Inside the Campy Cult of B-Grade Hindi Film Dacoits

Pop Culture

Inside the Campy Cult of B-Grade Hindi Film Dacoits

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

The dacoits of Bollywood – once regulars in films like Sholay (1975), Dacait (1987), Yateem (1988), and Bandit Queen (1994) – are back in Abhishek Chaubey’s Sonchiriya. Well, at least temporarily.

The last time we encountered a proper “daaku” on screen was in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s Paan Singh Tomar seven years ago. Dacoits have always been a polarising figure in Bollywood narratives. At one point they were “baaghis” (rebels) who stood against oppression of all kinds, including caste discrimination. And then they were the daakus who came in and looted villages without mercy. Yet more often than not, Bollywood reduced dacoits to lusty, villainous figures; their methods and exploits making them all the more suitable to be branded anti-heroes. Soon enough, their quirks and individuality were lost to catchphrases like “Kitne aadmi thhe?” And as Bollywood started modernising and embracing urban stories, the humble old dacoit became a pariah.

So where did these daakus five refuge when Bollywood refused to welcome them? The B-grade Hindi film industry. Horror and sleaze were already flourishing in B-grade Hindi films and dacoits became the icing on the cake. What’s fascinating is that even mainstream Bollywood actors like Dharmendra, Kiran Kumar, Shakti Kapoor and Raza Murad were seen in such films.

The obvious source of inspiration for most of these films came from one unforgettable character: Gabbar Singh. There was Ramgarh Ke Sholay (1991) – a parody of Sholay. The film’s claim to fame was having Amjad Khan reprising his role as Gabbar and terrorising Ramgarh once again. In this version, Jai and Veeru were replaced by four lookalikes of superstars Dev Anand, Amitabh Bachchan, Govinda, and Anil Kapoor who turned up to save the day. There’s also a tribute to Parinda (1989) in the film, where Gabbar Singh guns down Munna, the Anil Kapoor-lookalike while he is busy romancing the heroine.

Even Joginder Shelly – one of the doyens of the B-grade Hindi film industry – played a dreaded dacoit called Ranga in two daaku films: Bindiya Aur Bandook (1972) and Ranga Khush (1975). Ranga is completely deranged, and shoots random people to practice his aim and takes a bath every three years. And in Ranga Khush (the title of the film was inspired by a dialogue from Bindiya Aur Bandook), Ranga believes he is the stone-hearted love-child of crime and sin. Not only is he psychotic but he also exploits his abusive childhood to manipulate women and kidnap young children and turn them into monsters like him. Such was his menace that no human is able to stop him in the film until Lord Vishnu, Hanuman, Jesus Christ, Guru Nanak, and Allah come together to end his reign. Incidentally, Ranga Khush released the same year as Sholay and Shelly has often accused the makers of Sholay of taking inspiration from Ranga to create Gabbar Singh.

But the reason why I recommend seeking out these campy B-grade daakus is because of their innate ability to tweak the mainstream narrative.

Could the legendary Kanti Shah be far behind? In his film, Jung Ke Sholay (2003) – a raunchy and near perverted take on Sholay – the saviour of Ramgarh are two women. The film’s main villain – Gabbar’s daughter, Gabariya – is a woman, as well. In Jung Ke Sholay then, Putli Bai (Satnam Kaur), Munni Bai (Sapna), Thakurayain (Tripathi) and Gabariya (Sapna) fight it out as Jai and Veeru watch. In the film, Gabbar is played by Vinod Tripathi, who also essays five other roles, including that of Thakurayein, a Jailer, a cop called Inspector Khan, Gabariya’s brother Jabbar, and Gabariya’s spy in Ramgarh.

Besides its fascinating role-reversal, Jung Ke Sholay boasted of a spectacularly campy plot that could give any fan-fiction a run for its money: Gabariya is born after Gabbar rapes her mother. Once she grows up, Gabariya kills Gabbar to exact revenge for her mother’s death and then follows in her father’s footsteps by spreading her reign of terror across Ramgarh with her brother, Jabbar.

In one of the film’s most satisfyingly absurd scenes, Gabariya tweaks the famous “Kitne aadmi thhe?” to “Kitne laundiya thhe?” when her men return defeated. Shah’s homage to Sholay doesn’t just end there: In the film, Jai is a tangewala in Ramgarh and as the final showdown approaches, Gabbariya kidnaps Munni Bai and it’s Jai and Veeru who have to dance in front of her.

Shah’s filmography is littered with many more dacoit films, like Daku Ramkali (2000), Aag Ke Sholay (2001), and Gabbar Singh (2007). In fact, Sholay’s Basanti has also inspired several B-grade gems. Notable among them are Basanti Tangewali (1992), Main Hoon Basanti Tangewali (2009), Basanti Jawan Gabbar Pareshan (2015) but it is Harinam Singh’s Basanti Ki Shaadi, Honeymoon Gabbar Ka (2002), whose ridiculous theatrics are unparalleled.

At one point they were “baaghis” (rebels) who stood against oppression of all kinds, including caste discrimination.

In the film, Gabbar falls in love with a broken-hearted Basanti, who is left pining for Veeru. Basanti’s uncle disapproves of the match and relents only when Gabbar re-enacts the famous suicide scene from Sholay. The film takes a Dhadkan-esque turn when Veeru returns after Gabbar and Basanti get married and demands that she divorce Gabbar. Basanti refuses and it is her love that transforms Gabbar into an honest citizen who pleads for population control. Basanti Ki Shaadi, Honeymoon Gabbar Ka is a love story, possibly one of the few B-grade daaku films that broke the norm.

Yet unfortunately, the days of B-grade daaku films seem to be nearly over. The guns are not roaring anymore. The actors have stopped hamming. And, the B-grade industry has gone back to churning out cheap sex and horror films. One of the last great daaku film to have come out of this industry was Basanti Jawan Gabbar Pareshan (2015) and even that was a rehash of Basanti Ki Shaadi, Honeymoon Gabbar Ka.

But the reason why I recommend seeking out these campy B-grade daakus is because of their innate ability to tweak the mainstream narrative. Their outrageousness shines. How else could you imagine a daaku film where Gabbar is a lovelorn Romeo; Jai and Veeru are item girls in front of a female Gabbar; and heroines are cast in roles traditionally meant for heroes? These films may not be considered “art”, but their persistent display of creativity is audacious. And that might just make Ranga Khush.