Of Mafia Films, Bollywood and India

In Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur I, there’s a moment when Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) looks into a mirror, catches the spectator’s eyes, and pretends to fire his gun. He makes all the appropriate sounds — the pull of the trigger, the deafening moment of impact. On watching this scene, I’m transported back to my schoolyard where the boys would run around playing chor-police and fire their makeshift guns in a similar fashion. Consequently, it reads to me like a mimicry of our childhood days when kids would spend hours upon hours playing Don and outwitting the world. Siddiqui’s acting here then becomes an imitation of an imitation of an imitation; and besides advancing the film’s plot by positing Faizal as the child within the family business, this scene also cracks the reality of the film by reminding the spectator that it is all an act. By creating this crack, the suspense of the film is not allowed to overwhelm us.

Gangs of Wasseypur I

In Hindi mafia films, the cracks are always visible. This genre of movies self-consciously shatters the mirror, assuring that when the spectator watches these films and identifies with these characters, they can ignore the reflection as a funhouse image and walk out of the cinema hall in peace. Creators continuously hinder this identification through various techniques. In this regard, songs are an extremely popular element. They interrupt the diegesis and, for the duration of the song, pull the spectator out of the film’s particular space and time. Their presence at opportune moments within the film acts like a semi-colon; it cuts through the tension (romantic or comedic or violent) of the preceding scenes, and allows the spectator room to breathe. Consequently, when Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur is shot to death by the Qureshis, the spectator flinches in their seat — however, the speakers immediately start playing “Jiya Ho Bihar Ke Lala”, and the fear evaporates. Songs place the film’s characters upon a “stage” and draw a clear line between them as performers and the audience as spectators; effectively fogging up the lines of identification we feel with these film’s unsavoury characters. Satya’s director Ram Gopal Varma had in-fact intended to leave songs out of the film; however, he changed his mind because it would have been quite difficult to promote a song-less film. As a result, the Indian cinema witnessed an intense, brilliant story; packed with enough romance, drama and amusing songs to please the mass spectatorship. 

Humour is also utilised in these films to diffuse the tension. High-powered scenes like Vijay in Don (1978) fighting off innumerable goons are not served to the audience without comedic quips (like Vijay asking the goons to allow him to rest for a minute) and a peppy background score. These moments of comedy slice through the thrill of the fight, effectively soothing the spectators’ jitteriness. Comedy is also generated through extremely unrealistic fight scenes in which the singular antihero fights off dozens of goons by performing almost superhuman feats. Here, quirky sound effects and over-the-top violence titillate the spectators. Stunning shots like Karan and Paro’s murder in Parinda, which posit the violence as something beautiful, are quite rare because they discomfort the viewers. 


This urge to protect the spectator seems to speak to India’s film culture, which desires intensity, but with huge spoonfuls of masala and a dash of a hit-single. Here, a film which tries to hang its hat on only one hook seems destined to fail (consider: Bombay Velvet). Even an expectedly dark and ghoulish mafia film like Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai liberally utilises romance, punchy one-liners, sizzling confrontations and blockbuster dance numbers to grow into a feel-good movie which appeals to the whole family. 

This family-friendly platter of Hindi mafia films also serves justice. These films rely heavily on boldly drawn lines between wrong and right to disallow any dubious moralities to seep into their realities. The politicians might be corrupt, but the police are doing their best to defend the public from these menaces. Conversations centred around morals are a common trope in these films–as if they are self-consciously portraying dubious characters and lives while also making certain that the “good” guys would always win in the end, placing the film’s fictional universe firmly on the side of the “light”. Plus, the lack of any clear set of laws (code of ethics – omertà) and organisation within the mafia in these films makes it even easier for the spectators to divide moral grounds and carefully step only on the white tiles; and since the mafia’s law here seems to be a breaking away from the country’s laws, it becomes even easier to villainize them. Hence, the ‘found family’ trope always fails in Hindi mafia movies because usually, the mob collapses because of inner disloyalties and back-stabbings. This vindicates the spectators because, by the end, almost everyone else seems to fall and only the police are left standing. A film with dubious moralities which sees the ethical in the immoral does not seem to work in Bollywood. Consequently, even when the anti-hero wins (Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai), the credits roll in with an apology. So, while these films encourage identification by humanizing the villains and allow the spectators room to vicariously live the thrill of their lives, they cut these ties themselves before the climax sweeps it all away and restores justice. This effectively appeals the film to the spectators by fostering enjoyment; and nip any questions regarding the protagonist’s morals in the bud. 

These self-conscious attempts at playing safe are also reflected in the protagonists’ backstories, and the utilization of character foils to soften the antihero’s edges for the Indian spectators. Even within a clique of antiheroes, there’s still always a single ‘don’ who’s early on established — through an impactful display of physical and/or mental prowess — as the antihero of the film, like Kishen in Parinda, Sultan in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Satya in Satya, etc. This makes it easier for spectators to connect with the characters. Their backstories, more often than not, situate the mafia as a phoenix rising out of the ashes of a pitious childhood spent swallowing poverty. Every mob boss has an origin story, and it usually narrates a turning towards crime because of bad fortune. Hence, it immediately becomes absorbed into the larger poverty-crime nexus of the country. Again, the mafia becomes an avoidable consequence, available to self-rationalisations by the comparatively richer spectators as to why this reality is so very different from theirs; and they can unhesitantly enjoy the movie. However, if this antihero’s backstory is not a sufficiently convincing reason to have pushed them into a life of crime, then an alternate character is placed to enhance their kindness and “straight” morality for the spectators, like Anna and Karan in Parinda, Shoaib in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Bhau in Satya, etc. Unlike Johnny in Bombay Velvet who chooses the life of crime instead of being thrust into it; spectators aren’t usually forced to identify with a protagonist of dubious morals. The rationalisation is always present. 

[image source] Sultan Mirza & Shoaib Khan, Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

Through their attempts to integrate real-life social issues, mafia films give people a point of reference for conversations around police and crime. The police are always forced to abandon restraints of justice, because that is the only way to deal with these criminals — “laato ke bhut baato se nahi mante” (Stubborn menaces cannot be transformed through mere language; they require violence.) By ensuring and repeatedly reinforcing the mafia’s position in the country’s history by harking back to the real political environment, it becomes easier to blur the lines between fiction and fact for spectators. This influences the way people perceive police brutality, and convinces them that they should be allowed privileges in order to deal with the Dons and Annas of this world. 

Natural illnesses are liberally portrayed: Vidya’s ailing father in Satya, a prostitute in Bombay Velvet suffering from gonorrhea, Anna’s mental disorder in Parinda, Rihana suffering from heart disease in Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Rohit’s friend suffering from bone cancer in Hathyar, etc. These exhibitions allow the threat of human fragility and mortality to humble the mafia’s invulnerability. In the films, women play a similar role. By showing quirky domestics between the mighty dons and their wives — in which the latter always wins — these films find resonance in the Indian familial culture. It also becomes a way to further reinforce the normalcy of these dons and their presence within the Indian milieu. To establish the mafia’s presence as “realistic” within India’s space, Hindi mafia films are also prone to consistently referencing other Bollywood movies, and comparing their own actions to being imitations of cinematic mob dons. Shots of newspapers, mentions of the year and date, and other attempts like exhibitions of cricket to evoke “Indianness”, and to weave the film’s narrative into the temporal space of the country’s history are ever-present. This lends itself to a continuous push-and-pull which simultaneously makes the mafia feel “real”, while constantly reminding the spectators that they are watching a film. 

This tug of war is the most important and fascinating element of Hindi mafia films. Any attempt at integration with the spectators’ reality would fall apart without simultaneous efforts to distance themselves from their lives. The “cracks” become pivotal here. These films allow us to graze our fingers across the mafia’s thrilling lives; but pull us back before we can be tempted to question their choices. They create enjoyment by validating our moralities and good beliefs about the world; and by providing us with other fun elements like romance, comedy, music and drama to focus on, the mafia is relegated to a mere singular piece of the larger patchwork of the film’s universe. Through this, Bollywood makes certain that the mafia will always be the bad guys in the spectators’ quieter lives and the mirror remains cracked. 

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