“Daddy”… A barrelful of gangster clichés makes for a stylish but been-there-done-that biopic

Posted on September 12, 2017


Spoilers ahead…

The “Smoking Kills” warning has rarely looked as ridiculous as in Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, where nary a soul is lost to cancer. A minister is shot through the head, and his brains become splatter art on his dining table. Someone else lies sprawled in the open, as his corpse is nibbled at by street dogs. A third is riddled with bullet holes as he descends in an elevator. A close pal of the leading man — Arun Gawli, aka the Daddy (Arjun Rampal) of Dagdi chawl — is shot down at point-blank range by cops. In a film that strives for such realism, they should have at least modified the warning: “Being cast in a Mafia movie kills.”

Daddy is a “Mafia movie” in the most generic sense. We get a sense of Gawli’s life through a framing device where a cop on his tail (Nishikant Kamath, who beautifully underplays the desperation behind his quest) conducts a series of conversations with people associated with the gangster, beginning with Daddy’s mummy. The story that emerges (rags to riches, friends to foes, a love angle stuck in between) is no different from that of the many gangster sagas we’ve seen. Put another way, we never get a satisfying answer to the question: Why does this gangster deserve a movie of his own?

Other than, of course, an actor wanting to deglam himself for a role he’ll be remembered by. As anyone who tracks the Oscars will tell you, nothing says “great performance” as much as a good-looking performer stripping himself of his good looks. Does it work? Rampal tries to coarsen himself up, with makeup and slang, but his lanky elegance never really goes away. Still, there are hints of a performance. When asked to stand in a line-up, I caught a glint of fear in Rampal’s eyes. Much later, his face — for the most part, a grim mask — softens when he sees his newborn daughter. The rest of the time, it’s hard to say if Rampal is brooding or non-acting.

But at least, we don’t burst out laughing the way we do when we set eyes on Farhan Akhtar, who plays the Dawood-equivalent, Maqsood. This Rock On! reunion is terribly distracting. In that film, Akhtar and Rampal smoothed over their frictions with a blistering performance of Sinbad the Sailor. When a similar clash occurs midway through this film, you half-await another reconciliatory climax in an arena, as our boys launch into Gawli the Gangster.

The minor characters show more promise, but they, too, are underserved by the script. I was particularly taken by a very young bride, who spends her wedding waiting for her husband to show up. (He’s elsewhere, having sex.) The young girl looks so lost, so much of a lamb in the midst of wolves, you want to know what happened, how she ended up here. At least, she gets a couple of scenes. Someone who ends up shot (we don’t even see his face) gets only a caption: “Giridhar Tyagi, Hawala Agent.” In case we mistook him for Giridhar Tyagi, Tap Dancer, I suppose.

Could they have gotten past the gangster clichés by focusing on the love story? The secular side of Gawli emerges when he marries Zubeida with no talk of conversion (though she does seem to lead a Hindu life, eventually). Aishwarya Rajesh plays Zubeida. One part of me was rooting for her to ace this small part. Another part was cheering for her to screw up her lines, get her lip-sync all wrong and exact revenge on behalf of all of us who routinely suffer the mangled Tamil from Mumbai imports. She walks a dignified middle path, gets the job done. She also gets to be part of a possibly unintended meta moment, when Arun takes her to watch the Hema Malini-starring Dream Girl: a Tamil heroine in a Mumbai movie watching a Tamil heroine in a Mumbai movie.

You look at the insides of that cinema hall and you smell the seventies. As in the far superior Miss Lovely, Ahluwalia brings an era back, from cramped prison cells to the velvet upholstery in a car to chandelier earrings to a smoky club song that remixes an unused Bappi Lahiri song from Dance Dance. It’s a sci-fi themed stage show — though, for some of us, the voices of Alisha Chinai and Vijay Benedict are already a time machine.

This detailing helps Daddy, as also the halfway realism. There’s no love duet between Arun and Zubeida. And unlike a “hero,” he exacts sex as payment for costly contraband goods he’s let her have. You’d never find this scene in, say, Raees, which comes to mind not just because of the milieu but also the maker. Like Ahluwalia, Rahul Dholakia was a small filmmaker, far removed from the mainstream.

But in the absence of specifics or something new, Raees gave us a star capable of putting his own imprint — a signature, if you will — on a role. One could argue that Daddy isn’t that kind of film at all, that it’s more… realistic. But in its own way, it glamorizes the figure at the centre. After Gawli escapes an assassination attempt, his victory is highlighted by a slo-mo walk. And here’s Zubeida justifying, to that cop, why Gawli turned out this way. “Agar tera ghar paida hota to police hota aur tu Dagdi mein to gangster.” (If he’d been born in your house, he’d be a cop today, and if you’d been born here, you’d be a gangster.) It’s that old sob story we’ve been listening to since Gunga Jumna.

And like every self-respecting desi gangster, Gawli is torn between the life he chose and the life he wants. In a clunky bit of symbolism, he’s seen holding a gun in a hand, a baby’s rattle in another. When he’s given a life sentence, a cello mourns in the background, and earlier, when ignored by the cabinet he’s now a part of, Gawli asks his fellow-ministers, “When the people can forgive me, why can’t you?” These touches feel odd coming from Ahluwalia, though he does stage a terrific shootout during Ganesh Chathurthi celebrations, where Gawli takes refuge near a statue of Shiva that raises and lowers a hand, as though in benediction. Bollywood may end up making a masala filmmaker of him yet.

Copyright ©2017 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

Posted in: Cinema: Hindi