ABOUT A BHAI
The hunt for a mobster becomes the basis for an intense, engaging – if inevitably familiar – exercise in Ram Gopal Varma-style filmmaking.
JAN 21, 2007 – GOING INTO THE VERY VIOLENT RISK, you may wonder if the world really needs another honest-cop-versus-gangsters movie. But you’ve also got to accept that the world isn’t exactly empty without another love triangle or another superhero adventure or another crime thriller, so if we’re okay with all of those, why not this? I know I’m coming off a tad defensive, but Risk is one of those films you feel compelled to defend because its surface is awfully familiar to anyone who’s watched Zanjeer or Ardh Satya or Shool or just about any other Angry Young Cop saga, and to get at what’s interesting, you’ll have to wade through a virtual parade of clichés. Senior policeman in cahoots with the gangsters? Check. Senior politician in cahoots with the gangsters? Check. Our straight-arrow protagonist (Randeep Hooda, as Inspector Suryakant Satam) in cahoots with nothing but his own conscience? Check. The don (a heavily bearded Vinod Khanna, perfect as Khalid Bhai) pulling the strings from a foreign country? Check. The inter-rivalries between gangsters? Check. And there’s even a bad guy named Naidu, a direct descendant of the South Indian gangster Rama Shetty from Ardh Satya. But where Risk comes into its own is round about interval point, when Suryakant finds himself in a sticky situation and has no option but to grab at Khalid Bhai’s offer of assistance – at a price, of course – and that’s when the film’s central conceit comes together rather nicely.
It’s this: there’s collateral damage in any war, and it’s not always the innocent bystanders. At the very beginning we’re told about Mumbai (where else?) that there’s very little peace in this city, and the accompanying visual gives us that most iconic, peace-signalling prop of Mob-movies ever since On the Waterfront – a flock of pigeons, which takes flight as gunshots rend the silence, and we’re plunged into a chase where a no-name someone kills a no-name someone else. But the real beauty of the sequence comes immediately after, when this chase is re-created and we stop at the body of not the one who was just killed but an innocent bystander. And you think this is what Risk is going to be about, the price paid by civilians for the upkeep of law and order. But director Vishram Sawant – his earlier film is the terrific D, where Hooda played a gangster named Deshu – is after something slightly more lofty. Suryakant is an encounter specialist, one so trigger-happy that he’s hauled up by a superior in what is instantly the best bit of dialogue I’ve heard this year: “Police sabko gun deti hai par chalti sirf teri hai.” We’re given an idea that this may not entirely be his fault, for another superior advises Suryakant to kill a couple of thugs even though they aren’t exactly top-ranking; he reasons that they are going to be trouble later on anyway, so why not take care of them now. But Suryakant’s run with the gun comes to a halt when he accidentally shoots a couple of innocents – he insists they weren’t all that innocent – and he’s forced to take a gangster’s help to get out of this mess. He later remarks that he died that day – because he descended into the very filth he was trying to clean up – and you see that he has become the casualty of his job; his soul is the collateral damage.
As such, this may come across as a rather slight hook to hang a film’s worthiness on, but the stylish Risk worked for me because I saw it not as a movie of its own so much as the latest installment in the ongoing series of gangster noir-melodramas – somehow they’re a bit of both – from the Ram Gopal Varma stable. (Or at least, his school; Vishram Sawant is a Varma protégé.) Someday in the future, an enterprising DVD manufacturer could make a boxed set of these films, and viewing them as a whole would give us a panoramic insight into the various facets of life in the shadows of society. Of D, I wrote: “Perhaps most interesting – and subversive – is its notion that for Deshu, crime is just another business. That’s why some of the could-have-been-sensational scenes have all the ho-hum non-energy of watching a filing clerk in his office cubicle… ‘Koi doctor hota hai, koi engineer hota hai… Main gangster hai,’ Deshu shrugs, and this isn’t empty bluster. Even when asked to leave his lucrative operations in Mumbai and oversee the less-important Gujarat territory, he doesn’t flinch – it’s a job, and he’s simply been handed a transfer order.” And in Risk, the insight that we get is that whole bit about collateral damage, along with the extremely practical philosophy that drives these people – that there are no past grudges, only present alliances, something that made me laugh out loud because I was reminded of The Power of Now, the self-improvement book by Eckhart Tolle that everybody keeps raving about.
If that doesn’t grab you, Risk is probably going to seem simply more of the same, especially in terms of style. There’s the same unseen narrator laying out the opening, the same bunch of stock-company actors (Hooda is as stonily impassive here as he was in D, which is just right for someone not given to emotional effusiveness), the same use of a hyperventilating score to drown out stretches of dialogue (none of which is new to us anyway), and the same disregard for empathy from the audience. (When Suryakant is struck with the loss of a loved one, the camera discreetly observes him from a distance, refusing resolutely to help us participate in his grief.) And there’s the same disdain for the women in the periphery. Seema Biswas appears as an associate of Khalid Bhai who wants to win an upcoming election, but her character remains fuzzy throughout. The only interesting moment for me was when Suryakant buttons up in her presence – the topmost button of his shirt is perpetually undone – and I couldn’t decide if his deference was to her power or the fact that she’s a woman or a bit of both. Then there’s Tanushree Dutta, as Suryakant’s girlfriend who’s all-too-familiar with the demands of his profession. He says he’ll probably be late for dinner and she understands that what he’s really saying is that he won’t be joining her. But that understanding doesn’t quite translate into a believable relationship, the low point of which is a scene where he asks her gruffly for a hug. What’s this drama about if they’re already sleeping together?
Then again, in a Ram Gopal Varma-school gangster movie, it isn’t the women but the men that are the morbid objects of attraction. The sex appeal is in the close-up of the gun in the hand of the cop just before a kill, or in the close-up of the cycle chain in the hand of the gangster just before a kill. The emotional investment we have in these films isn’t in the relationship between hero and heroine but in the one between hero and villain, in the – title-relevance alert – risk that the cop takes in setting a trap for the gangster and the risk that the gangster takes in trusting the cop. These men may hang around their women, but they’re really married to their profession, which is why the high drama is entirely in the extent to which they would go to hold on to their interests; even the good guy, all he wants is to hold on to his cop’s uniform, and when this forces a moral compromise, his subsequent actions take the form of an act of expiation. I use that term deliberately – for it’s fascinating, the part that religion plays in the lives of these men. We’ve seen the strong Catholic roots of the Corleone family and the rudraksh that Velu Nayakan wears around his neck, and in Risk, we see a gangster performing an aarti to the cries of Ganpati bappa morya and we see Khalid Bhai diligently doing the namaaz. What makes them believe in a higher power when they’re practically the highest powers – the Gods, if you will, with the ability to bestow life and death – in their social hierarchies? I’m hoping that that’ll be an insight we get from an upcoming gangster melodrama from the house of Ram Gopal Varma.
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