Monday, September 3, 2012


I love self-referential Bollywood movies that allow me to pretend I’m a real insider (instead of wildly ignorant in comparison with even casual filmgoers who’ve grown up in India, which is what I am). How many Yash Raj films jokily quoting Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge did there have to be before I decided that one more was too many? A lot, that’s how many.

And what would be an improvement on lame DDLJ jokes? How about a nice little gangster noir with a smart script that really integrates the Bollywood tributes into the story? How about heroes of yesteryear and tomorrow and some terrific character actors? DONE. Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar hurtles headlong from Bimal Roy to Krishna DK and Raj Nidimoru, with stops to visit Vijay Anand and circa-1971 Amitabh on the way. If there isn’t already a version of the Kevin Bacon game featuring Dharmendra, maybe it’s time to start one.

Writer/director Sriram Raghavan shows a ton of panache and sass that works really well here to give an adrenaline boost and some humor to what is essentially a very dark story. After a dedication to filmmaker Anand and writer James Hadley Chase--my fellow American, but I don’t know his work at all--the film begins at the end, with a black-and-white scene of a busload of snickering cops followed by a shooting. (This isn't to say that we know what happens or to whom, quite.) Then we’re swept into a super-pulpy credit sequence with cheesy video effects that recall this 1970s favorite, the original Don:

A shot of a car tipping, Psycho-like, into a quarry pond yields to snapshot introductions of each member of the gang. There’s Seshadri (Dharmendra), the elder statesmen of this band of goons, whose sentimental attachment to his late wife involves listening repeatedly to a tape of her singing “Mora Gora Ang Laile”  from Bimal Roy’s lovely Bandini--a film that starred the young Dharmendra as a handsome doctor who loves Nutan (playing a woman who has committed a murder in a moment of surrealist madness) but fails to rescue her from her fatal commitment to her tubercular lover.

Zakir Hussain is probably a
perfectly nice man in real life.
There’s Shardul (Zakir Hussain), a hotheaded thug of no fixed moral code—here he’s smarter and more middle-class, but no less terrifying, than the extortionist he played so memorably in Shor in the City. There’s a quiet giant named Shiva who secretly loves the nurse caring for his senile mother (a badly cast actress with horrid old-age makeup is one of the film’s few wrong notes). There’s Prakash (the delightful Vinay Pathak), the owner of a gambling den who is far too fond of the vice he oversees.

And there’s Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh, in an assured debut). This handsome young man seems to his co-conspirators to be a nice Indian boy—he is polite and respectful to the elder gangsters in ways that are familiar from more traditional good-son roles. But Vikram isn’t a boy who has been forced by circumstance or momentary weakness into a life of crime. He has a love of flash and a married girlfriend—married, in fact, to the scary Shardul.

Vikram is sympathetic up to a point, if only because he’s polite and handsome and fond of his cat. (Can you think of another Indian film where a main character has a pet cat that isn’t just supposed to be creepy? I can’t.) But he doesn’t seem to have absorbed the moral lessons of the old Bollywood movies that his life has been steeping in—and he is too in love with himself to recognize that borrowing the name Johnny from Vijay Anand’s Johny Mera Naam (which happens to be playing on television when Vikram needs a fast nom de guerre) doesn’t mean that the bad deeds can be cast off as easily as Dev Anand’s disguises. This kind of selfishness can get a boy in trouble.

Johnny Gaddaar isn’t a whodunit, as we know very early on that Vikram is plotting to steal the other gang members’ share of a big score (instead of being satisfied with his 20% of the free money) so he can abscond to Canada with the girl. His plan is lifted wholesale from Amitabh’s 1971 Parwana, a film we see several characters watching on television. The suspense happens as one thing after another goes badly wrong with the plan, and as Vikram learns that others are onto him. First the young lover kills reluctantly to keep from being found out. But soon he’s slaughtering people in desperation, knowing (as we do) that each murder makes a bad ending for our—what, hero?—a little more likely.

In the end Vikram doesn’t seem significantly less evil than Shardul or the corrupt Inspector Kanyal (Govind Namdeo, whose ability to convey terrible thoughts with one sleepy glance must make him awfully hard to live with). Honor among thieves? No, the other gangsters have all been dispatched—so much for "Yeh Dosti." The least folly-driven and perhaps most moral character does surprise us by seeking vengeance; the cops in the bus turn around and head over to collect the body.

Even this small restoration of order doesn’t restore much—everyone is either dead or about to be packed off to jail, and while we know that the right man has died, we also know that the killer may think otherwise. As the great Nigel Tufnel so memorably said, “It's like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is none. None more black.”

Pump the music up a little louder, though, and move your body. Hey, you can dump it into a quarry, or maybe for now you can just stow it behind a couch.

1 comment:

  1. Best article yet - perfect coverage of this great film noir. "Johnny Gaddaar" is as black as "Asphalt Jungle"...