This is far from the formulaic production most would expect, argues Cannes selected director about his first big budget Hindi film…
LIGHT and dark, good and evil, glossy and grimy, arthouse director Ashim Ahluwalia has made a Bollywood film, ‘Daddy’, which is very likely to be a cut above your average masala popcorn fix (if that is your thing).
He stresses he hasn’t caved to the system or Bollywood as an all-consuming genre.
Speaking from Mumbai, he told www.asianculturevulture.com: “It was the opportunity to make a film about a character like Al Capone in Mumbai and cover a 40-year journey.”
Arun Gawli is the gangster in question in ‘Daddy’, which released worldwide yesterday (September 8).
‘Daddy’ charts the rise of Gawli, and the role is reprised by Bollywood star Arjun Rampal. Gawli isn’t as well-known internationally as one of his major rivals – Dawood Ibrahim – with whom he fought a vicious turf war in the late 1980s and early to mid-1990s for control of the Mumbai underworld, but his subsequent entry into politics and his local roots made him something of a regional folk hero, whose world only finally came crashing down in 2012, when he was jailed for murder.
Though it is Ahluwalia’s Bollywood debut film, he is no newcomer – he is well-known in certain circles, most noticeably among those who regard cinema as an art form, not simply as a machine with which to churn cash.
His last fictional feature film ‘Miss Lovely’ premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 (in the prestigious Un Certain Regard section) and was much acclaimed for its raw depiction of two brothers immersed in Mumbai’s underworld film community – making horror and soft porn in the 1970s.
Ahluwalia slammed Bollywood in Cannes, when confronted by those who wanted to know when was he going to make a commercial (ie Bollywood) film.
Now five years on, he is making ‘Daddy’ with Rampal, and it looks at least on the surface, like a Bollywood film and that he may have softened his stance for this opportunity. But no, he is not one to play that game.
“It was Arjun who got in touch with me,” explained Ahluwalia. “I had never seen any of his films but he had seen ‘Miss Lovely’ and had liked it.”
Ahluwalia had complete licence to do what he wanted as the director, and that in Bollywood, as in any studio type of environment, was a rare thing.
“It had to be on my terms,” Ahluwalia continued. “Everything in Bollywood is so regimented. Arjun said I could make it the way I wanted and he would protect it.”
And he did – for the first 30 minutes or so, Rampal, the star of this biopic is barely seen.
“That is quite unusual with a star like Arjun but he was very cool about it.”
Ahluwalia has focused a lot on the atmosphere – dark and grimy – and has played with the form(ula) of successful Bollywood films.
“It is not glossy, I wanted to make this film with integrity, and something that would be accessible to both the cinephile and the person on the streets. That was challenging.
“And I looked back to the films of my childhood like ‘Disco Dancer’ (1982) and the films of the young Amitabh Bachchan in the Angry Young Man roles. There are references – it’s a sort of masala cool.”
He said that from a western perspective he was also inspired by the Brian De Palma films of Hollywood in 1970s.
“Daddy’s got a bit of edge and there’s a film crime aesthetic. It’s grimy,” confirmed Ahluwalia.
Rampal has said he was inspired to make it because of the global success Netflix’s ‘Narcos’ about the life of South American drugs baron Pablo Escobar and that the series is very popular in India.
Rampal also saw parallels between the two crime lynchpins.
Gawli enjoyed good relations with one of the city’s major power brokers, the late Bal Thackeray who controlled Shiv Sena, a political party, with a fiercely nationalistic and Hindu outlook – which primarily promotes regional Marathi hegemony.
Gawli, however, fell out with Thackeray after a bloody incident in which several of the political chiefs’ own men were murdered.
He set up his own party and was elected to the local assembly in 2004 but after switching to a regionally strong Congress outfit lost his seat and was convicted of a Shiv Sena chief’s murder in 2012.
www.asianculturevulture.com has not seen ‘Daddy’ but at the centre of Gawli’s life is the struggle to be the top crime don and supress Dawood’s ambition in the same direction.
Ahluwalia said his film did have something to say about contemporary India, its violence and criminality and the connections of both to politics.
On Tuesday (September 5), Gauri Lankesh, a prominent journalist and critic of both the ruling BJP and Congress (regionally) was shot dead in her Bangalore home.
“Whenever Gawli has been asked, ‘who are the biggest gangsters?’ He says ‘the politicians’. ‘They decided they didn’t need us – they could just do it themselves’,” Ahluwalia revealed.
Of his next two projects, ‘The Boyfriend‘ will be shot in India and is an adaptation of a gay novel which sparked controversy in the country – and it will allow him to examine modern India, while his other project is a sci-fi feature and will be shot in Europe and is in English. Both are international projects with non-Indian finance.
‘Daddy’ is out now worldwide…
*‘Daddy’ will screen in more than 1,000 screens across North America after US-based South Asian conglomerate 8K Miles Media Group tied up an exclusive distribution deal with Rampal. ‘Daddy’ can be seen in many cities across the US and Canada, as well here in the UK, the Middle East and Australia. It is distributed by B4U in the UK.
Prashant Shah, president 8K Miles Media Group, said: “We believe that Bollywood film ‘Daddy’ has great potential to achieve major success in the North American box office, due to both the subject matter and the popularity of the biopic genre.”