Ten Years of Kaminey: An Ode to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Love Letter To Bollywood

Bollywood

Ten Years of Kaminey: An Ode to Vishal Bhardwaj’s Love Letter To Bollywood

Illustration: Reynold Mascarenhas

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n a 2018 interview, veteran actor-writer Saurabh Shukla elaborately explained the writing process of Satya, a landmark gangster Hindi film. The universe of Satya, as Shukla went on to explain, was very consciously modeled on Goodfellas as opposed to The Godfather. These two classics explore the world of gangsters from a very distinct lens: While the protagonists in The Godfather are presented as awe-inspiring overlords, Goodfellas intermingles their lives with the everyday spaces inhabited by regular people. If the gangsters of The Godfather are venerated, then Goodfellas humanises them. Irrespective of what the many films in the gangster genre try doing, all of them can broadly be classified as being inspired by either of these two films.

Like Satya, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey feels closer to Goodfellas than to The Godfather. Avoiding a surreal depiction of his villains by not putting them on a pedestal, Bhardwaj grounds them down to the extent they feel one among us. Their lives cross the mean streets, the crowded trains, and the dark alleys of Bombay just like the rest of its inhabitants. They are inherently driven by sinister motives but are also deeply flawed, insecure, petty, and spiteful.

No one illustrates this more than Bhope Bhau (Amole Gupte), the dominant patriarch of a political party opposed to large-scale migration in Maharashtra, who instantly switches sides the moment he is offered an amount too good to refuse. In another instance, the corrupt anti-narcotics officer Lele (Hrishikesh Joshi) shoots down his loyal partner Lobo (Shiv Subramaniam) in a desperate attempt to save his own life. Each character is written with pronounced shades of grey who in their own unique way substantiates the film’s title.

Like Satya, Vishal Bhardwaj’s Kaminey feels closer to Goodfellas than to The Godfather.

UTV Motion Pictures

Kaminey predominantly revolves around Charlie and Guddu, two twin brothers (both played by Shahid Kapoor) who suffer from a minor speech disability – Charlie lisps, while Guddu stutters. Both the brothers couldn’t be any different from each other: Charlie is a small-time gangster aspiring for upward social mobility via what he describes a “shorter short cut” while Guddu’s priorities are entirely limited to securing a future with Sweety (Priyanka Chopra), the love of his life. Charlie and Guddu aren’t exactly fond of each other and have all but severed all ties but when one of them is confused for the other in a bizarre turn of events, their lives intersect again. 

Kaminey embraces the most overused Bollywood tropes as instruments of storytelling – twin brothers estranged by a moral conflict, lovers having to overcome family hurdles, a drug deal gone wrong, and too many lives inadvertently crossing each other’s paths leading to an all consuming chaos. But even then, Bhardwaj manages to make the viewing infinitely intriguing. On the surface, Kaminey might seem like rehashing a story endlessly told and retold. But what sets it apart is Bhardwaj’s eagerness to explore deep into the psyche of his villains – an eagerness that the director seamlessly transmits to the audience. 

In Kaminey, he makes his villains memorable by their behavioural idiosyncrasies. There is a hilarious sequence in which Mikhail (Chandan Roy Sanyal) and Bhope Bhau spend an entire minute of screentime pointing guns at each other while boisterously mimicking the act of shooting. Both are dangerously in the vicinity of a fatal accident but are happy to indulge each other’s performative act. The sheer wickedness of this scene is representative of the mad world Bhardwaj is wholeheartedly committed to.

But despite these multiple odes to Hindi cinema, Kaminey’s aesthetics are very much in the Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino space.

In more ways than one, Kaminey feels like Bhardwaj’s love letter to Bollywood. Every subplot in the film has been exploited to no end in mainstream Hindi films. From drug trafficking to illegal arms dealings and from fixing derbies to smuggling of precious artifacts, Kaminey touches upon all the favourite plot points quintessential to a crime thriller and the film ends with the righteous underdog triumphing against the mightier evil. In the process, Kaminey ends up paying tribute to the Vishwatmas, the Tridevs, the Agneepaths, and the Ghayals of the world.

At various points, these characters resonate with some of the most iconic Bollywood villains over the years. Mikhail has shades of a Vicky Thakral to him. Bhope partly borrows his mannerisms from Paresh Rawal’s Pinky from Daud. Lele and Lobo’s relationship has an uncanny resemblance to Pandit and Purohit from Bhardwaj’s Maqbool. Moreover, Kaminey’s use of RD Burman numbers, classic chase sequences, an endearing courtship, and an entirely chaotic climax are all representative of Bhardwaj’s love for the cinema that every filmmaker of his generation has grown up on.

But despite these multiple odes to Hindi cinema, Kaminey’s aesthetics are very much in the Guy Ritchie and Quentin Tarantino space. Dark frames, quick transitions, and a slick edit urbanise the film and allow it to carve a niche of its own. That even 10 years later, the film has amassed a cult following is only a testament to the conviction of Bhardwaj’s storytelling.

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