20 Years of Gunda: Can We Finally Agree the Film is a Work of Art?

Bollywood

20 Years of Gunda: Can We Finally Agree the Film is a Work of Art?

Illustration: Akshita Monga

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n his review for Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 film, The Room, critic Scott Foundas wrote that it “prompts most of its viewers to ask for their money back”. A decade and a half later, The Disaster Artist, a film on the making of The Room, earned a nod for the Oscars and won its lead, James Franco a Golden Globe. The tide had suddenly changed: From being a film that almost everyone had ignored or had demolished, people were now inexplicably warming up to The Room’s eccentricities. And even acknowledging its appeal while fervently rewatching it – watching it with affection rather than disgust.

Closer home, a similar situation unfolded 20 years ago: India disregarded the release of one of its own oddities, Kanti Shah’s vigilante action and justice starrer Gunda. Over the years, Gunda’s over-the-top shenanigans have earned it the status of India’s The Room. Considering the appetite for excess that we now display in our popular culture, can we all agree that perhaps it’s time Gunda should also be considered a work of art?

Just like The Room, Gunda’s popularity was neither sudden nor orchestrated by its makers; instead it rose gradually, hopping along laptop screens in countless engineering colleges that dot India. When I’d watched it 10 years ago in mine, Gunda was touted as the film you couldn’t finish. I never did. Even after 20 attempts, I haven’t gotten through to the film’s end. Not because it is grating or leaves me with a bitter taste in my mouth, but because it overwhelms me with its earnestness, it’s honest-to-god belief in its ridiculousness.

Shah’s Gunda is a standard one-good-man-against-all-evil kind of film, where its hero — both through his morality and personal happenstance — closes (murders) each chapter of the evil tome he finds himself the protagonist (and victim) of. Think a poor man’s V for Vendetta.  

It’s natural to laugh at Gunda, and rarely with it. Its ludicrousness is like a handicap it cannot (and perhaps never intended to) overcome.

On one hand, Gunda should probably be classified as a poor film — a rancorously juvenile concoction of shoddy imagery that zips together the blunt edges of unimpeachable dialogue. But on the other, Shah’s faith in his own imagination and most crucially, the locus of his broad view highlight a certain kind of honesty. In an era where directors became travel agents and multiplexes chose to cater to the affluent middle-classes, that a man in Mumbai decided to make a film so abstract, so unsubtle, and so brutally on-the-nose, is evidence of heart, if nothing else.

Gunda did not rise to fame on the back of its ineptness alone. Its first 15 minutes are a perilously unsentimental montage of real goons introducing themselves with statuesque couplets — the kind of one-liners you cannot unhear. Be it Ibu Hatela announcing his lineage as “Maa meri chudail ki beti” or a version of a trans-person, Shakti Kapoor eating something called “Vitamin Sex”. In a way, Gunda’s popularity is also a nod to its originality and its unwillingness to become embedded in a culture that runs on pretence. Had Gunda tried to be the ocean that touches every shore, it would be as indistinct as each lie we tell ourselves; like the many inoffensive, milquetoast films Bollywood offers as an excuse for its offscreen indecency.

It’s natural to laugh at Gunda, and rarely with it. Its ludicrousness is like a handicap it cannot (and perhaps never intended to) overcome. But while we roar at its preposterousness, there are tiny prophecies the film echoes that go further than most people give it credit for. Gunda coined wondrous labels like “qafan-chor neta” or pearls of wisdom like “Aajkal netagiri aur dadagiri ek hi baap ke do harami aulaad hain.” Which one of us, at one point or the other, has not held a similar opinion?

Gunda also affords us a more literal translation of reality. Of course it is deeply misogynistic – the film’s villains rape women after declaring that they will. But in an age where hate-speech is a potent cannon and rape the weapon of collective masculinity, can we blame Shah’s villains for looking a lot like India’s men?

Then there’s the mysteriousness of the film’s director to contend with: Shah has never agreed to interviews; I have tried to contact him to no avail. There are stories of the Deol brothers beating him and other loose ends scattered across unverified anecdotes on the internet, but very little is known about the man himself. Perhaps, Shah is wise enough to know that it isn’t his life or his opinions that the world anticipates, but his inanity. A world that is waiting to discover just how big of a joker the man really is. After all, anything less would be misjudgement, even in an age where anything qualifies as poetry, music, and a talent worthy of fame.

At its heart, Gunda remains a joyous journey of one man’s idea of cinema and his devotion to it. As we’ve witnessed, films that are comparatively frivolous in both intent and spirit are generously heralded as blockbusters because they play safe. Unlike Gunda. Shah may have descended into oblivion since Gunda, but the film will continue to be seen as a homage to his own eccentricity and individualism. When has a work of art warranted anything else?   

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