Director: Shujaat Saudagar
Writers: S. Hussain Zaidi, Rensil D’Silva, Sammeer Arora, Hussain Dalal, Abbas Dalal
Cast: Kay Kay Menon, Avinash Tiwary, Kritika Kamra, Nivedita Bhattacharya, Jitin Gulati, Amyra Dastur, Vivan Bhatena, Saurabh Sachdeva, Nawab Shah, Shiv Pandit
Bambai Meri Jaan is a 10-episode drama inspired by S. Hussain Zaidi’s Dongri to Dubai: Six Decades of the Mumbai Mafia, a book that traces the evolution of the underworld through the lens of gangster Dawood Ibrahim’s life. Directed by Shujaat Saudagar (Rock On 2), the sprawling series is a real-but-fictional version of the book. So the names are barely concealed nods (or as I like to call them: cultural typos) to the original identities. The mustache-and-tinted-glasses don here is Dara Kadri (Avinash Tiwary), though his organized crime syndicate is still called D-Company. His sister is not Haseena but Habeeba (Kritika Kamra). Haji Mastan, Karim Lala and Varadarajan Mudaliar – the trio of ganglords ruling the city before D-Company – are rechristened Haji Maqbool (Saurabh Sachdeva), Azeem Pathan (Nawab Shah) and Anna Mudaliar (Dinesh Prabhakar). Manya Surve, the tactical assassin also regarded as the city’s first encounter killing, becomes Ganya Surve (Sumeet Vyas). And so on.
Yet, no amount of dramatic license can change the fact that Bambai Meri Jaan suffers from narrative fatigue. The rise-of-a-gangster genre has been done to death in modern Hindi cinema. Perhaps the last potent take was Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy (2017), a noirish biopic of don-turned-politician Arun Gawli. In the long-form space, this period formula has been updated by Hansal Mehta’s Scam franchise. But despite being centered on the ‘OG’ criminal, Bambai Meri Jaan plays out like a montage of all the underworld movies we’ve seen since the late Eighties. The concept itself – much like the title – feels dated, especially at a time audiences are more attuned to kinetic financial-fraud stories. Timeline-wise, this series spans two decades of post-independence Bombay. The bylanes-to-throne journey opens with Dara’s childhood in the 1960s and unfolds until 1986, when D-Company relocates to Dubai after years of gang wars. The storytelling language is stranded somewhere between Once Upon A Time In Mumbaai (2010) and Raees (2017). Men smoke with swag, shootouts turn Bombay into a giant bullet hole, dozens of players are introduced, dozens are forgotten, (too) much blood is shed, and overlong metaphors are delivered like broken Rajat-Arora-isms.
The interesting aspect about Bambai Meri Jaan is its desire to break the clutter. The makers seem to recognize the need to do things differently. Some of this works. For instance, I like the perspective used to tell a familiar story. Dara might be the focus and Bombay might be his oyster, but this is very much a dysfunctional-family tale. The Kadri clan is the protagonist. The journey is narrated by the patriarch and disillusioned father of four, Ismail Kadri (Kay Kay Menon). In fact, Ismail is the backbone of the first three episodes, back when Dara and his siblings were still teen crooks. His bitterly noble character sets the stage for a future where the city becomes collateral damage in a tense family fable. By exploring his struggle as an upright cop who refuses to sell out, the series creates a sense of history and stakes. What this does is twofold: It contextualizes the heat that marks a son-rise, and it reminds us that Dara is more of a villain than an anti-hero.
The juxtaposition of Ismail’s morality with his boy’s rebellion determines the latter parts: Ismail was undone by his loyalty towards a family that stops respecting him, while Dara becomes a man who uses his family as a front for an empire-building spree. Revenge drives his ambition, and every time a loved one is killed, it’s as if he gets an excuse to justify his lawless rampages. Reverence becomes his ruse. Some of the father-son exchanges bring to mind the ideological frictions between the Vijay Raaz and Ranveer Singh characters in Gully Boy (2019), except Dara here is shaped by the darkness of Vijay Verma in that film. He is so irritated by Ismail’s principles that he chooses the exact opposite path. It says something that the father looks like the baddie for daring to be good, and not ‘evolving’ with the times.
It helps that Kay Kay Menon is persuasive as a man who’s bullied out of his own story. Ismail’s voice-over is laced with regret instead of pride, and his sulking figure becomes the faded conscience of the Kadri household. A few other performances work, too. Nivedita Bhattacharya makes the most of her limited screen-time as Sakina Kadri, a woman torn between her husband’s honest ruins and her son’s dishonest success. This is the kind of series where she spells out her entire conflict in an emotional scene, but the actress does a decent job of conveying Sakina’s long-term guilt. And there’s Saurabh Sachdeva, who is having a bit of a moment with his recent character roles. He plays mob boss Haji with the kind of gender fluidity that’s sincere and sinister at once; even the way he smokes his cigarettes – deep, thoughtful puffs – reveals the gangster’s inherent link between movie masculinity and life experience.
However, the show’s desire to break the clutter is also its undoing – it morphs into a desperation to stand out. The treatment seeks attention when there’s not enough story to flaunt. The dialogues and banter, for example, try too hard to be crude and witty. You can tell that the language is pretending to be natural; it reminded me of Taaza Khabar (2023), another show in which chawl-dwelling Mumbai folks sound like cultural appropriations. Only Ismail sounds like cursing is part of his lingo. Also, (translated) lines like “in the battle between fear and respect, fear always wins” and “she didn’t sell her jewelry; she sold her hope” reek of retro-cringe; stories based in the past don’t have to sound like movies from the past. Then there’s this typical habit of staging children in ‘serious’ cinema as tonal interludes. The film-making resorts to comical chases and musical cues when young Dara steals in the Dongri locality – a style that trivializes the gravity of an origin story. It also borders on poverty porn when Ismail loses his job and the family faces a financial crisis. It’s not just the sad-smiley job rejections. At one point, a scene opens with them preparing to eat dinner, but the sound of the ceiling fan and tube light is pitched so high that you know their electricity is going to be cut.
There’s more. But I’ll keep it short. There’s very little allusion to the details of Dara’s expansive ‘business’ empire; apart from a rushed gold-smuggling montage, his progression is vague at best. The implication is that he’s a genius, that’s all. No Bollywood or cricket connection is mentioned. The VFX in some scenes (when the city is seen from a terrace) is shabby. Characters like Pari (Amyra Dastur), Dara’s first love, and Malik (Shiv Pandit), the inspector on the D-Company payroll, are treated as not humans so much as dispensable ideas. Malik disappears from the series the second he decides to let the gangs destroy each other. When he returns, he spends his time lighting a cigarette and spelling out the plan to his colleagues. As for Pari, what is a rags-to-riches arc without the scene of a couple ditching a fancy restaurant for a cheap roadside joint?
The rival trio of Haji, Pathan and Anna spend the series in the same frame (they even walk out of jail together), like evil Nineties’ villains parading as a middle-aged boyband, snarling in their lair and scheming to kill Dara. Pathan even has his own background musician, an unimaginative avatar of the flame-throwing Doof Warrior in Mad Max: Fury Road (2015). When a voice speaks in animal allegories, the series cuts to actual wildlife footage of famished lions and excited hyenas. One of the show’s worst scenes cross-cuts Dara’s ‘rich’ sex scene (complete with mood lighting and a five-star room) with his brother’s raw romp in a brothel, so as to fetishize the brother’s (Jitin Gulati) angst at being sidelined from the company. Next on this list is Ganya Surve’s ‘entry,’ where we see him calmly reading a James Hadley Chase novel at a dining table of the family he’s slaughtered. His character is so gimmicky (he insists on speaking in English to depict Surve as a rare college-educated criminal) that Vyas makes him seem like an extension of the serial killer he plays in Mrs Undercover (2023).
Bambai Meri Jaan also has a problem of violence. The gore is dialled up for no good reason; it’s simply distracting for a show of this scale. A wedding-night massacre is designed to not provoke but sicken the viewer, where a hacked-up man is forced to watch the off-screen rape of his bride; the camera lingers on his horrified face forever, while her screams fill the room. Dara’s revenge is worse, with a top-angle shot of him plunging a knife between the naked man’s legs. Most of the shootouts are loud and incoherent, too. Even the opening credits feel like a budget version of Bombay Velvet’s jazz-era vibe. I said I’d keep it short, but I guess I failed. Which only proves that this isn’t nitpicking; it’s mostly poor film-making.
In all this, it’s easy to miss Avinash Tiwary’s lead turn as a man whose legend is scrambled by a series with timeline issues. Tiwary is a solid actor, but despite an author-backed role here, he was far more effective as the hinterland don in Khakee: The Bihar Chapter (2022). He overdoes the brooding in this series (“something snapped,” the voice-over duly informs us), often misinterpreting stillness as silence. The contrast between his rakish 1970s parts and the grown-up phase is jarring. But maybe that’s how the show simplifies him, across 10 bulky episodes that prefer narrative volume over character depth. In the end, it’s these internal flaws that reduce Bambai Meri Jaan to a routine template. There are sparks of what it could have been, but those sparks are doused out by a safety-first approach. And if there’s a bigger irony than a cautious drama about a risk-taking gangster, I’m yet to see it.