What’s With Hindi Entertainment’s Gangster Imposter Syndrome?
Last year marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Satya (Dir. Ram Gopal Varma). Satya is a unique and special film in the history of Bollywood for several reasons. Firstly, it spawned a whole new genre of films, the gangster film, which has resulted in some of the best works in Bollywood in the past couple of decades — Vaastav (Mahesh Manjrekar, 1999), Maqbool (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2003), and Johnny Gaddaar (Sriram Raghavan, 2007) to name a few.
Secondly, Satya created humanization for the gangster, the scumbag, the drug-dealer— conventionally villainous characters that were now the protagonists of the story —similar to what Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994) did for such characters in Hollywood.
Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap, 2012) is the spiritual successor of Satya, both in style and success. For the first time, I saw that an Indian sensibility could be merged with global aesthetics, music could be used to make art and not money, and that the dark and comic could be juxtaposed without being jarring. The film is special not just for me, but perhaps all of India. The number of Faizal Khan memes on Instagram is a testament to this.
Last year’s Amazon Prime TV series Mirzapur (Karan Anshuman) felt like an amateurish student’s retelling of Gangs (of Wasseypur). Gangs is a gold plated 9mm Beretta with a red dot and an extended clip while Mirzapur is a rusty desi katta (local gun) that’ll leave you with a lifelong handicap. The characters are drab, the cursing and violence is excessive and unnatural, and the writing is some of the cringiest I’ve seen in a while, and sounds exactly like what it is —an urbanite attempting to speak the language of people that live in an entirely different world.
The entire sensibility is the projection of a city-dweller’s imagination of small-town violent life. The show also looks like it was shot with DSLRs and lit only with two LEDs. You can literally see the shadow of a crew member move in the very first shot of the show. A show on this platform should certainly be more carefully curated.
What these gangster narratives do is not just explore but exploit. Many of the viewers are from the larger cities, and watch the gritty violence and abusive language from a convenient distance. The small-town viewers have no say in what these representations are doing to India’s understanding of their towns. This representation makes the reputation of cities in UP and Bihar worse, and consequently the reputation of UP-ites and Biharis.
As filmmakers, we have a greater responsibility to understand the impact of our narratives. We should know not to create stories about themes and cities that we have little knowledge of or have spent little or no time in. When representing communities outside of those usually portrayed in the mainstream, we need to approach narratives with a greater level of complexity and nuance.
Gangster narratives that are distributed through streaming services also fall prey to overindulgence of violence and abusive language. It’s one thing to want to represent reality, but another to take things to extremes for the sake of shock. The creators of such content fail to remember that the best gangster narratives showcase the brutality and cruelty of the lifestyle without ascribing any positive or negative sentiments towards it, leaving it up to the audience to attach morality.
The problem is that many are trying to recreate Gangs, or at least appropriate it heavily. The simple fact of the matter is, there cannot be a better Gangs type story than Gangs. If Satya is analogous to The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972), then Gangs of Wasseypur is analogous to Goodfellas (Martin Scorsese, 1990). The first provided the blueprint, and the second perfected it. All successful gangster films that have followed Goodfellas found ways to both draw inspiration from the films that came before, yet distinguish themselves by placing the story in a different context and narrative, saying something new.
The Hindi gangster films and series that have followed Gangs have lacked in originality and nuance. Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (Kushan Nandy, 2017), Daddy (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2017), Mirzapur, just to name a few, have been flimsy, superficial, and derivative. They are pure exploitation cinema—gangsploitation at its worst. Pulp fiction at best.
And if I’m getting ads like this on my Instagram, this new obsession with gangster narratives doesn’t seem like it will die down soon. Nor does it seem like the representation will get any more nuanced, or the stories and content any better.
Bollywood is the equivalent of your grandmother feeding you halwa (pudding). The first few bites are amazing, but then she feeds you until you’re comatose. Someone needs to teach Bollywood and my grandmother about diminishing marginal utility.
But not all hope is lost. Abhishek Chaubey’s new venture Sonchiriya certainly looks promising, even though the teaser and trailer indicate the that Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapur, 1994) and Gangs of Wasseypur were an inspiration. What is left to be seen now is if the film’s narrative is unique enough to distinguish itself from those two. With Abhishek Chaubey at the helm, I have faith in the project. Can I say I have the same faith for the rest of the industry? No.
(This piece first appeared on the author's personal blog 'Terminal Cinephilia' and has been republished with permission. Vishnu Gupta is a writer and filmmaker based in Delhi. He tweets @vishnu96gupta. You can watch his films at vishnuguptafilm.com. This is a personal blog, and the views expressed above are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)