Friday Classics: Once Upon a Time in Mumbaii, the 70s Meets the 90s

Such a good movie!  And such an interesting movie, a challenging movie, because it deals with the birth of a monster and how society was culpable in his birth, without also forgiving him for what he did or pretending he is less than what he was.

Back in the 70s, crime movies weren’t really crime movies.  They were allegories for social ills, mythic, larger than life, ways of grappling with every issue in the country.  And this movie is a throwback to that, it’s not a movie about “gangsters”, it’s a movie about good and evil and tragic choices.

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Maybe we can’t believe in these kind of heroes in India today, maybe that’s why it had to be set in the past.  Ajay Devgan played a similar role just a few years earlier in Company, but that was in the 2000s, his gangster was memorable and fascinating to watch, but he was no hero.  And, on the flipside, because there are no heroes there are also no villains today.  Emraan Hashmi in this plays a version of the same sort of role he usually plays, soft-spoken and odd and a little obsessive.  But in this his odd behavior isn’t that of a “bad boy” but of an actual villain, someone who we believe to be truly evil versus Ajay’s true good.

And the love stories, the fights, even the songs, they aren’t the restrained half-ashamed watered down version we get today.  They are true love at first sight, epic moments, live and die for each other kind of romances.  And the fights are the wide shot one man versus a dozen kind of fights, not today’s fast moving quick cut ones that seem over before they start.  The songs are big swooping music, passionate lyrics, and beautiful people in beautiful clothes.

There’s a meta level to this too.  Ajay’s 70s style hero, the one who only talks in punchlines and dominates any room he enters, is set in conflict to Emraan’s 90s style hero, the one with the cool clothes and young love story and way of sort of sliding into the room.  That’s what this film is about, under the surface, how the Bombay of the 1970s died and the Bombay of the 90s was born, and what a tragedy that was.

 

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For the real life background, Hajji Mastan was one of the old gangsters in post-Independence Bombay.  He was Muslim, he was a refugee from Madras, he was the king of smugglers.  And he was a friend to the film industry, appearing here and there at industry events, and used as a partial model for Amitabh’s character in Deewar.  Back then, gangsters almost seemed like gentleman.  The import laws were so extreme that you could become a king of crime and extremely wealthy just by bringing in transistor radios and gold ingots.  Hajji was arrested in the 80s, peacefully stayed in jail, was released, and married his starlet girlfriend and lived out the rest of his life in modest retirement.

After his arrest, there was a power vacuum in Bombay, in which rose up the D-Company.  Dawood Ibrahim, the head, was the son of a police constable from the Muslim neighborhood, he knew Hajji before his arrest.  After his arrest, Dawood’s gang grew more and more powerful.  Unlike Hajji and the gentleman gangsters of the 70s, Dawood’s group kidnapped, threatened, and killed without compunction.  It was a dark time, that just got darker in 1993 when they set off a series of bombs in Bombay, Dawood went on the run, a gangwar started between him and his lieutenant Choti Rajan which brought even more violence into the city.

That is what this film is about, the fall of Hajji and the rise of Dawood.  And how the state was complicit in it.  The details are changed, to give us a stronger story line and clearer message, but that’s what it is about and everyone knows it.

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This gives the filmmakers a strange challenge, they have to make the young Emraan an interesting character that we enjoy watching, but at the same time they can’t look away from what he would grow up to become.  And they have to cast someone in the role of Hajji who accurately gives that feeling of a deep and misunderstood man, someone Amitabh could play onscreen (there is even a clever little meta comment when it is suggested the “new actor” should maybe be in a movie about him).  Luckily, Ajay Devgan and Emraan Hashmi were more than up to the challenge.

Ajay embraces his power in this film, it’s a role perhaps only he could play, someone who can just sit there and dominate the room, who isn’t embarrassed to fall passionately in love, and isn’t afraid in a meeting with top gang leaders.  Who is never really afraid, or unsure, who just keeps moving forward calmly.  It’s a difficult role in that you need a full commitment to it, you need to truly believe in what you are doing and what you are saying.  But beyond that, it is very straightforward.  There aren’t layers within layers, every scene is exactly what it appears.

Which is what makes Emraan such a disturbing foil.  His character is all about layers.  You never feel fully sure of what he is feeling, of what he wants.  Maybe he isn’t even sure, minute to minute.  He spends most of the film seeming almost human but not quite, like he knows the emotions he is supposed to have but isn’t sure how he is supposed to have them.  It’s a perfect picture of a sociopath.

If the characters weren’t such perfect contrasts, the film would feel very oddly structured.  We spend most of our time watching the two of them individually, with minimal points of overlap.  But since they are the opposing force, one to the other, it doesn’t feel like two separate tracks, when watching Ajay you can’t help but compare him to Emraan and vice versa.

And then of course there is the opening.  Which trusts the audience to put together a lot of the things the film can’t say straight out.  We open to reports of bomb blasts on the radio.  Followed by police officers looking for their captain.  Who they eventually find in a car that went off into the ocean.  They rescue him, it seems like this is part of the attacks, and then it is revealed that he tried to kill himself.  He goes for a debrief with his commanding officer and explains it is because it is all his fault, what is happening to the city now, he started it.

What the film wants to say but can’t say explicitly is that it is 1993 and Dawood has just set off the bomb blasts.  They trust the audience to put it together, the connection between the sociopathic young man who takes down the towering ethical leader and the bomb blasts years later.  We know where all of this is going to end, and it keeps our attention on Emraan, on how he is going to replace Ajay and lead the city into darkness.

What the film does that is really interesting to me, and a bit different, is make a police officer a fool.  In the traditional 1970s film, we have our noble gangster and our noble cop set against each other, and eventually the noble cop takes down the noble gangster, or the gangster lets himself be taken down, for the sake of the general good.  But in this film, police officer Randeep Hooda thinks it is about him and Ajay, thinks he is doing the right thing and saving the city, but doesn’t realize it is really about Emraan, the man he sees as merely a pawn.  There is no good versus evil zero sum game, it is a matter of creating a void in the city that allows a new kind of evil to fill it.  And it is a matter of criminals who don’t always announce their intentions and personality the moment they walk into the room.

From Randeep’s side of things, he sees a young man, son of a police constable, a minor cog in the gang.  He works on him and builds a bond and watches him and helps him out a little in hopes of eventually turning him to help bring down Ajay.  It is only at the very end that he sees he has lost control of the situation, he let this young man grow in power and escape punishment and now he has turned into a monster.  That is his responsibility, 20 years later, that he allowed Emraan to exist thinking he would be his monster, not realizing he would never belong to anyone else.

From Ajay’s side of things, he didn’t think about Emraan enough.  Here was a young man from his neighborhood who needed help, needed direction.  And who had a police constable father that might be useful.  He helped him set up a small store, than let him into his gang.  He trusted him to do the dirty nasty jobs he needed done, gave him increasingly larger responsibilities, until Emraan went to far and broke the rules, started selling drugs while Ajay was out of town, and then Ajay snapped him back into line.  He thought.  He never fully realized just how little he knew Emraan, how little he could predict what he really thought.  And that was his tragedy, he thought he could trust what Emraan was on the surface, an eager hero-worshipping young man, didn’t realize that the hero-worship was empty, was just another pretend of being human.

In most films the villain is impressive so that the hero can look good when he takes him down.  In this film, it is the opposite.  Ajay is impressive and noble and so on, but only so that we can truly feel the weight of Emraan’s evil when he kills him.  It is Emraan that the film will always end with, it is the story of his rise, and if that feels wrong and different, well, it is what the filmmakers wanted.  This is the story of a real person, a real truly evil person, and to white wash that and make Emraan into just a sad little boy who wants love would be disrespectful to his victims.  So they embraced the challenge and made Emraan a particular kind of evil.

The love stories in this, they are far more than just the romantic tracks, they are what lets us see how our two heroes really think and feel.  Ajay is noble, straight through.  He is in love with an actress, but rather than uses his power to pressure her, he goes to her like a courtier and offers her gifts.  He waits patiently for weeks for her to appear at their meeting place.  He invites her to his house, but just wants to talk and spend time with her.  This is a woman everyone else dismisses, “just” an actress, who mentions the pressure put on her to serve the men around her in order to get where she has gotten.  But Ajay treats her with reverence and love.  And it isn’t just for show either, when she gets sick he decides to marry her, take care of her, and turn his back on his whole life in order to go respectable.

And then there’s Emraan.  His love story is all about control and pleasing himself.  We don’t see him wooing Prachi Desai, we just see them when the relationship is established, she is his girlfriend and he has certain ideas of what that should mean.  It’s not as simple as physical violence or even forcing physical affection.  It’s the dynamic of the relationship that he wants to control.  He wants a girlfriend who is in love with him, who he can spend time with and obsess over the way other men do.  He gets her gifts, he waits for her to kiss him not the other way around, he does everything he is supposed to do.  But it doesn’t feel like he means it somehow, it feels like he is trying to do everything he is supposed to do because that is what he is supposed to do.  And like he is unhappy and unaccepting every time she changes the script, doesn’t do what he think is “supposed” to happen.  It begins as a neighborhood love story, he wants her to sneak out of his job and meet him in secret and go to the movies and so on.  But once he starts to climb up the ranks of the gang, then he has an idea she should be his gangster’s moll, he won’t marry her any more because Ajay isn’t married, instead he puts her up in a room he rents and tries to make her appreciate all he has given her.  And poor Prachi just goes along for the ride, trying to follow his whims and understand what he wants from her.

Most people in Emraan’s life are just along for the ride.  The ones who know him well that is.  Ajay and Randeep both underestimate him, but Prachi and his old friends and his father are terrified of him.  Because he is a man with no limits.  The first time we see him, he is being arrested on a train platform, a little boy.  He should be terrified, but instead he hardly seems to react.  Later he robs a house, not by sneaking in in the dead of night or anything like that, but by tricking them into opening the door and then bursting in and taking everything through violence.  Another man would have been afraid of the people, reluctant to risk hurting someone, Emraan just saw it as the straightest way to get in and get what he wanted.  In Emraan’s little world, he is the king.  It’s just too bad that Ajay and Randeep don’t bother to get into that world, Ajay has grown beyond his neighborhood and just rides in and out again.  Randeep lives in his police station and doesn’t think beyond it.

Ajay and Randeep, they were the two men who could have stopped Emraan.  But they were both distracted, thinking about bigger things, and so they let him flourish.  Ajay’s girlfriend was dying, he went to Delhi to force his way into politics, came back planning to run for office and change his life and the lives of his followers.  And meanwhile Emraan took more and more control of the city, grew in power, began to see himself as another Ajay.  And therefore wasn’t ready to accept it when Ajay came back and took that all away from him, lashed out.  Randeep, he was thinking about Ajay, how to trick him and how to catch him.  He wasn’t thinking about Emraan, about what else might be growing in the city while the police focused on Ajay.

We don’t see the rest of it, we just see the moment Emraan kills Ajay.  We don’t see him inevitably turning on the follow Don who gave him the gun, we don’t see him solidifying his power, but we don’t have to.  We know he is a man who will stop at nothing, who can be stopped by nothing.  Once that first line was crossed, once he took out the man who used to control him, it was inevitable he wouldn’t stop again until he ruled the whole city.  And then destroyed it.

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6 thoughts on “Friday Classics: Once Upon a Time in Mumbaii, the 70s Meets the 90s

    • Glad you like it! It was an odd experience watching the film the first time when I just knew the general outlines. The darkness in Emraan’s character was so distinctive, and his triumph in the end so depressing, if I were writing the film I wouldn’t have done it that way. And then I looked up the real people and did more research, and discovered it ended that way because that’s how it ended in real life, and Emraan was like that because that’s how Dawood was in real life, all about appearances over reality.

      On Fri, Oct 12, 2018 at 9:13 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  1. It’s no wonder that the average cinegoer suspected an Ajay Kangana affair during this movie. Kangana is especially lovely in this, in fact, has never looked better. Ajay does a great job of acting lovesick. And their chemistry is palpable. After seeing this, I would ship them in an alternate universe (don’t wanna break up kajols family in this universe).

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    • They have a really interesting conflict of performance styles. Kangana sometimes feels a little sort of careful and shy onscreen to me. While Ajay never does, sort of takes the camera and forces it on him. Which is perfect for their characters, Kangana as the movie star who never feels happy, and Ajay as the gangster who is always confident. And it makes them a great romance, Ajay giving her the security and strength she always wanted, and her giving him the fragile thing to take care of.

      On Sat, Oct 13, 2018 at 9:57 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • It felt like they softened each other, bringing that sense of calm that you notice in ppl deeply and securely in love. Which is why for me it felt palpable.

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        • Yes! He became less intense, she became less brittle. Bhardwaj tried for something similar in Rangoon with Kangana and Shahid, and it didn’t work.

          On Sat, Oct 13, 2018 at 1:30 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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