Not sentimental for my life as a gangster in 90s Bombay, I wasn’t actually a gangster in 90s Bombay, but for where the film industry was in the early 2000s when I first found it.
This film is such an amazing microcasm of a moment in time! Remember when we thought Ram Gopal Verma was a consistently good director? And a not-disgusting human being? Remember when Manisha Koirala was just slightly worrisome, not a complete disaster? And Vivek Oboroi was incredibly promising and the next big thing? And Ajay Devgan was a dedicated actor who’s choice of projects was a real stamp of quality? And Vijay Raaz was going to be the next Nana Patakar? (hey! He was just in an Malayalam movie, Monsoon Mangoes! So I guess he is still working) And films about the 90s gangster wars and D-Company were still titillating and exciting, not cheap and creatively empty?
Not that gangster films have to be creatively empty. I think Once Upon a Time in Mumbai is sincerely one of the greatest movies of the 2010s. But watching Company now, after we’ve had Shootout at Lokhandwala and Shootout at Wadala and all the other rise-and-fall-of-a-gang movies, it loses that “I have never seen anything like this before” hook.
(Obligatory “Ganpat” link following Shoot Out At Lokhandwala reference)
Plus, most importantly, we are in a post-26/11 world. It is a little harder to watch a movie clearly based on D-Company and sympathize with the Dawood character. I mean, I’m kind of stunned people were able to get past the ’94 bomb blasts and sympathize with Ajay’s version of Dawood in 2002. Is it that 9/11 had just happened and the ’94 blasts seemed a little less bad in comparison? Or is it just that the story was fictionalized enough, people could get past it?
My understanding, which is based on rumors and legends and I am sure is inaccurate, is that part of what set off the gang war between Chhota Rajan and Dawood in the 90s was the bomb blasts. And the whole larger “uprising that will take back Bombay” concept, with the guns hidden in Sanjay Dutt’s yard and stuff. That Chhota Rajan felt Dawood was going too far, and that dispute was part of what broke them up.
I was braced this whole movie for how the break would come between them here, if it was actually going to deal with the bomb blasts, but I think the way RGV handled it was incredibly clever and delicate and difficult. He didn’t use the bomb blasts, but he used something with a similar clear moral decision, only on a smaller level. Not the deaths of hundreds of people, but of 2 innocent children. He was able to keep the personal break the same, the faithful lieutenant feeling that his chief had crossed a moral line, without providing a situation that had a personal effect for the audience, it was just the death of some politician and his family, not hundreds of every day commuters (that light touch being what was COMPLETELY MISSING in The Attacks on 26/11).
It’s too bad I missed seeing this movie when it first came out, in the pre-26/11 world, when the gang war had just cooled down and everyone was still feeling hot about it, but it’s kind of cool that I am seeing it now when Vivek’s character’s ending has come true! Chhota Rajan really is sitting in a cell somewhere spilling his guts to the cops! Although, the other part isn’t true, Dawood is still alive and well, and apparently talking on the phone A LOT.
Another thing which makes this film interesting to watch now, is how Ajay Devgan and Vivek have both played the same roles now over and over again in slightly different ways. Again, Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, brilliant!!! And I loved seeing the things Ajay kept from this performance, and what he changed. He has a certain way of using his hands here, a sort of casual flip of the wrist, and having his hand hanging over the edge of a chair, like his arms and hands were so weighted down with power, it was hard to raise them. He kept that in OUATIM, but he used it more for Salaam gestures than for holding cigarettes. A nice way of still showing his power, but turning it to more “good” than bad.
And he was so skinny in this! Oh my gosh! Part of that is the early 2000s obsession with tight shirts on men (why?), but I think it is also a choice on the part of the director and Ajay. He feels more like a quick fighter and a challenger. In OUATIM, he was always sitting kind of sprawled out, with his jacket loose and his legs stretched, so it felt like he was comfortable taking up all the space, he knew he had all the space, he was at the top and he didn’t need to be ready to maneuver any more.
(Why, Karan? Why is he in this shirt?)
As we all know, Vivek’s career didn’t quite go as well as Ajay’s post-Company. But oh my gosh, what a phenomenal debut! He combines fresh-faced innocence, with uncertainty, but also rock-solid confidence. And the kind of smarts which make him believable as a formidable enemy and desirable ally. It’s a great performance on its own, but it’s also a great sort of “audition reel” for other films. You can see the youthful charm that he would use in Saathiya, the determination in Dum, the depth in Yuva.
What is less clear is what a director’s actor he is. Well, and also how he has the worst PR instincts of anyone in the history of the world. But I honestly think he could have pulled himself out of the Aish break-up nosedive if he had more ability to control himself onscreen. I mean, look at Ritiesh Deshmukh (speaking of Ram Gopal Verma…). After his huge public relations flop, he just kept his head down and proved his value as an actor and industry player (Housefull films, Grand Masti, the stuff he is producing now in Marathi…), and he was able to recover. Vivek though, unless a director is really working with him and supporting him, he just can’t do anything.
In this, he is all fire and excitement. But it is because he is following RGV’s direction, telling him how to be and what to do, molding his raw clay. When he loses that kind of specific direction, like in Kurbaan, he just disappears onscreen. Compare his performance with, say, Raajpal Yadav. He’s just the driver, not a very important role, not supported by the script or the directing. But he makes it stand out, he makes it memorable. I was sincerely happy when he survived at the end of things. It was kind of interesting watching this movie as a time capsule, and going “okay, yeah, I can see why what happened to their careers later happened.” Raajpal was a great utility player, I can see why he still gets tons of work in character parts. I can see why none of the other “gang” members else really do. I can see why Ajay is still a star, and why Vivek has faded away. I can see that poor Manisha was in serious trouble already, no wonder she retired soon after and took years off before coming back (side-note: who is editing Manisha’s wikipedia page? And RGV’s? According to wiki, she is a major star and actress whose directorial debut was well-received. And RGV is a powerful industry player today, and 26/11 is a beloved Indian art film).
(This is Raajpal Yaadav. You may not know his name, but you totally recognize his face, right?)
I can also see why RGV hasn’t been able to really recreate this film. This movie looks so simple, so straight-forward. It feels like something he should be able to re-create endlessly. Just get a powerful storyline, a couple of impactful dialogues, a decent cast of up and comers, faded used-to-bes, and a big star who is interested in experimenting, and film it all with lowkey costumes and lighting and settings, so it feels “real”.
But, as the many many imitators in the years since have proved, it actually isn’t “simple” at all. Or rather, it’s both simple and complicated. A good gangster film, removing all the violence and stylistic stuff, is just about building a good relationship at the heart of it. That’s what RGV has here, with the Dawood-Chhota Rajan/Ajay-Vivek conflict. And that’s what he had in Sarkar, with Abhishek and Amitabh (Bal-Uddhav Thackaray. Or Raj? I can never keep the Thackaray family straight). But then you’ve got Sarkar Raj, where suddenly there’s 3 main characters, plus a villain that I never really understood, and the whole thing just feels like all style and no substance.
A gangster movie, essentially, is the same as a medical drama or an army film, or a revolutionary film. It’s a relationship movie with life and death stakes. You need those stakes, you need the big action sequences and the powerful death scenes. But all those deaths start to feel meaningless without a relationship at the heart of it for the audience to hang on to. I think that’s why Company works and, in a larger sense, that’s why the 90s gang war so fascinated the public. Because it wasn’t just about territory or money, it was about relationships (again, according to completely unreliable rumors).
Where Company stumbles a bit is when it tries to deal with relationships outside of that central Ajay-Vivek pairing. First, there’s Mohanlal (Hey! Mohanlal!), all by himself as the police inspector. It works, because it’s Mohanlal, but a less experienced actor and a less confident star would have found himself lost in that role. Because there is no one for him to play off of. Until the very end, he never meets the other two heroes of the film, he is just by himself staring at papers on his desk. It’s the same role as Randeep Hooda in OUATIM, and that is the weakest part of the film, him hanging out by himself being boring and trying to arrest the more interesting folks.
(Also, I hate his stupid face. Sorry-not-sorry Randeep Hooda fans)
And then there’s the romantic tracks. This must have been when RGV was in love with Antara Malik, because he gives her a really strong character. She picks Vivek, not the other way around. She is fine with him being a gangster and never plays the nagging virtuous wife. So at least the set up is good, but the rest of it is kind of weak.
Antara’s character gets kind of stupid around the same time as she gets the same haircut as Manisha Koirala’s character, who was already kind of stupid, so maybe it is just something about the hair? Manisha gets, like, two scenes on her own, most of the time she is just hanging out in the background, giving Ajay juice. And she looks really checked out. I don’t know if her character is supposed to be drugged up or depressed, or if Manisha herself was drugged up or depressed, but that is sure how she comes across onscreen. Also, so so subservient!
The women were the one place that I really felt the religious divide between the two main characters. Again, in “real life”, the religious divide is sometimes talked about as part of the reason the two men split, with Dawood of course being Muslim and Chhota Rajan being Hindu. The same religious difference is true in this film, but it is pretty lowkey in terms of the men, mostly visible in their names. But it definitely shows up with the women.
It’s kind of “in your face” in terms of dress. Antara is almost always in a sari, I think a Maharashtrian style sari at that. Manisha tends to wear Abaya-type layers, with simple embroidery, or else Western-style clothes that still cover her arms and and legs and hides her body. But while she dresses more modestly, she is also the one who isn’t married to her lover. They have a conversation early on in which she mentions that her mother wants them to be married, and Ajay offers, but she turns him down. It feels very “faithful Tawaif” in a very specific “Muslim women are more romantic, more sacrificial, less concerned with morality and higher social purposes” kind of way. Not that Hindu women can’t play the same sort of faithful girlfriend roles in gangster films, for instance Parveen Babi in Deewar, but Parveen did at least dream of marriage and motherhood, she didn’t completely kill every element of herself beyond her passionate love. There was some greater sense of social position and function and, I don’t know, Dharma? (the philosophical concept, not the Karan Johar production company)
Antara builds a home for them, even in the Hong Kong exile she has a very traditional Indian-style apartment arranged, offers tea to his friends when they visit, keeps wearing her saris. Manisha is just hovering in the background of the modern and soulless fancy apartment. Antara has a relationship not just with her husband and his friends, but with her mother-in-law and her brother. Manisha is completely absorbed into Ajay’s life, has no position in society besides being his mistress.
In a way, I resent that they are such strict stereotypes of the faithful Hindu wife and faithful Muslim mistress. But I also find them kind of fascinating as case studies. In general, the “faithful Indian woman” type is pretty consistent no matter the religion. She only loves one man, her “man” is the center of her world (as God is to him, so is he to her, and so on), she is timid and subservient until he is threatened, and then she turns into a vengeful goddess. She builds relationships out from her “man”, so him, his parents, his friends/brothers, his friends/brothers’ wives, and so on, no connection to her birth family or her pre-marriage friends. She is super sexy and permissive within marriage, but very modest and demure in public. Although she also seems to enjoy sex more for the enjoyment it gives her husband than for anything she herself gets out of it.
But then there are these tiny tiny differences between the faithful Hindu woman and the faithful Muslim woman. The faithful Muslim woman has no place in society beyond her man. No family of her own, and no place in his family either. She is overly modest in her dress, but also more westernized. And while she is modest in dress, she is more willing to live together outside of marriage than a Hindu woman. A Hindu woman is less “modest” in dress, more free to move about in the world, but also holds her position as a married woman in greater value, she would not be content with a simple outside of wedlock relationship.
(Basically, this is the conflict between Priyanka and Dips in Bajirao, the deep mystical powerful seductive connection with the Muslim woman who is willing to flaut convention to be with you, versus the religious and societally accepted and reinforced connection with the Hindu woman who believes in the restrictions of society and her place within it)
Of course, layered on top of these subtle “faithful Indian woman” and “faithful Muslim/Hindu woman” stereotypes, are the universal “women be stupid!” stereotypes, familiar from every gangster movie from The Public Enemy to The Godfather. This is mostly because gangster movies are very much in the “male” realm of fiction, as much or more so than war movies, or medical movies. Really, any time you are dealing with death, it turns into a “male” movie.
“Male”, when you are talking about media analysis, means something based on logic, solutions, plans, and actions, while “Female” means something based on emotions, relationships, intellectual development, and re-actions. Think of it as Star Trek versus Friends, if that helps. This doesn’t mean that a man can’t enjoy a “female” type of artwork, or a woman can’t enjoy a “male” type of work, they are just the two general categories these kinds of art can fall into, and the kinds of characters that usually function in them.
In a “female” kind of movie, like, say, Neerja, the male characters are usually “bad”. They are the ones doing the things that the woman has to re-act to, the ones making the plans that effect her emotions and cause issues in her relationships. In a “male” kind of movie, like Company, the female characters aren’t necessarily “bad” (although sometimes the are, for instance in Iyobinte Pusthakam, how Padmapriya’s character manipulates her husband and brother-in-law through emotions), but they tend to lead to bad things happening by the way they throw emotions into a situation that used to be ruled by logic. When Manisha and Antara stay in the background, supportive of their men, everything works fine. But then they take a hand in things, when Manisha allows her sympathies to take hold of her and goes behind Ajay’s back, and later when Antara does the same to Vivek, then there are problems. The situation is only resolved when Manisha puts the knowledge and responsibility back on Ajay. He, of course, forgives her because men are noble and merciful and women are weak and cannot be expected to improve, but he also immediately takes action to fix her mistakes.
(This is one of my favorite things about Aitraaz, that Priyanka isn’t just forgiven because she was a weak woman, she is made to answer for her actions just like a man would be)
This is also where Mohanlal comes in, as his character is positioned as more intellectual, less active, more aware of emotional currents. He is definitely a “male” character, but with a slight tinge of “female” awareness, which is what allows him to control the rest of the “male” characters, to play on Vivek’s emotions and to anticipate Ajay’s reactions. It is another familiar type from a “male” kind of action movie, the same as, for instance, Shahrukh’s character in Darr. Or Ritiesh’s in Ek Villain.
Okay, I’ve gone on for almost 3 thousand words, and I haven’t even gotten into the style factors. I loved how this movie updated the gangster flick for a new era. I saw some articles and stuff that talked about how it is almost parallel cinema, how it is a super real look at crime in India, as though this is something new for Indian film. That bothered me, because the content isn’t new at all, just how it is presented. But the presentation is so good, it really does deserve about half the accolades it has gotten.
Company is still groundbreaking, but only in how it takes those same old-fashioned plots from Awara to Deewar to Parinda and updates them in terms of style for a new age. Look at how cell phones and the transnational nature of crime are used. Look at the handheld cameras and casual blocking. Look at the lighting, the costumes, the language. That’s what is new, not the grounded criminal storyline or the way of dealing with violence.
These style changes are refreshing the filmic vocabularly for a new age. Just like Deewar was groundbreaking for having a hero in jeans and western dress, and using short powerful dialogues, and making crime into an understandable choice instead of an unforgivable sin. But just like Deewar, Company is both timeless and of it’s time.
It’s a brilliant movie, no doubt, that’s why I have so much to say about it. But Company is also very distinctively 2002 in style, in the real life references it is making (just as Deewar referenced Haji Mastaan), even in the exact meaning of it’s stars. And in the years since then, the real life references have changed in their meaning for the audience, the stars have faded or grown, and the style features that were ground breaking have become common place. Basically, everything that comes from the director is now old-fashioned. Which is why, looking at it from “the future”, RGV is the one who has come out the worst of everyone involved, yes even worse off than Vivek.
I can look at Vivek’s performance in this, and I can still appreciate it for the brilliant creation it was, for that amazing moment in time when everything just clicked for him. But I look at the direction, the script, the violence and style that RGV did so well, and all I see is Sarkar Raj, and Shiva. And I look at the chutzpah and confidence that went into making a movie like this, and I see the over-confidence and overreaching of Ram Gopal Verma ki Aag or The Attacks of 26/11. And I look at the female characters, and I can’t help thinking about poor Jiah Khan and Nishabd. If RGV had made this and Sarkar and stopped working forever, I would consider him one of my favorite directors (I love Rangeela, Daud, Mast), and one of the all time greats of Indian film. But, tragically, that’s not what happened.