Director: Ashim Ahluwalia
Cast: Arjun Rampal, Nishikant Kamat, Anand Ingale, Rajesh Shringarpure, Deepak Damle, Aishwarya Rajesh
A few scenes into Ashim Ahluwalia's Daddy, we see the ominous contours of Dawood Ibrahim's (cinematically rechristened as Maqsood bhai here) face and trademark rose-tinted glasses. It's the early 1980s; he is watching a televised India-Pakistan cricket match in his den. The Vaastav-ish small-time crooks, including young Arun Gawli (Arjun Rampal), observe his presence from the living room. Bhai has this aura. Bhai has chosen them to be his minions. Gawli is the only one who doesn't flinch. He shamelessly negotiates their "hit man" contracts with Bhai's shocked assistant.
This is a hypnotic establishment scene – of personalities, character, legacies and future conflicts. Minutes later, we see bhai in the back of his car. He speaks. We hear his voice. We recognize the actor. It is Farhan Akhtar. The spell is broken. It takes me a few moments to recognize the irony of this casting decision. Akhtar produced Raees earlier this year – that is, the other desi-Robin-Hood gangster biopic starring Shah Rukh Khan. Daddy is the film Raees could – or should – have been.
Critically acclaimed filmmakers breaking into the mainstream circuit have directed both projects. In fact it's easy to mentally jumble up their narrative landmarks, too: the pulpy 1970s beginning, the rise of a reluctant criminal, the early bhai mentorship, the demise of close associates, the family-dhandha dichotomy, the struggle for independent power, gang wars, establishment wars, the birth of a cult and so on.
But Daddy is immaculately detailed. And Daddy is curiously empathetic towards its controversial protagonist without a single manipulative monologue or tear being shed. In this era of mercilessly expository biopics, this is a minor victory.
It feels as if Akhtar might have infiltrated the Daddy setup either as a sabotage artist or to re-educate himself about the genre he has gleefully bastardized (read Don-ified) over the years. But Akhtar's bhai could be a conscious gamble; he is so unremarkable – and thankfully fleeting – that the focus remains on Arun Gawli. The focus will turn to Daddy.
Ahluwalia's penchant for remarkable production design – his last film, Miss Lovely, effectively captured the murky depths of Mumbai's C-grade 1980s sex-horror-film industry – initially threatens to overwhelm its occupants
Ahluwalia employs a retrospective narrative. Much of Gawli's story is told in flashbacks by ex associates and family members to an obsessive inspector named Vijaykar (Nishikant Kamat). The film begins with an MLA being shot dead in his home in 2011, and Vijaykar setting off on an interrogation spree to rearrange the pieces of prime suspect Gawli's life – I can't imagine why, given that a cop probably knows everything there is to know. But this is merely a device to familiarize us with Gawli's vast legend.
Different characters neatly tell us about different phases of his life. This might seem convenient, but what are the movies if not an amalgamation of coherent voices? As a result, Daddy spans across at least three distinct eras and four decades – this isn't evident so much from the (barely) ageing faces and prosthetics as it is from the "feel" of the rapidly changing landscape of Mumbai they occupy. This must have been fresh hell for the film's continuity directors.
Ahluwalia's penchant for remarkable production design – his last film, Miss Lovely, effectively captured the murky depths of Mumbai's C-grade 1980s sex-horror-film industry – initially threatens to overwhelm its occupants. Especially in an early scene, where Gawli and his bhai-commissioned "BRA" (Babu, Rama and Arun) gang roams aimlessly through a club showcasing a typically corny disco performance on stage.
The chases and action sequences, too, are scored to the music of its cinematic era, invoking images of a young Amitabh Bachchan shooting and running his way across the city's dimly lit underbelly. Slowly, as we see Gawli's "human" side (mandatory wife/baby sequences, his "dosti" with Rama) dance with intermittent shades of his ruthless temperament, the sound of his surroundings begin to change. This is just as well, because the narrative begins to take undue liberties with its non-linearity.
The second half sees many timelines converge; it remains unclear how many years pass as he takes on bhai on his own turf, forces him to retreat to Dubai before spending what is presumably a large amount of his own life in Indian jails. The unfortunate part is that most of the broad-daylight inter-gang assassinations are glossed over in an identical manner: bullets are quickly pumped into bodies at public places. There is no time for the mechanics of these crimes, or for the city's relative lawlessness in context of the teeming underworld. At times, it's difficult to identify who exactly dies, until we see Gawli feeling bad about it.
For someone who knew nothing about Arun Gawli before entering the film, I came out fairly enlightened – just about enough to still not have an opinion on the man
However, the various personalities that serve as triggers for his journey – Babu's debauchery, Rama's loyalty, Pamphlet's fear, Inspector's annoyance – are perfectly performed. All of them look like they have the capacity to kill and love in the same minute. Throughout, Gawli is shown as a reluctant killer – a man forced by circumstances to become the country's favourite heroic villain. This is partly because the versions told to the Inspector by Gawli's people are understandably sympathetic, if not entirely true.
For someone who knew nothing about Arun Gawli before entering the film, I came out fairly enlightened – just about enough to still not have an opinion on the man. That's the sweet spot. Being torn between hailing him as our proud answer to Dawood and mourning the irony of this misplaced pride – this is the sweet spot.
Gangster – or any – biopics are inherently biased. They become biased the moment a filmmaker chooses to dramatize a life on screen. There's nothing wrong with this. Most of it is centered upon the human-behind-the-mask motif, and there are always shades to be explored despite a despicable public image. It isn't about why they are bad because they kill. It's about how they remain functional and vaguely fundamental despite these activities.
In this age of bloated biopics and crass commercial interpretations, Rampal's Daddy earns an aura – by not really trying to
They are anomalies operating from within the confines of civilization. It's the intrinsic emotions – the loyalty and principles within Italian mafia families, the overcompensating people-loving generosity of local dons and politicians, the inherent passion and charisma of infamous bikini killers – that make a story worth telling. They make for a fascinating case study of human nature. Arjun Rampal's naturally indifferent gait enables these possibilities.
He can't be obvious even if he wants to – an attribute that, thankfully, leaves a lot to our imaginations. I'll admit I was a little wary when I heard about Rampal writing, producing and starring in this film. But he isn't disruptive or overpowering as Gawli. In the process, he creates his own little moments: the quasi-important Maharashtrian "hum" [three quick hmm(s) in descending baritones] used to condescend on opponents, the startled look on his face after murder witnesses refuse to identify him, his audacious Pablo Escobar-ish speech in the Rajya Sabha, and his reaction to winning the elections on the back of his aide's death ("What victory? He left me and went away").
In this age of bloated biopics and crass commercial interpretations, Rampal's Daddy earns an aura – by not really trying to. Much like Randeep Hooda's in Main Aur Charles, his is a performance worth noting because he seems to have surrendered to the vision of his director. Daddy doesn't look compromised or excessively translated. For now, this is all we can ask for.