There’s a passage in Vikram Chandra’s superb doorstop of a novel Sacred Games where a group of Mumbai gangsters watch the film Deewaar 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 author doesn’t underline the point, one realises that some of these young men will model themselves on this onscreen anti-hero, 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 an acute understanding of the symbiotic relationship between cinema and life — how they are like mirrors facing each other, producing countless 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 for their roles, 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 street to observe real-life cops and gangsters, it’s likely that those men 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 references to B-movies with titles like Kasam Paida Karne Waale Ki; a lead character is mesmerised by Bachchan’s beedi-chomping, devil-may-care attitude in films like Trishul. And as you’d expect, given its story and pop-cultural references, Gangs of Wasseypur is rife with displays of uber-machismo: hefty men gun each other down, gleefully stab people on the streets and make proclamations about badla and izzat.
Yet it also reveals a different tone in other scenes such as the one where the protagonist Sardar Khan, strutting about in a loin cloth, is sexually objectified — we see him through the eyes of the entranced woman who will become his second wife. Later, Sardar’s son Faizal is presented as a sensitive, new-age type, wiping tears from his eyes when a woman he has a crush on speaks to him harshly. And in this vein, the film also includes a vignette 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, the proud, well-built Shahid Khan — scourge of his enemies — is assassinated by a bespectacled, dhoti-clad wisp of a man with an almost melancholy expression on his face — a character who could easily have been the village master-ji in a film of earlier vintage.
This gunrunner-cum-hired gun is 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 a killer; a sweet-looking Bengali babu who resembles a creepy bogeyman from a Hollywood slasher series (looked at up close, his face appears almost to be crumbling). His human targets can’t evade him, but eventually, in a clever little touch, he is vanquished by the Kolkata traffic.
Watching these two improbable hitmen, one wonders if our cinema has had its fill of the bombastic, big-talking bad guys and is heading for other pastures. Don’t be too surprised to see a metrosexual mass murderer 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 encounter on a lonely road late at night.
Jai Arjun Singh is a Delhi-based writer