A criminal and a crooner are after the same girl in an excoriating love story. Plus, a scary movie with more chuckles than chills.
Movies from Mahesh Bhatt’s production house have always depicted the most messy kinds of love, but none of them has ever come close to the knots-in-the-stomach wretchedness that defines the passions in Gangster – easily Bhatt’s best effort since Zakhm. (Bhatt gave the story idea; Anurag Basu wrote and directed the movie.) On the surface, this is merely a love triangle that results when Simran (newcomer Kangana Ranaut) has to choose between Daya (Shiney Ahuja, the gangster of the title, whose girl Simran is) and Akash (Emraan Hashmi, smoothly playing a singer in yet another of his films with a super score). But then mere love triangles do not begin with rain and thunder presaging a scene of a gun being cocked inside a vehicle – as if to inform us that the characters here are driven by forces as primal as those of nature.
Sure enough, someone gets shot, and a hospital sequence soon establishes that the rest of the movie is going to be in flashback. I’m usually not a fan of such framing devices, because what keeps the interest alive in a love story is not knowing whether the protagonists will reach happily-ever-after, while the hospital-sequence beginning already tells us that they won’t. But Gangster is so full of unpredictable twists – plus, it’s narrated as a series of flashbacks-within-the-main-flashback, giving us the impression of getting to know someone’s life story by randomly flipping through pages of their diary – that after about five minutes, I forgot about the hospital and the people in it. All I wanted to know was whether Simran would reach happily-ever-after.
Simran rarely talks about herself; she mysteriously asks to be dropped off at random street corners (never at home) – and while these qualities alone would rank her amongst the most fascinating Hindi film heroines ever, she’s also an alcoholic. It isn’t just that she enjoys her booze; when she discovers she’s exhausted her supply at home, she races to the trash can outside, on the street, and rummages through the filth in the hope that at least one of the bottles would have a last few drops for her. She’s that kind of alcoholic (and a big salute to Bhatt for writing her this way, without copping out).
I was trying to locate a parallel for Simran in our cinema, and I had to go all the way back to Chhoti Bahu in Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam. Well, there’s gangster’s girlfriend Parveen Babi in Deewar too, but she’s not exactly an alcoholic. Besides, the early arc of Gangster – intentionally or not – mirrors the basic relationships in the Abrar Alvi classic: a woman (Chhoti Bahu/Simran) who simply wants to be loved turns to alcohol because the husband figure is never around (in the older movie, he was with courtesans; here, Daya is a fugitive in another country); she then finds sympathy from a man (Bhootnath/Akash) who’s the opposite of the husband figure in every imaginable way.
If you think I’m blaspheming by comparing a rank newcomer to Meena Kumari, you haven’t seen Kangana Ranaut’s performance; it’s solid by any standard, but staggering for someone in her first film. She’s no conventional beauty, but there’s something about her face, with its mop of hair that looks as if it’s just been electrocuted. She’s never less than magnetic, whether registering a silent expression or screaming like a fishwife till her words are lost in the upper registers. Even the alcoholic drawl she affects feels just right, without the drama-queen hiccups and the shlur that are typically what we get from actresses playing such roles. Just watch her rant at Daya outside her house, when she lets loose a barrage of conflicting emotions! She hates what he’s become, what he’s reduced her to, but she can’t forget that he’s the first man who gave her a home. You know how deep her feelings for him run, though there’s very little footage of them actually being in love.
That’s just one of the many ways Anurag Basu surprises us. (Who knew the director of Saaya and Tumsa Nahin Dekha had it in him to give us a movie worthy of Mahesh Bhatt in his I’ll-bare-my-soul prime?) I was also taken by how the terrific tracks (by Pritam) are wedged into the narrative – sometimes just as picturesque bits of respite between moments of raging passions, sometimes as mini-videos that sketch out parts of the story. It’s been a while since I saw something staged as beautifully (and as meaningfully) as the rock ballad Bheegi bheegi. As the song begins, Simran and Daya are running away from the cops; they get on to an escape vehicle, and we transition oh-so-smoothly to scenes of the two making something of a life with one another.
The one weak link in Gangster is the gangster himself. Daya is supposed to be this major crime lord but he acts like a small-time hood, sometimes venturing out all alone into the mean streets. And I couldn’t buy the fact that this ruthless criminal would become such an audience-pleasing puppy-dog in front of his girl. Gulshan Grover, on the other hand, has a cameo as Daya’s father figure (and boss), and in his little screen time, he superbly brings out the psychopathic dichotomy of his character: he loves Daya, but he can’t forgive Daya for choosing Simran over him. Does Daya have a similar hot-cold, good-bad streak in him? We’re never told, and Ahuja’s confused performance doesn’t tell us either. He has a wonderful presence and he’s one of those rare actors who’s very good even when simply doing nothing, but he’s made to play some uncharacteristic breakdown scenes that are downright embarrassing to watch.
There are a few of these actor-showcase moments that Basu could have let go. He has the tendency to let scenes linger a bit longer than necessary, as if he couldn’t bear to yell “Cut” after composing his shots so artfully. (And these shots are beautiful. When Simran jumps into the sea, for instance, her white robes billow around, making her look like a diaphanous angel.) I felt the polish of this staging – as well as the poetry of the dialogues (when Simran expresses her wish to stay alive, she muses, “Zindagi, aaj tum mujhe dhokha nahin de sakti!”) – was at odds with the rawness of the characters. But let’s not forget that Gangster is a commercial entertainment, a mainstream movie. If pretty pictures and patterned poetry are what it takes to get such a gut-wrenching romance out to the masses, we shouldn’t really be complaining – not about a film that proves there’s still plenty of juice in that hoariest staple of ours, the love triangle.
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