli is filled with granular details and flesh and blood characters, but cool it is not. The smoking chimneys, the grittiness of Dagdi chawl, the sordidness of the underworld existence, the 1980s feel in the clothes, hairstyles and even music, create a universe that is too real to be stylised.

Yet, through all this, the viewer is subtly manipulated to empathise, if not have some sympathy for Gawli. Ahluwalia is too clever and intelligent a filmmaker to lecture or preach. But in the final analysis, his Gawli is a man wronged by the society and may even have a rationale for turning out the way he did. Had circumstances not conspired – right from the environment which he was born in – he could have well turned out to be a respected member of society, even a policeman.

Not that the policemen in the film are particularly respectable. They torture, accept bribes and kill criminals in cold blood in the notorious ‘encounters’ that were all the rage in Bombay in the 1980s and ‘90s. Inspector Vijaykar (Nishikant Kamat) is obsessive about nabbing Gawli, but there is more than a hint that his quest is nudged on by Gawli’s mentor-turned-rival Bhai, a man with a taste for cheap and gaudy clothes who is clearly the country’s biggest gangster, the big D.

The transformation of the young layabout Arun, living in a chawl with his parents (and also, apparently a brother, who pops up dead in one scene) into a dreaded criminal whom the people love is what the film is purportedly about. In reality, it is composed of one shootout after another, held together by a relay of voice overs by people close to him – his mother, team members, another gangster’s moll and eventually, even his wife, a somewhat inexplicable act since she would have no reason to meet with the cop and talk about her husband.

The first time round Arun comes across the brutal realities of life is when he is beaten up by union members when he goes to a striking mill to deliver food to his father. This references the famous 1982 mill strike that more or less ended the textile industry in the city and paved the way for an unprecedented land boom. There is some evidence that Gawli was already a small time hood at the time, but leave that aside and the story would have been greatly enriched had Ahluwalia followed that thread and dealt with a critical moment in Bombay’s history. That is when many small-time criminals – Gawli being a good example – began to prosper by not just indulging in the usual extortion or smuggling rackets but by providing muscle to financiers and builders who wanted existing structures emptied of troublesome tenants.

Indeed, there is a blink-and-miss reference to one of Bombay’s biggest real life millowners as someone who had commissioned Gawli for just that kind of assignment. Again, in the film’s coda — where photos of the real Gawli are shown too — the gangster says that those who made him work to build the luxury apartments are now sitting in them and looking down on him.

There is not even one scene of Gawli and his men terrorising innocent people who lost their homes; perhaps the don, in green lighting the film about his life, may have felt he did not want that emphasised. Whatever the reasons, in the absence of some explanation of what work Gawli and his gang – nicknamed BRA – actually do, all we see them is indulging in revenge and counter revenge with rivals and in shooting matches with the cops, which, it must be said, are not over-stylised.

The period settings and the emphasis on verisimilitude create an excellent mood, which is enhanced by the noirish camerawork by Jessica Lee Gagne and Pankaj Kumar. But the gloss fails to hide the incoherence in the script. The minor characters are barely fleshed out – even the wife Zubeida (Aiswharya Rajesh) fails to make her presence felt, but sadly, the antagonists, Inspector Vijaykar and Bhai (Farhan Akhtar) in the end remain one-dimensional. A bitter rivalry over decades between Daddy and the cop required the latter to be played by someone who added a few extra layers to his character.

Rampal tries, really tries

Which leaves Arjun Rampal playing Daddy to carry the burden of the film on his broad shoulders. It is his vanity project after all, since he has not only produced but also co-written the script. Rampal’s reputation is that of an actor with a pleasing enough screen presence but a vastly limited range of expressions. Gawli himself is a man who remains stone faced and stoic and Rampal slips into the role. He has thrown everything he has at it, fully aware that it is a breakthrough role. But while he has faithfully imitated the small gestures and the tics, we get almost no idea of the gangster’s inner life. What are the demons he has to deal with? How did he face his family after he was arrested for murder the first time? Does he regret or even ponder over the course of his life? Barring one template scene of him screaming in his jail cell, we have no idea of his angst, if there exists any. Here, he walks miles ahead of his previous performances and in some scenes, even beyond – for instance, his small moments with his baby or when he rejects the hand of friendship from Bhai – but when you are at the centre of a film, you have to draw deep from within.

Ahluwalia – with a splendid Miss Lovely and the remarkable documentary on call centres John and Jane – is sure footed in his understanding of that period in Bombay and has chosen perfect locations to evoke the pre-liberalisation and pre-land boom era. Full marks to the set designer for creating the chawl and many other sets. The Eid and the Ganpati songs are devices to move the story forward and add to the theme – that is touched upon – of the Muslim don versus the Hindu (but secular) gangster. (“I am not like them, who will run away from my own country”, says Gawli, to cheers from the public-the message is clear.) The 1980s-type disco song, a la Bappi Lahiri, has a Kalpana Iyer vibe and injects much needed pep into the proceedings. But in the final analysis, the attempt to tell us the extraordinary story of an ordinary man remains listless.

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