Written by Matt Bowes
The Internet Movie Database is a useful website, but it does have some drawbacks. It’s a great device when you’re trying to remember that guy who was in that thing but as a measure of general film quality, it leaves a lot to be desired. Unlike Rotten Tomatoes, which analyzes critical opinion to get a consensus on a movie’s quality, IMDB tends more towards extremism as fans want to make their enjoyment of things they’ve just seen get recognized on the Top 250 list (The Dark Knight at #4 best of all time, Forrest Gump at #14, really? REALLY?). The Top 250 list is also very Hollywood-centric and, for the most part, the films date from the last thirty years or so.
Currently reigning at the very bottom of the IMDB chart, however, we find this year’s Gunday, a movie that has been affected by the public’s taste more than most. Due to a coordinated campaign against the film, where most of the people involved probably didn’t even seen it, Gunday has been singled out for this dubious honour due to what its critics feel is a misreading of historical events (more information on this can be found here). The movie itself is not the issue here, as personal and political beliefs are what marked this film off as being unworthy, which is too bad because Gunday is about as good of an introduction to Bollywood cinema as you could ever want. It’s got it all, over-the-top gangster action, a romantic triangle that hits the peak of melodrama, lush cinematography (and moustaches), and interludes of music and dancing.
Personal and political beliefs are what marked this film off as being unworthy, which is too bad because Gunday is about as good of an introduction to Bollywood cinema as you could ever want.
The story starts off in the 1970s, as the nation of Bangladesh emerges from a bloody war of independence. Two young refugees from Bangladesh, Bikram and Bala, find themselves working for a gunrunner near the newly-formed border, but soon they make their way to Calcutta after Bala has to kill a corrupt army officer to save his friend’s life. Flash forward fifteen years, where Bikram (Ranveer Singh) and Bala (Arjun Kapoor) have set themselves up as the city’s most beloved gangsters, two self-proclaimed “gunday” (Hindi slang for outlaws or goons) by cornering the market on coal coming into town by rail. They achieve this control over Calcutta’s resources by beating seven shades of hell out of the man who used to control the trade, Dibakar. To illustrate the heightened level of insanity at which the fight scenes in the film operate, at one point during the raid on Dibakar’s train, Bikram picks up one thug and uses him to smack two other thugs before throwing him at a sign.
Right away, Gunday deviates from the classic gangster film formula, as the means by which the duo become wealthy and powerful is not a difficult pill for the audience to swallow. As opposed to a drug dealer like Tony Montana in Brian de Palma’s remake of Scarface, or a bootlegger like Little Caesar and most of the 1930s Warner Bros. gangsters, our heroes here are virtuous criminals by default as they control the use of a household necessity rather than a societal ill. To further reinforce the fact that these are two great dudes, they’ve gone on to use this wealth for philanthropy in addition to their lush lifestyle, building hospitals and schools for the less fortunate. This follows a rich tradition of social justice in Bollywood cinema, which is often concerned with the plight of poor people and the disabled.
The songs in Gunday are some of my favourites of the Bollywood films I’ve seen. The adult versions of Bikram and Bala are introduced with “Jashn-E-Ishqa,” a joyous song that talks about how good of friends the two are, and how they are awesome bros. They do cool things like ride around on motorcycles, set playing cards on fire and mud wrestle one another.
As you can expect from this description, the homoerotic tension in the film is heightened just as much as the action scenes. This is definitely a film designed for the female/homoerotic gaze, as our two heroes are excellent specimens, who seem to sweat baby oil and lose their shirts often. That’s not to say that women are not represented in the story, though, as one comes between the two men. Nandita (Priyanka Chopra) is a cabaret dancer at the Calcutta Club. She’s introduced to us in a comedic scene in which the two heroes are momentarily stymied by how to use a urinal in their traditional outfits, at which point things get further awkward as Nandita leaves a stall. Her initial song, “Asalaam-E-Ishqum,” is performed alongside the burlesque troupe at the Calcutta Club, and features what is perhaps the most baller image ever put onscreen when Bikram shoots a silenced Uzi machine gun at the sky and money rains down on Nandita leaning on a classic car.
This is only the beginning of the lush 70s-80s environments that Gunday delivers to audiences. In addition to some excellent location photography, sets like the Calcutta Club and Bikram and Bala’s coal mine are very well-realized and tactile.
Nandita is far from just being another bit of eye candy, though, as she’s a fully developed character in her own right. Both men profess their love to her, and then concoct schemes to win her affection. It is Nandita, though, who has all the power in this three-way relationship, and the two men are the ones who are left pining for her. In another great scene later on, Nandita invites Bikram and Bala to meet her at a run-down movie theatre screening Mr. India, and she sings and dances along with a musical sequence onscreen. In a manner reminiscent of John Boorman’s Point Blank, violence later ensues as the figures on the big screen play on unaware of what’s going on in the real world, but this initial scene is very charming. Gunday has an interesting approach towards Bollywood’s film history. Many movies made in India at the moment are remakes of classic 1970s films, while Gunday makes comparisons to this era metatextually, both in the Mr. India example and in the use of film soundtracks from earlier eras throughout. Fans of M.I.A. may recognize the clip she used in her song “Jimmy” in a scene in which Bala tries to impress Nandita by buying her any fish she wants at the market.
It’s fascinating to think that inherently populist and fun films like Gunday are reaching an audience that a lot of filmgoers don’t even think about.
The antagonist of the piece comes in the form of international film star Irrfan Khan, who Western audiences probably know best from Life of Pi, or his recent arthouse success The Lunchbox. In a departure from those sorts of role, he plays Satya, a cool-as-nails supercop who’s brought in to take down Bikram and Bala’s criminal empire. Satya is a chessmaster type who plays other people off one another to bring justice to Calcutta’s streets. Both the criminals and the cop who’s chasing them are very likeable and cool characters, making every scene between them very entertaining.
I tried to go see Gunday during its opening weekend this Valentine’s Day at one of the few multiplexes in town that plays Bollywood movies, but I was shocked to see that the screening was sold out. We ended up going to see it a week later, and the theatre was still pretty packed. While I do think it is very important to support arthouse theatres like the Metro Cinema, it’s also fascinating to think that inherently populist and fun films like Gunday are reaching an audience that a lot of filmgoers don’t even think about. Luckily, it’s now available on Netflix, as are a lot of entertaining Bollywood action films like the Dhoom series and Don 1 and 2. I’d definitely recommend stepping out of your comfort zone once in a while and seeing what other cultures have to offer in the form of popcorn fare, in addition to their art movies that score high on IMDB.
CC cover photo credit: bollywoodmdb.com.