Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy leaves you with a hunger to ravenously read up on the real story of the controversial figure on which it’s based. It has you eagerly wanting to separate fact from fiction and find out more about the divisive personality.
Where Daddy soars is in Ahluwalia’s distinct visual style and knack for rich detailing as he once again rekindles the magic he did in his debut feature, Miss Lovely. Be it production design, costume or triumphant casting, he again marvellously recreates the setting and texture of 80’s Bombay and brings to life the seedy underbelly of the city in a way few filmmakers previously have. This is finely complemented by Jessica Lee Gange and Pankaj Kumar’s taut camera work, undoubtedly one of the film’s most salient features, which accentuates the seamy claustrophobia and vibrancy of the Bombay’s iconic chawls.
The film is powered by the driving force that is Arjun Rampal who serves as both lead and producer. As real life gangster Arun Gawli, Rampal offers what is undoubtedly one of his career’s most memorable and commanding performances. And yet the real test of Daddy was always going to be in Ahluwalia’s ability to construct an engaging narrative which is where he fell short in Miss Lovely. On that front, while Daddy isn’t always the most even or engrossing affair, particularly in its first half, you find yourself increasingly drawn in as it goes on and leaves you with much to ponder.
Here Ahluwalia is committed to his subject matter and far more interested in telling an honest story rather than pandering to an audience by taking sweeping cinematic liberties that other filmmakers no doubt would have. In his approach, he’s looking to flesh out the truth of the central figure rather than opt for a popcorn gangster flick. To that end, those expecting a traditional swaggered up, action-packed, shoot em up style gangster film will likely be left disappointed. That’s not to say the film doesn’t pack a punch, as it offers heavy helpings of violence and a number of well-executed shootout sequences. One featuring Gawli and co shooting up a lift as it descends floor by floor was particularly riveting and impressive.
The film builds an image of controversial gangster-turned-politician Arun Gawli through offering a number of differing accounts from various people in his life. The story follows police Inspector Vijaykar’s (a near unrecognisable Nishikant Kamat – I actually jumped when I saw his name in the end credits) final crusade to convict Gawli before he runs for elected office. In an effort to reopen all of Gawli’s previous cases, Vijaykar revisits his close family and associates and have them narrate various parts of Gawli’s life from his initial rise to power, his years in prison to finally entering politics. These accounts are almost like puzzle pieces for us to put together and form an understanding of the man, they tell us of Gawli the gangster, Gawli the husband, Gawli the humanitarian and Gawli the victim. But these various accounts don’t build him up to be as much of an enigma as you might expect as the narrations of Gawli’s life aren’t as contradictory and Roshomon-like as one might think. Instead, they shed light on him from a number of different perspectives.
The film’s first half is something of a slow burner and not always easy to stay with. This portion covers the narration of Gawli’s mother and wife and weave a tale of a reluctant gangster, a victim of circumstance who is forcibly dragged into a life of crime by outside forces such as his friends and the police. This narration of his character is particularly fascinating, as it paints the portrait of a man who doesn’t naturally take to violence and bloodshed and is almost averse to it, but one who is equally unafraid to kill and do what needs to be done when required.
The second half examining Gawli at the peak of his power, his jail term and shift to politics, is comparatively far more action-packed and enticing as it covers a lot more of his life and offers the perspective of Gawli the blood thirsty, ambitious gangster. It is also particularly interesting that Inspector Vijaykar, the very man uncovering Gawli’s past and directing these people to talk about his life, is himself an integral part and instigator of sorts to Gawli’s story.
Daddy leaves you with some profound questions about justice and law enforcement. While Gawli has an undeniably criminal past, the film paints the police and their troubling practises as a direct catalyst to his rise to power. Later, when he tries to turn over a new leaf, the police are willing to go to any lengths to convict or even kill him. As to the big question of whether the film sympathises with him, it’s not an easy one to answer. While it certainly doesn’t glorify him and never shies away from showing his crimes, it does paint a picture of a kind of victim who is forced to lead the life he does and isn’t allowed to repent and move from it.
By way of performances, Aishwarya Rajesh makes a commendable mark as Gawli’s wife Asha and also bears a strong resemblance to the real Asha. When I saw the images of the real Arun and Asha Gawli at the end, I couldn’t help but marvel at the resemblance and realised just how spot on the casting of both husband and wife was). Equally impressive are the other two members of the BRA gang, Anand Ingale as Babu Reshim and Rajesh Shringarrpure as Rama. And yet, one of the strongest performances comes from Nishikant Kamat who is in fine form as Gawli’s nemesis Inspector Vijaykar and completely makes up for past indiscretions ala Rocky Handsome. However, among the otherwise great casting and flurry of fine actors, the one spanner in the works is Farhan Akhtar in a fully-fledged supporting role as rival don Maqsood. Akhtar fails to have any sort of impact and sticks out like something of a sore thumb, failing to come across as authentic as his surroundings.
In the end, Daddy may not be for everyone given it makes no attempt to romanticise a life of crime. But it’s a well-told story that excels in its detailing and one of the strongest films of the year, I’m going with four stars.