A bearded man dressed in white answers the phone. “Anna," he says. Then, “Kiska aadmi hai? Accha. Mere aane talak zinda rakho use (Whose guy is it? All right. Keep him alive till I reach)." There’s a deathly shriek, a cut and a dull thud. We see a face in profile, silhouetted, eyes staring upwards, lifeless.
That cut is the Hindi film equivalent of the matchstick being blown out in Lawrence Of Arabia. Parinda (1989) may not have been the first Hindi gangster film, but it was the first fully realized effort in the genre. It was also, in the words of director Vasan Bala, an “inside story", every inch of it in the shadow of the underworld. Until then, we’d had movies with gangsters in them, but no genuine gangster movies. India adopted the genre in the 1950s as it did most American inventions: a little late, and using only those bits that would be acceptable. The idea of making an entire film about organized crime didn’t catch on for years.
Parinda celebrates its 30th anniversary in November. Ram Gopal Varma’s equally influential Satya turned 20 last year. Both are classics in a genre that has fallen somewhat out of fashion. There hasn’t been a game-changing Hindi gangster film in a while. Instead, the gangster has found a new home on streaming TV. The first season of Netflix’s Sacred Games (2018) found a way to connect a street hustler’s rise to power with the larger political and social currents of the time (the second season released in August). Amazon Prime’s Mirazapur (2018), set in a small town in Uttar Pradesh, was less intricate, but irresistibly pulpy.
It may not quite be time to pronounce the death of the big-screen gangster. One only need look at Tamil and Malayalam cinema, which churn out spectacular gangster films on a regular basis. Perhaps those winds will blow north, as they did when Anurag Kashyap dedicated his Gangs Of Wasseypur to the “Madurai triumvirate" of Bala, Ameer and Sasikumar. Still, it’s an opportune moment to look back at the circuitous path the Hindi film gangster, and the Hindi gangster film, have taken.
FAST CARS AND FEDORAS
In the years before and after independence, migrants started arriving in Mumbai from all over India. This meant a larger unemployed population in the city’s working-class neighbourhoods. Crime rose. Initially, it was petty thievery and pickpocketing, mugging and the odd planned robbery. You can see this reflected in the crime films of the 1940s and 1950s, like Kismet (1943, Ashok Kumar as a pickpocket), Sangram (1950, Ashok Kumar as a casino owner), Pocket Maar and House No. 44 (1956 and 1955, Dev Anand as a pickpocket), Awaara (1951, Raj Kapoor as a small-time thief), Shree 420 and Baazi (1955 and 1951—Kapoor and Anand, respectively, as card-sharps).
Prohibition was enforced in Bombay state in 1949. “Aunty bars"—speakeasies run by women—supplied patrons with illicit liquor. As had happened during prohibition in the US, local gangs moved in on the trade. Sacred Games alludes to this through the figure of Kanta Bai, who runs a dive, makes her own taadi (moonshine), and partners with up-and-coming gangster Ganesh Gaitonde. The first street gangs were formed, many taking the names of their cities of origin: Allahabadi gang, Kanpuri gang, Rampuri gang.
There were Indian crime films in the 1920s and 1930s—most of them out of circulation or lost forever—but the genre is generally traced back to Gyan Mukherjee’s very successful Kismet (1943), starring Ashok Kumar as Shekhar, a pickpocket and smooth-talking con man. A mildly unscrupulous hero with a cigarette dangling from his lip was an illicit thrill for Indian audiences at the time (“All that they see is the fascinating life of a thief and pickpocket portrayed in a glamorous and alluring way," Filmindia fretted in July 1943). But the criminal activity in Kismet is limited to a couple of chases and robberies; the only time it resembles a gangster film is when the inspector on Shekhar’s case turns up looking like Al Capone, buried in a trench coat and hat and chewing on a cigar.
By the time of Kismet, Hollywood had been making gangster films for a decade and a half, and was starting to move past them into the more psychologically fraught terrain of noir. Late 1920s and ’30s Hollywood films established the grammar of the genre: the urban milieu, the detailing of organized crime, the fixation on clothes and cars and guns, the indictment of society over and above the criminal. “The gangster is the man of the city," critic Robert Warshow wrote in a famous 1948 tract, “with the city’s language and knowledge, with its queer and dishonest skills and its terrible daring...." This is true of the best Mumbai gangster films—Parinda, Satya, Kaala—in which the city emerges as a character in its own right.
It was the Navketan Films banner, founded by Chetan Anand and his brother Dev, which pioneered a sort of hard-boiled Hindi noir. Guru Dutt’s Baazi (1951) was the first example of what would become the Navketan style in the 1950s: city films, usually a comedy-romance-thriller hybrid, often with some kind of criminal element, stylistically (though not attitudinally) indebted to the noir tradition. Baazi was more recognizably a crime film than Kismet—the villain (played by K.N. Singh) is a shadowy kingpin who orders muggings and murders.
You can see this style in subsequent Navketan titles like Taxi Driver (1954), House No. 44 and Kala Bazar (1960), and in Guru Dutt’s productions before he turned to personal stories—his own Aar-Paar (1954) and Raj Khosla’s CID (1956), starring Dev Anand. Aar-Paar in particular nudged Hindi cinema in the direction of organized crime by having its hero participate, reluctantly, in a bank robbery, most likely based on the 1951 Lloyds Bank heist on Hornby Road, Mumbai.
Other studios looked at Navketan and Dev Anand and wondered why they didn’t have a hard-boiled hero of their own. Some went ahead and got one. Sunil Dutt played a reporter in Post Box 999 (1958); Balraj Sahni starred in N.A. Ansari’s delirious noir comedy-thriller Black Cat (1959); Ashok Kumar in Shakti Samanta’s Howrah Bridge (1958) and Brij’s Ustadon Ke Ustad (1963). Samanta’s China Town (1962), starring Shammi Kapoor, came closer than any film of that era to appropriating the look and feel of a classic Hollywood gangster film—fast cars and dive bars, fedoras and shoot-outs (its central idea of a gangster’s doppelganger sent by the police to impersonate him would be reworked to iconic effect in 1978’s Don, starring Amitabh Bachchan).
The Hollywood-influenced cigarettes-and-trench-coats film was on its way out by the early 1960s. Colour had arrived, and this meant a new kind of thriller: less brooding, unconcerned with the rhythms of the street. But the upper-crust villain, dressed in bow tie and coat or bandhgala, issuing commands to his henchmen, not only survived the move to colour, but thrived. In Vijay Anand’s Teesri Manzil (1966), the antagonist is a wealthy, reputed member of society, with a secret life as a criminal; in Anand’s Johny Mera Naam, made four years later, he is that most 1970s of villains: a smuggler. This figure would continue into the decade, but become campier, crazier—a possible influence of the Bond movies, in which 007 was as constant as the North Star but the villains were distinguished by their weirdness.
Meanwhile, Hollywood was moving on. With Mean Streets (1973), Martin Scorsese showed it was possible to make a personal, even poetic film about street hoods. The previous year, his friend Francis Ford Coppola had reinvented the crime syndicate film with The Godfather. Over in Mumbai, Vijay Anand was assembling a holy trinity of smarmy villainy—Prem Nath, Prem Chopra and Ajit—for Chhupa Rustam, a 1973 film with all the inherent danger of a pillow fight. The Hindi film villain was stuck, and the gangster was nowhere in sight.
RISE OF THE DONS
There was one significant change, though. Hindi cinema in the 1970s wasn’t making gangster films yet, but it had started looking at the lives of real-life gangsters. Pran’s Sher Khan in Zanjeer (1973) is said to have been based on mob boss Karim Lala, who, like Khan, was a Pashtun and ran gambling and liquor joints (Lala can take credit for the high number of Pashto-accented crime lords in Hindi cinema). The film’s writers, Salim-Javed, borrowed again from the story of a real-life criminal for Deewar (1975), basing Amitabh Bachchan’s Vijay on Haji Mastan, who started out working on the Mumbai docks and eventually established his own smuggling empire. Other legends began to take shape. Varadarajan Mudaliar, from Tamil Nadu, manoeuvred his way into the alcohol business in Mumbai. Kamal Haasan played him as Velu Naicker in Nayakan (1987).
Hindi cinema’s interest in the lives of gangsters was returned by the gangsters themselves. Mastan was fascinated by the film world; he married a starlet and was seen in public with stars like Dilip Kumar. He even financed a couple of movies. Hindi cinema began to attract blood money. “When Dawood Ibrahim entered the scene in the mid-1980s... financing films became less romance, more serious business," India Today reported. “Unheard of people became producers overnight."
Commercial Hindi film in the 1980s is usually dismissed as uninspired and crude, a cinematic wasteland separating the socially committed 1970s and the youthful 1990s. There’s some truth to this, but this was also the time a new generation of directors was starting out. Subhash Ghai, J.P. Dutta and Rahul Rawail showed flashes of style beyond the capabilities of the more workmanlike directors of the 1970s. Between their extravagant commercial films and the grittier visions of parallel cinema, the gangster film gathered steam. Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya (1983) introduced, in Sadashiv Amrapurkar’s Rama Shetty, a new kind of gang boss: watchful and amused instead of campy or psychotic. In the years to come, there would be different iterations of the thinking gangster: Nana Patekar in Parinda, Dilip Kumar in Vidhaata (1982), Kader Khan in Angaar (1992), Raghuvaran in Shiva (1990). In a larger sense, Ardh Satya also showed how the Hindi gangster film of the future might look, sound and feel: spare, shorn of glamour, engaged with the city at the ground level, flawed characters negotiating an unsympathetic universe.
This brings us to 1989: the birth of the modern Hindi gangster film. Dutta’s Hathyar and Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda were stylish, violent, dark—and a huge leap forward. Gone were the camp thrills, the bodies flying through the air. Here, for the first time, were films which gave you a real sense of the Mumbai underworld and the people who ran it.
Parinda is built around two brothers: clean-cut Karan (Anil Kapoor), who’s just returned from his studies abroad, and Kishen (Jackie Shroff), who works as a hitman for crime boss Anna (Patekar). Karan makes plans to reunite with his childhood friend, police officer Prakash (Anupam Kher), and Prakash’s sister, Paro (Madhuri Dixit), whom he’s in love with. But Prakash has been making life difficult for Anna, and the reunion turns tragic when he’s shot by Anna’s men. Karan vows revenge, even as a frantic Kishen tries to talk Anna out of killing his brother.
“It was a watershed moment," Vasan Bala says about the film’s release. “There was this new spin on violence and intensity but you couldn’t put a finger on why it also looked pretty. Something just felt different."
Parinda’s stylistic approach was revolutionary in the context of Hindi film. Chopra, along with cinematographer Binod Pradhan and editor Renu Saluja, drew on the paranoid American cinema of the 1970s to create an atmosphere both burnished and unsettled. When a character shoots himself in the factory, the whirring machinery slices the light into jagged patterns typical of noir cinema. And the ambush of the brothers at Gateway of India is a masterful setpiece, unfolding at first in quick fragments, then stretching into slo-mo as bullets fly, ending with a majestic god’s-eye view shot from the top of the monument.
Unlike Parinda, which frequently finds itself on greatest film shortlists, Hathyar—about the gradual slide into hard crime of a young man, Avi (Sanjay Dutt)—is largely forgotten today. This is a pity, for Dutta’s film, though less polished and streamlined than Parinda, has more to say about the cyclical nature of violence. It’s also a bridge between gritty 1980s films like Ardh Satya and Arjun and 1990s gangster movies like Satya and Vaastav. While Parinda’s Karan and Paro and Anna live in well-furnished upper-middle-class homes, Dutta’s film is at the street-level, with characters struggling to make ends meet. Avi takes the local train; Karan and Kishen drive around in cars. One musical sequence in Parinda involves the cooking of dinner. In Hathyar, Avi ends up killing someone over food.
It was in the 1990s that the Mumbai underworld seemed to come above ground—a system unto itself, complicated and often malfunctioning, like the local trains or the municipality. Shoot-outs and extortions made the front pages; criminals and cops alike were profiled as stars. This informed the films, and, sometimes, the films gazed back. There was an eerie footnote to Angaar, in which bombs planted by the mafia level a series of skyscrapers. The film released in September 1992. Six months later, actual bombs planted by gangsters went off in Mumbai.
It took a while for the lessons of Parinda to percolate. Sudhir Mishra’s Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996) carried forward a simple idea: distinct personalities for all the criminals, not just a gang boss and a bunch of faceless henchmen. Iss Raat also allowed for representations of gangsters as complex and affecting. There’s a great comic scene with gang boss Ramanbhai (Ashish Vidyarthi) at home, trying to keep his cool as he unsuccessfully attempts to reach someone on the phone while his father criticizes him, his sister tries to get him to give her husband a job and a priest conducts prayers loudly in another room.
Not long after the release of Iss Raat, Saurabh Shukla (who acted in Mishra’s film) and an unheralded Anurag Kashyap started writing what would eventually become the greatest Hindi gangster film ever. Its director was Ram Gopal Varma, who had already made films about street gangs (Shiva) and hitmen (Drohi, 1992), as well as one of the great Mumbai films, Rangeela (1995). But what he really wanted was to make a film about the Mumbai underworld.
The mafia was part and parcel of Hindi cinema by then, but no one had made a film about its inner workings. The start of Satya’s shooting coincided with the murder of film music baron Gulshan Kumar by mob-hired killers—something which both rattled Varma and set his imagination on fire. “At that time (the mafia) was rampant," he says. “It was a part of life, part of the city."
Satya was a revelation. By showing the day-to-day working of gang functionaries—brutal murders followed by drunken celebrations—it demythologized the underworld, made it vivid and immediate. The cinematography, by Mazhar Kamran and the American Gerard Hooper, had a vérité-like punch, and there were around a dozen memorable turns, none more so than Manoj Bajpayee’s irrepressible mid-level gang boss, Bheeku Mhatre. The writing was peak bhai-speak: ghoda for revolver, chidiya for pager, kauwa for mobile phone.
A few days after the release, a group of dangerous-looking men approached Bajpayee outside a theatre. “They told Manoj, kya kaam kiya, phaad dala (great work, you nailed it)," Kamran recalls. “They talked to him like he was a bhai."
In a rapturous review in Sunday Mid-Day, novelist Shobhaa De wrote, “It’s far too intelligent and intense a film to break records at the box office." This prediction was proved wrong. Satya grossed ₹18.59 crore on a budget of ₹2.5 crore: not a massive hit, but a solid return on investment, somewhat miraculous when you consider it had one star, Urmila Matondkar, and a bunch of sweaty, bearded, unknown faces, as Bajpayee put it. The film’s success pointed the way to a new “hindie" cinema, suspended between the commercial and the arty, but with none of the self-consciousness of Parallel Cinema.
“With Satya, Varma inaugurated a gangster film cycle that was employed by every ambitious film-maker who wanted to break into Hindi cinema," critic Lalitha Gopalan wrote in her essay Bombay Noir. Suddenly, everyone was making films set in the underworld. Sanjay Dutt, who had been in and out of jail for possession of arms (supplied to him by Dawood Ibrahim’s men) at the time of 1993 blasts, starred in Vaastav (1999). Varma expanded the genre’s canvas with Company (2002), a flashy, continent-hopping look at the relationship between Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan. If Satya was about mob shooters who carried out orders, Company was about the ones who gave them. The style was different too, wide lenses and distorted compositions suggesting a world askew.
BIG SHOTS AND STEEP FALLS
Hindi gangster cinema was at its peak between 2002-05. Talented young directors used the genre as a springboard for varied styles and visions. The gangster began seeping into other genres: the cop film (Ab Tak Chhappan, 2004), big-budget action (Kaante, 2002), the procedural (Black Friday, 2004), comedy (Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., 2003), the hybrid hindie (Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, 2003), the literary adaptation (Maqbool, 2003).
It was with Varma’s Sarkar (2005) that the genre crested and began to arc downwards. The film, which crossed The Godfather with the life of the late Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, was slickly made, but top-heavy and hollow. Two years later, Shootout At Lokhandwala (2007) pushed the gang film into gratuitous macho territory.
Mumbai had always been home to the Hindi underworld film, but by the end of the 2000s, the city’s mob legends were close to being exhausted. Directors started looking for crime stories in other parts of India. Tigmanshu Dhulia set Shagird (2011) and Saheb, Biwi Aur Gangster (2011) in north India, and his dacoit film Paan Singh Tomar (2010) in Chambal, Madhya Pradesh. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Omkara (2006) unfolded in heartland Uttar Pradesh. Varma headed to Andhra Pradesh for the brutal Rakta Charitra (2010).
Ironically, it was Anurag Kashyap, one of the creators of the modern Mumbai gangster film, who put two nails in its coffin. First, he cemented the genre’s exodus from the city with Gangs Of Wasseypur. The film, set in a small town in Jharkhand, was a sensation from the moment it premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. Overflowing with dazzling new colours, sounds and slang, it drew from the localized Tamil gangster films of the late 2000s and foreign titles like Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s sprawling City Of God (2002). Suddenly, everyone wanted to talk like Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faizal. Bombay bhais began to look passé.
Wasseypur’s success allowed Kashyap to set his sights on an expansive period film. Bombay Velvet (2015) was to be his masterpiece. He had the backing of a big studio. He cast big stars: Ranbir Kapoor, Anushka Sharma. He recreated 1950s Mumbai in Sri Lanka. Amit Trivedi worked for two years on the cabaret-jazz soundtrack. Thelma Schoonmaker, Scorsese’s long-time editor, assembled the international cut.
Everything came apart spectacularly. The film was a Warner Bros gangster movie transplanted to Mumbai—there are fedoras and Tommy Guns and Gladys George cradling James Cagney in The Roaring Twenties, saying “He used to be a big shot". But the intricate politics, the context, was lost in the flash. “Everyone falls in love with creating period settings," journalist and author Sidharth Bhatia told me. “Ram Gopal Varma has a terrific nose for organized crime, and he wasn’t concerned with painting a glamorous world. The rest are sitting in a helicopter and looking down—they can see the big picture, but not the smelly details."
Bombay Velvet crashed and burned—grossing ₹43 crore on a budget on ₹120 crore—and the Mumbai gangster film went on hiatus. Producers were unwilling to lose money on the next ambitious flop. The genre lost its immediacy. All the big dons were in jail, or abroad, or dead. They weren’t being photographed with movie stars any more. Shoot-outs and extortions were rare. Deprived of new source material, directors reworked existing properties: Agneepath (2012), Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobaraa (2013), Shootout At Wadala (2013), Satya 2 (2013), Ab Tak Chhappan 2 (2015). Eventually, the genre moved to the streaming space, with shows like Sacred Games (Netflix), Mirzapur (Amazon Prime), Rangbaaz (Zee5), Smoke (Eros Now) and Hankaar (Hungama).
The decline of Hindi gangster films has coincided with a sparkling run down south. This past decade has produced only one superlative Hindi title in Gangs Of Wasseypur (though Ashim Ahluwalia made an intriguing Arun Gawli biopic, Daddy, in 2017). But there are several contenders in Tamil and Malayalam cinema. Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Aaranya Kaandam (2011) was a fluid gangster noir. Karthik Subbaraj’s Jigarthanda (2014) and Nalan Kumarasamy’s Soodhu Kavvum (2013) were hip, cinephilic crime stories. And Angamaly Diaries (2017), Lijo Jose Pellisery’s look at street gangs in a small Kerala town, was, quite simply, the most kinetic Indian film of the decade.
Like their Hindi counterparts a decade earlier, southern directors are retrofitting the genre to accommodate their concerns. Pa. Ranjith launched a blistering attack on the caste system under the guise of a Rajinikanth entertainer in Kaala (2018). Rajeev Ravi’s moody Kammatipaadam (2017) examined how Ernakulum Dalits were forced to give up their land to upper-caste developers. Vetri Maran’s time-hopping gangster saga, Vada Chennai (2018), was also a strident critique of gentrification.
Back in Mumbai, things appear to have come full circle. In the second season of Sacred Games, a director named Ram G. Varma is hired to make a film on gangster Ganesh Gaitonde’s life—a bit of fun at the expense of the godfather of the modern underworld film. The Varma scenes are played for parody, but there’s actual precedent for the mafia-making films in its own image. In 2000, the Mumbai police tapped an extraordinary phone conversation, with gangster Chhota Shakeel in Karachi on one end, and Sanjay Dutt and directors Mahesh Manjrekar and Sanjay Gupta on the other. Shakeel not only discusses flaws in Gupta’s films (he doesn’t like the continuity) but gives Manjrekar material for a possible film on his own life. Gangsters as screenwriters, as film critics—only Hindi cinema could allow for such a possibility.
This piece was a cover story in Mint Lounge.