Not sure why I suddenly felt like writing about this film, but I did, so you will have to put up with it. And it is a really really good film. An odd film, not as easy a sell as Bhardwaj’s Shakespeare trilogy, but brilliant if you give it a chance. Plus, it’s Ganesh Chaturpathi, and this is a nice Bombay themed film for that.
Kaminey came out back when I was the poorest I’ve ever been in my life (so far). I walked everywhere because I couldn’t afford the $2 for the bus, I was the master of the McDonald’s dollar menu, and any purchase over 99 cents required deep thought. I held out as long as possible, but sometime after I gave up food, I had to give up movies. So there was no way I was going to be able to see Kaminey in theaters, or probably ever, unless I asked for the DVD for Christmas.
But then my sister, the rich grad student with all her luxurious bus passes and disposable $5 for fun every week, saw Kaminey. And she was so blown away by it that she offered to cover the cost of my ticket, and the bus ride to the theater, because I had to see this movie. And she was right! I did have to see it!
Kaminey is a brilliant brilliant film. It’s the lost and found brother story from the 1970s, complete with gangsters and spunky love interests and almost no songs (as is traditional for the 70s action movies). But most important, it gets at the heart of the story. It’s not about crazy costumes and plots and over the top action. It’s about two brothers who have lost each other. Not just physically, but emotionally, two people who were together at one point, closer than close, and now are lost, separated, each with their own problems and feeling like they have to solve them alone.
And the end of the film is finding each other again. Finding each other physically, but more than that, finding that commitment and love again, finding that sense of them against the world.
Plus, Bhardwaj hid a crazy strong anti-Shiv Sena message somewhere in there and I kind of can’t believe he got the film out without anyone noticing. Which is also very 70s, all of those Emergency references without saying the real words.
Mostly it’s about Shahid. This came out during that magical time when it looked like he was going to be the next big thing. After years of being just sort of around, with a tiny dedicated group of fans and most people just kind of knowing his name and face, suddenly he hit it big. Jab We Met, Vivah, and then this. He did a good job in the other two movies, one of those kind of performances that is so good you don’t notice it. But this role, there was no way not to notice this.
It’s a double role, which has an inherent difficulty built in. And Bhardwaj added on top of it the speech impediment, one brother who stutters and the other who lisps. And not only did Shahid pull off both characters, he pulled them off brilliantly. Each individual performance would have been breathtaking, the “good” brother who is worn down with the weight of being “good”, and the “bad” brother who is worn down with the weight of being “bad”, but he somehow managed to dig deep inside himself and find both.
Shahid’s performance has to be good, because otherwise this movie is nothing. It’s odd, it’s got comic roles and a complicated plot and one very catchy club song and another very catchy song about HIV. Without Shahid in the center, this would turn into some kind of odd art experiment thing. With Shahid, it is a deeply touching story of two lost brothers trying to find their way back to each other.
And that’s even though all the other actors are fabulous too. This is the film that really made Amol Gupte get noticed. He is the stand out (and his delivery is a big part of the reason the political stuff lands so lightly), but everyone else is equally good. Including the two love interests, Chandan Roy Sanyal for “bad” Shahid and Priyanka for “good” Shahid. There is the love between the two brothers, but we can also see how that is torn by the love they have found in the years since their separation, how these new relationships threaten the old one. But, ultimately, strengthen it. They have changed into stronger richer people after their separation, and so when they choose to reunite, they come together with a greater sense of who they are individually and why they need each other.
This movie just has so much heart. That’s why I gave Bhardwaj such a hard time for Rangoon. Rangoon was another genre experiment, like this one, but in this one he kept his eye firmly on what mattered, the characters and the message. Whereas in Rangoon he somehow got lost in the superficials and forgot the point of it all.
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“When my father came, it was called ‘Bombay'”. That’s the line. That’s the line that this whole movie is built around. Well, that and another line earlier, “It has taken us 15 years to get them to forget what we did” (said in 2009 by our hardcore Maharashtrian-first character).
And there are 3 moments that this whole film revolves on, the 3 times the brothers are together. First, when “bad” Shahid and “good” Shahid come face to face in the middle of an elaborate hostage exchange, and “good” Shahid hits his brother from behind. Second, when “bad” Shahid and “good” Shahid meet to exchange again and “bad” Shahid finds himself unable to shoot his “good” brother. Leaving “good” Shahid to walk away with the prize. And third, at the very end, when “bad” Shahid runs back into danger searching for his sister-in-law Priyanka to save her for his brother.
You need the combination, the actual real life struggle that this film is built on, and the strong character moments that keep us watching it. If it was just a film about two brothers, it would feel too shallow. And if it was just a film built so that Bhardwaj could hide a Shiv Sena message in it, it would feel, well, like Toilet: Ek Prem Katha.
And the two parts are together right there all along. We get the backstory in little flashes through out, and we meet the characters in similar ways, but it all comes together to that “When my father arrived, it was called Bombay” line. Two brothers who grew up in the railways, a father who stole out of desperation and died in jail before they could raise the money to save him. One brother who left after that and found a new home in a Bengali gang. And the other brother who worked hard and went to college and fell in love with the daughter of a Maharashtrian community leader. The message of Bombay immigrants is right there from the start, the recurring image of the trains arriving in town, the gang that is aggressively Bengali, and the Bombay-boy-made-good in college who still isn’t considered “really” from Bombay by his girlfriend’s family. Despite growing up there, going to college there, and even volunteering his time with an NGO fighting HIV there.
Deewar, the classic Bombay-brothers movie, it spent a lot of time dealing with how the brothers fell apart, all the forces that separated them (union breaking, abuse of migrant workers, criminal bosses, the State). But this film, because it is Bhardwaj, goes for more of the broad strokes to fill it in. We see that when their father is arrested, one son stays at the prison, while the other runs out and gambles to raise the money. It’s their personalities, one son tries to follow the set path and do the right thing, the other gambles and wins.
The pressures of society don’t drive them apart, but they make it harder for them to come back together. “Bad” Shahid is in love with his gangster lifestyle and gangster gang and a little bit with his gangster best friend/wild youngest brother of the gang bosses Chandan Roy Sanyal. He gets caught in a trap when he tries to raise above that, finds a random guitar case full of drugs and thinks this will make him rich and set him up for life. Unaware that two corrupt cops are searching for the drugs (the State is preventing him from moving forward).
(I’m not crazy, these two guys kind of look like they are in love with each other, right?)
Meanwhile, “good” Shahid learns that his girlfriend is pregnant. And she is the younger sister of not-Bal-Thackaray. Which means her family will be very very angry about her marrying an nobody from a non-Marathi family. The forces of the politics and communalism are preventing them from moving forward.
The two brothers get mistaken for each other (naturally), and in the end “good” Shahid and Priyanka are part of a hostage exchange for “bad” Shahid’s drugs. That’s the first time the two brothers are in the same place, and “good” Shahid attacks his brother.
Over and over again, the “good” brother is in fact worse at being a brother. This movie is about twins, it is never explicitly said who is older, but we know who is older. The “bad” brother is always older in these movies. Because he has to carry the weight, to protect the younger one from the world. Sure, “good” Shahid is going to school and wants to marry his girlfriend (well, is reluctantly willing to marry his girlfriend). But when it comes to sacrificing his dream for others, he isn’t willing. That moment when “good” Shahid hits his own brother is shocking. And later confronts him with the reality that he could never really hurt him, that “good” Shahid can walk out of there with the drugs to save his girlfriend and “bad” Shahid won’t be able to stop it, that’s equally shocking. But not surprising. It’s Karna, you know? The oldest brother is looked down on and “bad” by the rules of society, but at heart he is trying to do the right thing more than the “good” younger brothers.
See, this is what I mean! We have this amazing brother relationship that is both old (Karna, Deewar) and new (twins, the Fellini-like filming style). And that is what draws you in and breaks your heart. And woven in and out of that is what Bhardwaj really wanted to say, the message that isn’t just a piece of propaganda or telling us something we already knew, but which is taking a stand for these characters, and the millions of people in real life who are like them.
(and no, I am not going to get more explicit about what that message is because I am already getting SO MANY hate comments and I don’t want any more. So I am going to follow Bhardwaj’s example and put it in there for the people who are looking for it, but keep it invisible if you don’t know how to look)