Hindi Film 101 One-Off: a Brief History of the Crime Film

It’s awkward ending a Hindi Film 101 series on a Tuesday!  So for this Thursday I’m going to do a quick one-off, not the history of a star or a star family, but of a genre.  Just in time to appreciate the newest iteration on the crime film in Raees! (all the Hindi Film 101 posts are visible here)

A different disclaimer than my usual one!  This is not a comprehensive overview, this doesn’t mention every important film or moment in film history.  This is just a starting point, a 101 type view of the topic.  If you have anything to add, or follow-up questions, please put it in the comments.

Hindi film began in 1913, but it had a struggling and difficult beginning because of the challenges of being an industry in a colonized country.  Not a lot of money and resources available.  And so genres and styles and so on didn’t really start flourishing until 1947.

And right at the start of that period, the crime drama began!  The early king of crime was Dev Anand.  Dev played the slick and cosmopolitan detective.  CID was one of his earliest triumphs, due more to the brilliant direction by Guru Dutt than by the acting of Dev Anand.

I know, that sounds like blasphemy, because I always believe the star is dominant over the director in authorship of the finished film.  But this is Guru Dutt!  The master of light and shadow, the pivotal artistic element of film noir (noir=black).  And also just a genius writer, came up with a great plot with characters filled with believable internal conflicts and memorable moments and so on.

(technically it was only produced by Guru Dutt, but it’s widely believed to have been ghost-directed by him)

Crime films in this era are shockingly similar to crime films in America in the same time period.  Partially because, I think, the two countries were going through similar upheaval.  Both of them and WWII vets returning home, rapid industrialization and urbanization, changing gender roles, etc. etc. etc.  And so both countries had the “film noir” genre, featuring urban landscapes, bad and good woman, a hero who travels through shadowed realms, etc. etc.


(Thank you British Film Institute for the handy graphic!)

But there were a couple of significant differences.  For one thing, while our hero may appear to have shades of grey to his character at the start, by the end of the film we usually discover he was fully moral and upright all along.  More importantly, mankind in general tends to be on the lighter end of the grey scale.  Taxi drivers, chaiwallas, strangers in the train compartment are all generally kind and considerate.  Maybe situations force them into doing wrong things, but at heart they are inherently good.  Essentially, this is film noir with an optimistic view of the future.  Which presages the later version of the Indian crime film, which is entirely optimistic.

While the crime films of the early Independence era are strikingly similar to their American counterparts, India quickly broke off and started forming it’s own kind of genre.  And this time, it was all about the star!  Dev Anand.

Dev had two brothers, Chetan and Vijay.  The three brothers formed their own studio, Navketan Films, and started cranking out brilliant mystery films featuring crazy twisty plots, colorful songs, and a casually debonair hero.  No more big social statements or dark view of the world, everything is light and bright and hopeful.  Both literally and metaphorically.  Chetan and Vijay and Dev (all three directed at one point or another) loved bright colors and clear outlines onscreen.

(escaping from the police who are trying to get your suitcase by singing a love song!)

Moving into the 60s, this is the kind of film the audience came to expect from a mystery story.  Even without Dev Anand, his brother Vijay would write and direct movies like Teesri Manzil with Shammi Kapoor had wacky rock and roll songs and a teen romance, mingled with a twisted murder mystery.  These films use the complex plot to draw in the audience and the light tone to keep them entertained.  And, since the point isn’t the family drama but rather the mystery, they also managed to throw in some really progressive ideas!  Lots of independent women, with jobs and love lives and minds of their own.

(They mooshed the opening titles onto this song, but that let’s you see all the drama of the mystery, and the light catchy love song, in one video)

And then, POW!  70s!  By the 70s, India and Bombay in particular were in a very different place.  The country had been independent for 25 years, and the promises of independence had not come through.  At the same time, thanks to restrictive laws, especially import and export laws, a criminal society had come into being, especially in Bombay with all the international shipping.

And so a new kind of crime film appeared.  This time, the criminal is the hero, not the villain.  He questions society’s rules, and if there might be a higher justice.  We watch him rise and rise through the ranks, before the final censor mandated fall.  But his death is shown not as a punishment for his sins, but as a final act of martyrdom, dying in an attempt to make society better.

The greatest of these is Deewar, of course.  Amitabh as the young boy who is literally tattooed with the sins of his father, who sacrifices his future so that his younger brother can thrive, who is driven to crime out of frustration at the corruption that keeps a working man down.  Who finally tries to move his life to a higher level, to find a better purpose, only to be driven back again and ultimately sacrificing all of his happiness so that the rest of society (his honest younger brother, his young sister-in-law, his aged mother) can move forward.

(The moment when he finally gives up on following society’s rules and starts to fight back)

Deewar is the greatest of these, but there are plenty of others.  Coolie, Kaalia, Trishul, Zanjeer, Shakti, Dostana, again and again and again those who live on the sidelines of society are ultimately more noble than those who follow the “rules”.  And then they end up as martyrs so that society as a whole can move on.  Very occasionally someone will actually live through to the end of the film, but if they do, it is only after a lot of strife and misery along the way.

(Kaalia is one of the more cheerful ones, but it still has our hero’s brother killed and our hero wrongfully imprisoned.  Also, Bob Christo!  Go to White Guy in a fight!)

That was the 70s, the era of brilliance and agony and Salim-Javed at the height of their writing powers.  And then came the 80s.  The era of Qurbani.  There were still good movies made in this decade, but the depth and misery of the 70s crime films slowly made way for something a little different.  All the agony of the 80s, but treated with the lightness of the 60s.  It was odd.

On paper, the plots were 70s style stories of separated brothers and good men driven to crime.  But instead of Amitabh, you had floppy-haired Anil Kapoor, or sincere Jackie Shroff.  And instead of Salim-Javed, you had Subhash Ghai coming up with his own stories and directing his own films featuring things like “Girl falls in love with her kidnapper, waits for him until he is released from jail, then has a huge fight scene on an island that convinces her father to agree to their engagement”.  Sure, our hero still has a tragic backstory explaining his criminal behavior, but SHE FALLS IN LOVE WITH HER KIDNAPPER!

(And the rest of the gang falls in love with her!  Stockholm syndrome is fun)

In 1988 Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak came out, and in 1989 Maine Pyar Kiya, and suddenly the crime dramas lost their place to romances.  This is also, coincidentally, the era in which crime in real life became increasingly involved in the film industry.  It had always been there, ever since the post-Independence era when blackmarket money from WWII started being laundered in film.  In the 1970s, Hajji Mastan became king of the smugglers in Bombay, and a regular at film parties.  It was his cool attitude and suits that inspired Amitabh’s character in Deewar.

(Haji on the left, Amitabh on the right)

But then in the 80s, Hajji was in jail and Bombay was run by Dawood Ibrahim and the D-Company.  They were into gun running and drugs and darker things than the 70s gangs.  They were also a lot more organized with a lot more international connections.  And they decided to take over film, just like they took over everything else.  They set up their own production companies, and terrorized the top talent into working for them.  And they tried to make sure their films were hits by any means necessary, for instance the story Karan just told in his bio about being threatened if he released Kuch Kuch Hota Hai opposite (presumably gang funded) Chote Miyan Bade Miyan.

(To see a fictionalized version of the difference between Hajji and Dawood, check out Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai)

And this is the era when suddenly crime films start to go away!  Not completely, there were still a few darker action films, like Ajay Devgn’s first big hit, Phool Aur Kaante, or Akshay Kumar’s Khiladi series.  But they didn’t have a really distinctive flavor to them, they felt more like tired rehashings of previous styles.

(For instance, Khiladi was a loose remake of the old Rishi and Neetu hit Khel Khel Main.  Campus hijinks mixed with crime drama)

And then Satya arrived!  Ram Gopal Verma’s first big crime film.  This was the first film to show gangs on a ground level.  RGV used real steetscapes and cheap costumes and slang dialogue to evoke life for the young criminal in Bombay.  And he heightened this effect by using mostly unknown actors, ones who disappeared completely into their characters and, more than that, into the narrative itself.  The effect is a sea of interconnected stories and random incidents, not the perfect clockwork narrative of Navketan films or the Greek tragedy of the 70s films.  Or the random colorful entertainment of the 80s.

RGV heightened this effect in Company, while at the same time adding style to it, color tones specific to certain scenes, odd angles, montages, using style to distance us from the characters feelings and keep the audience invested on both sides of the gangwar he is showing.  More than that, Company was an explicit recreation of real gangland events, more than had been done before.  Of course it wasn’t “officially” based on the feud between Chote Rajan and Dawood Ibrahim, but we all knew it.

(And because it is groundlevel and real, no big song sequences!  This is officially from the film, but notice the singers aren’t the characters)

Sanjay Gupta is the other important director to note, and the one who is directing Kaabil, the other important crime film that just came out!  Sanjay took Reservoir Dogs and remade it Indian style.  Each member of the heist got a backstory, there were song sequences (more than just the one in the original), and most of all there was style!  Kaante is the first Indian film to be shot entirely abroad (in LA).  Besides that, there was the way the light changed tones scene by scene, from golden to blue to green.  The loose suits, the styled hair and beards, the whole thing was just new and different and shocking.

(So sunny!  So goateed!)

The end result of this film was not that a lot of movies got filmed overseas, or that Sanjay Gupta went on to a brilliant career (there is only so far inventive light filters can take you).  But that style became a key component of crime dramas.  Hairstyles and cool camera angles and business with props suddenly became part of the expectation for crime films.

The newest string of crime dramas are period films, telling famous incidents from the real life of Bombay crime.  Mixed with stylish touches, catchy songs, “realistic” locations and costumes.  The character depth and twisted plots have gone away a little, but the style quotient has gone up.

(I love this song.  But from what I’ve read about it, I have no interest in actually seeing the movie.  It’s all about the final shootout.  Thus the title)

Raees is clearly based on Abdul Latif, even though the filmmakers deny it.  With some definite style in the filming of it, a big focus on hairstyles and costumes.  But also with the one liners (from the Salim-Javed era) and elaborate heist schemes (from Navketan Films) and bad woman dancing (from all the way back with Guru Dutt).  Along with some kind of goofy and applause inducing fight scenes from the 80s.

(We have crime films to thank for Helen!  This was her big break out song, age 15, in a twisty mystery with Ashok Kumar and stolen jewels and a missing brother)

5 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101 One-Off: a Brief History of the Crime Film

  1. I really enjoyed this genre-themed installment of Hindi Film 101. I was curious how you would deal with Thursday, since the last series had been wrapped up. Wonderful idea! I will have to watch Deewar soon. Between this and your piece the other day (which I only read a few paragraphs of, to not spoil myself) I’m chomping at the bit. Maybe tonight!

    Also, isn’t that the same “go to white guy in a fight” from Mr. India? He kind of resembles Walter White from Breaking Bad! (I just checked, it totally is)


    • I love Bob Christo. He is the go-to white guy in a fight, and Tom Alter was the go-to white guy with dialogue, and between the two of them, they pretty much filled all of Hindi cinema’s white guy needs for decades.

      And you should definitely watch Deewar whenever you get a chance. Especially now that you know the backstory for most of the lead actors! Shashi (The Good Kapoor) plays one of the heroes opposite Neetu (Rishi’s long-suffering wife). Although, hmm. I still haven’t done a 101 on Amitabh or Parveen Babi, so you don’t know about them. Parveen has an incredibly sad story in real life, just keep that in mind when you watch her character in Deewar.

      On Thu, Jan 26, 2017 at 12:32 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:



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