Kolkata features as a location provider, the name of a night-club, and a playground to stage a spectacular tribute to 1970s’ cinema in Ali Abbas Zafar’s Gunday. Zafar’s second movie after Mere Brother Ki Dulhan is a retro tribute that has most of the elements of the Amitabh Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor-Vinod Khanna cinema down pat: good-hearted heroes pushed by circumstance to the wrong side of the tracks, an ultra-glamourous heroine who might lose her nerve but never her poise, a hot-on-the-trail policeman, games of loyalty and betrayal, anachronistic period details, proper introductions for key characters, spectacularly staged action, a pre-climax loo break song sequence, and a pantomime of social commentary. The characters might have been inspired by Bachchan, particularly his Deewaarand Kaala Patthar, but they don’t have a trace of the angst or anguish of his angry young man. Gunday’s muscular leads are fitter and better oiled than the heroes they are supposed to resemble, but they remain just as virtuous, apolitical and virginal. And they are boys, rather than men (the heroine’s words, not ours).
Bikram (Ranveer Singh) and Bala (Arjun Kapoor) are refugees of the Indo-Pak 1971 war who become Kolkata’s Numero Duo gangsters in the 1980s. They are not as different from each other as the screenplay would have you believe, but Bala does have one up on Bikram—he has mastered the delicate and highly prized skill of painting the eyes of Durga idols. The Kolkata setting is juiced to its limits in Gunday, but it gives the film immense flavour and a sense of place, unlike recent releases that seem to be moving from one studio lot to the next.
Buddies Bikram and Bala seek pleasure and business together, cutely own a boat with their initials on it and share a bed and a wardrobe full of open-necked shirts until trouble comes beckoning in the form of the knockout cabaret dancer Nandita (Priyanka Chopra) and wisecrack-dispensing policeman Satyajeet (Irrfan Khan), who is determined to end their racket. Khan has been billed as a “special appearance” in the credits. His screen appearances in Gunday are truly special. Just when it looks as though Bikram and Bala have crossed tolerance limits with their repeated exchange of meaningful glances, bare-chested braggadocio and clenched-teeth dialogue delivery (Kapoor, in particular, spits out his words like pieces of indigestible food), Khan slides into a scene and takes full control of it. He is the movie’s inner critic, questioning the admittedly slim motivations of the gangsters and the logic of their actions with the perfectly placed throwaway line.
Neither Singh nor Kapoor are particularly convincing as dangerous gangsters, but Chopra is wide awake to the possibilities of her Parveen Babi-esque role, and fits perfectly into the movie’s milieu. Rajat Poddar’s fashionably distressed production design and cinematographer Aseem Mishra’s flamboyant flourishes and the bright colour palette locate Gundayas a tribute to the 1970s that looks far better than the original. Cast in the same mould as Karan Malhotra’s Agneepath and Milan Luthria’s Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, Gunday moves at a satisfying clip from the beginning to the end. It’s formula food for the present day, spiced with flamboyance, a fair sense of rhythm that occasionally slackens during the 153-minute running time, and a clear understanding of the meaning of popular entertainment, Hindi movie style.
If this means setting a film in a city with a complex political history but choosing to showcase landmarks and religious festivities over industrial unrest and its Communist past and using the colour red purely for effect, so be it. This is a movie about carefree young men for the multiplex going unangry youth, for whom a strike has more to do with baseball than labour.
Gunday released in theatres on Friday.