When Ashim Ahluwalia was asked to direct “Daddy”, a film based on the life of one of Mumbai’s most feared gangsters, he was clear about two things – it would not be a “clean-up job” and he would do it on his own terms and not the way Bollywood usually treats mobster films.
Ahluwalia’s 2012 film “Miss Lovely” was an entry at the Cannes Film Festival, but he hasn’t made any other film since then. He was at first reluctant when actor Arjun Rampal asked him to consider making a biopic on Arun Gawli, a one-time henchman of mafia boss Dawood Ibrahim who later broke away and formed his own gang. What eventually convinced him, Ahluwalia said, was that Gawli was a fascinating character and Rampal didn’t want to make a typical Indian gangster film.
“In our first chat about the film, I told him, ‘You are not going to be jumping off rooftops’. And he told me, ‘That is exactly what I want,’” Ahluwalia said in an interview.
Rampal, a former ramp model who made his Bollywood debut 15 years ago, was approached by another producer to act in the film, but was not convinced by the script. He took the idea to Ahluwalia, who doesn’t particularly subscribe to Bollywood’s ideas of how to make a movie. His “Miss Lovely”, an eloquent portrait of those that populate Mumbai’s soft-core porn industry, won accolades at Cannes and other festivals.
For long, Bollywood’s gangster movies have romanticised the criminal, portraying him as a man wronged by the system and who turns to crime reluctantly. Amitabh Bachchan made a career out of playing a gangster with a golden heart in films like “Deewaar” and “Agneepath”. Recent movies like “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai” and Shah Rukh Khan’s “Raees” have followed the same path. In Bollywood, the gangster always gets redemption before the closing credits start rolling.
“There is no redemption in my film. Yes, there is empathy, but the ending is very factual. It is not a clean-up job” he said.
Rampal and Ahluwalia approached Gawli for permission to make his biopic before shooting the movie. Gawli, who is serving a life sentence for the murder of a politician from the right-wing Shiv Sena party, was more than forthcoming, even giving them permission to include scenes where he smokes a chillum (a pipe used to smoke cannabis).
Known among his followers as “Daddy”, Gawli’s stronghold in Mumbai was the Dagdi Chawl, a colony of seven buildings that houses families in one-room tenements. His family still lives there.
An unemployed youngster during the famed Mumbai textile strike, Gawli led a bloody gang war against Dawood Ibrahim in the 1980s but was never in jail for a long time. His gang of extortionists and contract killers spread terror in and around Mumbai, but also found patronage in the Shiv Sena, which felt the police should go easy on Gawli because he was a local man, as opposed to his Muslim rivals.
In 2012, he and eleven other acquaintances were convicted in the killing of politician Kamlakar Jamsandekar. Ahluwalia says while he feels empathy for a man who was an “accidental gangster,” there is no attempt to whitewash Gawli’s crimes, including several alleged murders.
“I wanted that sense in the film, that you know him completely and yet you never know him. The film is told from the point of views of six different characters who know him, but never from his perspective. One from his mother or wife, who tells how hard it was, and you feel empathy for him. Another is at the side of a gangster who left the gang and has negative things to say about him. You can never quite put your finger on this man,” he said.
Ahluwalia and his crew recreated Gawli’s hideout, but also shot in real locations in some of Mumbai’s dodgiest areas. He shot with no bound script, often writing dialogue on set based on what the environment was like.
“Maybe you have some great dialogue written by your dialogue writer, but then on set it sounds filmy and wrong. That is why you have to have a relationship with your actors and crew. To be able to say, ‘Arjun, this is not working, man. Let’s drop it and do something else,’” he said.
The crew also shot in areas where Gawli’s biggest rivals lived, an environment that was openly hostile to them.
“I like putting people in this insanity. It is not healthy but it is very good for the movie. Taking people into really difficult locations and getting them out of their comfort zone. You are on edge there because you are getting yelled at by real gangsters or there are rats falling from the ceiling.”
Even so, the film couldn’t quite be a no-holds-barred version of Gawli and his life because of some things that “are still under legal examination.”
“I don’t want to make a movie that puts Arun Gawli at risk. He’s opened up himself to us and as filmmakers. We have to protect that without doing a whitewashing job. He’s given you all that info, it is in your hands what to do with it, and I wouldn’t want to exploit that,” he said.
“Daddy” releases in theatres in September.