This Valentine’s Day, Bollywood gives us a bromance. No, really. Forget Amitabh Bachchan horsing around on a bike with Dharmendra, or sloshing around in the showers with Shashi Kapoor, or locking eyes with Vinod Khanna – that’s kid stuff, Bollywood Homoeroticism 101. Ali Abbas Zafar’s Gunday goes a level higher, with the visual of its leading men – Bikram and Bala (even their names are matching-matching; how cute is that?) – in bed, wearing white trousers with a big red heart emblazoned on their bottoms. They’re shirtless – but then that’s how they usually are. Even when they wear shirts, these are unbuttoned to reveal as much as possible of their muscled torsos, and later, when these best friends turn foes and charge at each other in an action sequence, the first item on their agenda is to rip each other’s shirts off. Apparently, a fight isn’t a fight unless it involves shiny pecs and abs showcased in slow-motion. During the end-credits roll, you may find yourself looking for Assistant Torso Oiler.
Gunday begins with raw documentary footage depicting the birth of Bangladesh, in 1971, and we’re quickly deposited in a refugee camp at Dhaka. A solemn voiceover (from Irrfan, who plays a cop with his typical casualness) holds our hands through the goings-on, which are about the young and very hungry Bikram and Bala (the terrific child actors Darshan Gujar and Jayesh Kardak) negotiating the tough terrains of gun couriering, coal smuggling and sexual abuse. It’s a sombre start – but soon we see that this background is simply wallpaper, an attempt to add epic heft to a story that’s essentially a love triangle. (It’s a different story that Priyanka Chopra’s Nandita is as dispensable as Etta Place was in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whose closing freeze-frame is replayed here).
No Hindi masala movie set in the 1970s can escape the shadow of Bachchan, but Zafar goes a step further and strings together so many references to the star that part of Gunday becomes a spot-the-film exercise. An early scene where the young Bikram (or is it Bala? I forget) refuses to pick up coins tossed at him as payment for work echoes the phenka-hua-paisa moment from Deewar (the System-made-me-so wail from that film is also present) – and thereon, we get the smuggling from Muqaddar Ka Sikandar, the friend-turned-foe from Namak Haram and Hera Pheri, the coal mines from Kaala Paththar, the framed-murder from Immaan Dharam, the coin-toss from Sholay (this time to decide who gets the girl), the mole-operatives from Don, the heroine-asking-the-hero-to-give-up-his-life-of-crime from Khoon Pasina, and what might be a serious take on the mirror scene from Amar Akbar Anthony.
In addition, we get, from that era of cinema, the visual of running boys turning into running men, and an instance of heartbreak is underlined by bombs going off in the distance. There are rug-pulling big reveals, and the rhetoric from those times is also revisited, with a number of metaphorical reworkings of the concept of coal. And everything is two-hundred per cent – the thunderous background score, the colours, and especially the performances of Ranveer Singh (Bikram) and Arjun Kapoor (Bala). They pout and rage and swagger as if performing to an audience on the moon.
The experience is immersive, but solely at a surface level – we’re not pulled in. Zafar is so busy making a movie that looks like a 1970s movie that he forgets to make a movie that feels like a 1970s movie. We’re told that Calcutta is known for two things – the Howrah Bridge, and Bikram and Bala (shouldn’t that be three things?) – but we never sense that monumentality in these two. We’re told that they’ve opened schools and hospitals, and poor Victor Banerjee (who’s probably remodeling his kitchen and needed the cheque) turns up as a cop and labels our heroes as “aam logon ke liye maseeha” – but we don’t get a sense of the people around them who are helped, the people who celebrate these two outlaws. For that matter, we don’t sense the deep friendship between Bikram and Bala. We seem them bouncing around like bratty schoolkids, but the emotional moorings between them aren’t fleshed out – and neither are their feelings for Nandita (or hers for them, though Chopra does well with her scenes). So much time is spent showing us how cool Bikram and Bala are that when we’re asked to buy into their tormented past – with a line like “humne sirf apna haq maanga” – we wonder when they ever did something as basic as ask for something and wait for an answer, without racing ahead to grab it.
And yet, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen, which pops with a vital vulgarity. Gunday is dazzlingly mounted, and every frame is sculpted to perfection. Even the action sequences, including one in a theatre playing Mr. India, are artfully staged. This may not be much to go by, but in an era where films come mainly in the wan pastels of the upper-class rom-coms, the saturated reds and bright yellows of melodrama can really shake you up, with what you’re seeing making up (to an extent) for what you’re not feeling.
* Gunday = Hoodlums
* the phenka-hua-paisa moment = where the hero refuses to pick up coins tossed casually at him
* aam logon ke liye maseeha = messiahs of the masses
* humne sirf apna haq maanga = all we did was ask for our rights
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.