Gunday is the story of Bala (Arjun Kapoor) and Bikram (Ranveer Singh) who meet as orphaned children in a refugee camp in Bangladesh circa 1971. They get involved in the illegal gun trade, but when Bala shoots and kills a camp guard who was about to sexually assault Bikram they are forced to flee by train to Calcutta. Once there, they get jobs in a cafe but are soon fired and turn to stealing and selling coal. Ten years later, the now-adult Bala and Bikram kill the bandit at the head of the black market coal trade and take over his business. They expand into other areas of the black market and become Calcutta’s biggest gangsters, using their ill-gotten gains to open schools and hospitals. But the good times are interrupted by the arrival of two people in their lives: ACP Sarkar (Irrfan Khan) brought to Calcutta to bring down Bala and Bikram’s criminal empire, and cabaret dancer Nandita (Priyanka Chopra) with whom both young men “fall in love.”
I suppose at this point I should know better than to expect a touch of realism from certain Bollywood films, particularly those produced by YRF, but I’m so tired of movies like Gunday in which the main characters are “gangsters” but are never shown engaging in actual gangsterism. We see Bala and Bikram kill the coal bandit, but only after he taunts them with their refugee status. Then we are told they expanded into other black markets, but are never shown any hint of how that was accomplished – I don’t think they did it by asking nicely – and instead all the emphasis is on their charitable works. When ACP Sarkar finally catches up with Bala and Bikram at the end of the movie they blame “the system” for letting them down and causing them to turn to a life of crime. I’m sorry, but I don’t buy it. They were horsing around at work, broke a bunch of cups, and were fired. Then, instead of trying to find another honest job, they realized that a life of crime was more lucrative and immediately turned to that. Yeah, it sucks that under capitalism we are forced to sell our labour, but don’t blame “the system” because stealing coal pays better than clearing tables – that was a choice you made.
When Bala and Bikram meet the cabaret dancer Nandita they are young men in their twenties, the most powerful gangsters in Calcutta, but neither of them has a lover, or even shows up at the opening night of a cabaret with a girl on his arm. Again, sorry, but I don’t buy it. Later, Nandita describes them as being still like boys, with innocent hearts, and while some arrested development in the area of romantic relationships could be conceivable, especially considering Bikram’s traumatic experience with the refugee camp guard, it needed to be greatly expanded on in the script in order to be believable. When Bala and Bikram “fall in love” with Nandita she confronts them and accuses them of only wanting to take turns sleeping with her. Um, yeah, they are the most powerful gangsters in the city and you are supposed to be a cabaret dancer. Not to be gross, but how realistic is it for her to confront them in that way considering her position in the underworld pecking order of Calcutta circa 1981? But Bala and Bikram swear up and down to her that their intentions are honourable, which, again – they are gangsters and therefore by definition dishonourable. I just find it hard to believe that people who have turned to crime, and have therefore willfully rejected society’s conventions, and especially in the still-pretty-free-love 1970s/early 1980s, would be so hung up on such middle-class values as monogamy… and heterosexuality.
Which brings me to my last point. As I’ve already mentioned, Bala and Bikram are supposedly Calcutta’s most powerful gangsters, but neither of them has a girlfriend. They are shown sleeping in the same bed, wearing matching outfits, and drinking out of the same cocktail with two straws. They both claim to love Nandita, but neither of them have any chemistry with her. So perhaps it’s not unreasonable to think that their feelings for her are a form of displacement for their feelings for each other. The audience in our theatre was certainly shipping it – when Bala and Bikram decide to make one last run for it at the end of the movie people cheered. Throughout the film the young men refer to their status as refugees, and the discrimination they face as a result of this status. But as the film went on “refugee” started to seem more and more like a code word for “gay.” Especially at the end, when Bala and Bikram via voice over say something along the lines of “We reached for the stars, but the world wouldn’t let us. But the world won’t always be the same, and someday there will be a place in it for people like us” (I’m paraphrasing from memory), which seemed to me like a not-very-veiled reference to the gay rights movement.
Anyway, those are my thoughts on the movie overall. Now to get a little bit more specific… Ranveer Singh overacts dreadfully, which is a shame because we know he can do better. His scenery-chewing was not so out of place in Ram Leela, but in Gunday it really grates on your nerves. Arjun Kapoor fares a little better, but I look forward to seeing him play characters that are not even slightly unhinged. Irrfan Khan is, as expected, very cool as ACP Sarkar. Priyanka Chopra looks amazing as Nandita, but as I’ve already said, has no chemistry with either Ranveer or Arjun. Gunday is apparently full of allusions to Amitabh Bachchan movies of the 1970s, which were unfortunately lost on me. However, the movie is fun to look at, kitschy and colourful, with the songs in particular standing out as perhaps the best part. There’s also a (visually) great scene that takes place during the celebration of Durga Puga – just like all gangster movies set in Mumbai have a scene that takes place during Ganesh Chaturthi. The writer and director, Ali Abbas Zafar, also wrote and directed Mere Brother Ki Dulhan, which is a movie I thought had a lot of charm. Unfortunately Gunday, his sophomore effort, doesn’t have nearly as much to recommend it.