Anurag Kashyap’s much-awaited new film, Gangs of Wasseypur, is based on the coal mafia of Dhanbad. The film, over five hours long, was shown during Directors’ Fortnight at the recent Cannes film festival, and received good reviews. It releases on June 22. But, it has been reported, Kashyap has got into a spat because he doesn’t want to put out a disclaimer right at the beginning that “it is a work of fiction, and any resemblance to …..” Kashyap says that all the characters in his movie are inspired by real-life characters. “But we have fictionalised them to a certain extent,” he says. The film could not be shot in Dhanbad because some people objected; so Kashyap, known for his realistic cinema, had to recreate Dhanbad in Varanasi.
It’s been almost 40 years since Bollywood first “opened” up to the underworld. Pran’s character, Sher Khan, in Zanjeer (1973) was based loosely on Karim Lala, the Pathan who ran gambling dens in Mumbai. Though Sher Khan had shades of grey at the beginning, he quickly morphed into a do-gooder heart-of-gold Samaritan. Amitabh Bachchan’s character in Deewar (1975) was inspired by none other than Haji Mastan — a dockhand who went on to build a huge empire in smuggling (watches, gold, electronics). That was also the time when the Angry Young Man was born, who represented the discontent of the masses over widespread joblessness and the lack of opportunities. So dismal was the national mood that the anti-hero was lapped up by the masses. The times may have improved since then and youth angst may have subsided but Indian cinema’s fling with the underworld continues unabated — not always accurate, sometimes sympathetic, and always heavily romanticised.
Mani Ratnam’s academy-award-nominated Nayagan (1987, Tamil) was based on the life of Vardarajan Mudaliar, another Mumbai don of the 1970s. Ram Gopal Varma’s Company (2002) was based on the rivalry between Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan. Prakash Jha made Apaharan (2005) on the kidnapping mafia of Bihar. Sanjay Gupta’s Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) was based on the killing of gangster Maya Dolas in an encounter. The other notable underworld film was Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004) on the 1993 Mumbai blasts. Black Friday was based on a book written by journalist S Hussain Zaidi, who has come out with a new book, From Dongri to Dubai. Zaidi’s new book chronicles the history of Mumbai underworld with Dawood Ibrahim as the central figure. Zaidi writes in his book that gangsters are as fascinated with Bollywood as film makers with them. Many of them ended up financing films, and were not averse to tweaking the storyline that would project them in favourable light.
* * *
Director Milan Luthria, who directed Once Upon A Time in Mumbai (2010), says that gangsters have always had a larger-than-life image. “People want to know the stories of men and women who wield so much power and how they gained that power in the first place,” he says. The movie had Ajay Devgn and Emraan Hashmi playing characters based on Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim, respectively. It was fictionalised but some of the traits of the characters were uncanny. For instance, Devgn in the movie wears only white clothes, smokes expensive cigarettes and drives around in a Mercedes. Mastan, according to folklore, was exactly like that. “It wasn’t a bipoic but yes it was inspired by the ’70s gangsters,” says Luthria. Have the depictions of these gangsters and dons been accurate? Luthria says that most movies are 30 per cent fact and 70 per cent fiction. Director Vinay Shukla who directed Godmother (1999) starring Shabana Azmi in a role based on gangster Santokben Jadeja. Shukla had to make changes to his film after Jadeja, known as the godmother of Porbandar, objected to certain scenes showing her in a bad light. She filed a defamation case against the producers of the film.
Taran Adarsh, a film critic says that while characters are inspired by real-life gangsters, the directors still have to stick to a formula. “Ajay Devgn in Company was based on Dawood Ibrahim. The mannerisms, looks but you can’t say that it was a fair depiction of the don.” A reason is that the families of the mafia dons do raise objections. Just like with Shukla’s Godmother, Haji Mastan’s daughter and adopted son filed a case to put a disclaimer that Luthria’s movie wasn’t based on their father’s life. Sanjay Gupta who is now making Shootout at Wadala says that making such movies require a lot of hard work. He admits that plots have to be fictionalised. The movie is based on the encounter of gangster Manya Surve.
Karim Lala, according to Zaidi’s book did have friends in the police department, just like Pran is friends with Bachchan in Zanjeer. But the rest of the character is far from reality. “Why only Bollywood,” asks Adarsh, before adding that even Hollywood has a history of making gangster films. Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) and Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables (1986) have been based on lives of gangsters. “There the portrayal is more realistic than our cinema,” says Adarsh. Robert De Niro, who played Al Capone in The Untouchables, even wore the same brand of Sulka underwear as patronised by the Chicago mobster. The only deviation from fact in the film was that Frank “The Enforcer” Nitti, Capone’s henchman, is thrown off the roof and killed.
Luthria is making a sequel to Once Upon A Time in Mumbai featuring Akshay Kumar as Dawood and Imran Khan as Chhota Rajan. “Larger than life characters will always be a part of cinema and the bad guys have that image in the minds of the audience,” he says.