By Kartik Iyer
“With seminal classics like Taxi Driver, it’s easy to just think of a world where they always existed and were always destined to exist. But that’s not how a hot potato screenplay like Taxi Driver gets produced by a major Hollywood studio. The truth is if you revere Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (like I do), then you have Michael Winner’s Death Wish to thank for its existence”, writes Quentin Tarantino in his superb book of essays Cinema Speculation.
Death Wish is one of many films that were released a year before Taxi Driver did. The year was 1975. In that one year, a slew of films released that had one thing in common: a hero that is pushed too far by the environment. Tarantino recalls, “William Margold, first-string film critic for the sex rag the Hollywood Press, dubbed the genre (amusingly) ‘Revengeamatics’”. And that is what you got from those movies. Full revelation: I haven’t watched most of these revengeamatics. But no sooner had I read these lines that Rajkumar Santoshi’s Ghayal popped into my head. A more artsy connection is Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya. Om Puri is a devout cop who sees the corruption in the city and gets pushed too far. There is Smita Patil in the role of his romantic interest and Sadashiv Amrapurkar as the crime boss. At the end of Ardh Satya, Puri walks into Amrapurkar’s den and brings down the corruption.
Rajkumar Santoshi was Nihalani’s assistant director on the film; and later, on Party too. Santoshi credits his cinematic education to Nihalani, to the extent that his latest movie, Gandhi Godse: Ek Vicharon Ka Yudh, carries a ‘thank you’ note dedicated to Nihalani in the beginning. Now what do revengeamatics, Taxi Driver, Ardh Satya and Ghayal have in common? The man who has had it! Is there a stronger name than Sunny Deol in Bollywood who stands for the man who has had it? No.
Deol debuted in the early 1980s. He starred in several movies that ran on the machismo of the lead actor, something Mr. Bachchan was dishing out with reducing appeal. But Deol was fresh. He had anger written on his face (and he is Dharmendra’s son). He made movies only about that. His filmography is filled with roles that have a man who has had it with the system (Nana Patekar had minor success in this category of films with Tirangaa and Krantiveer). His most famous works belong to this revengeamatic genre.
Take for example Ghayal. Sunny Deol is in college, training to become a boxer. But his elder, businessman brother (and his wife are the only family he has) gets caught in the spiral of criminal activity. He gets kidnapped, tortured, and finally murdered. Sunny Deol witnesses the typical systemic corruption : crooked cops, two-faced politicians and a broken justice system. Santoshi constructs this part of the movie as a flashback. The opening is a stunner.
Deol is rotting in prison. The imagery is quite classical. He has no dialogues. We see him struggling emotionally but physically, he keeps himself fit. These scenes of turmoil are reminiscent of Om Puri in Aakrosh, another film of Nihalani’s where the protagonist is being screwed by the system, until in the end, he gives it back to them. Deol is just that, but he has inmates that want to understand him. They did not choose the life of criminality out of pleasure. They were forced into it by circumstances. Deol himself, we feel, is a product of a similar fate. Thus begins the flashback wherein Deol tells the inmates how he ended up in the prison. That’s pretty much the first half. The second half is where the fun begins. Each sequence is filled with violence. Santoshi, however, notes that he is not making violence for the sake of gratification. Violence is the only form of expression left to his characters. Deol, supported by his inmates, escapes from the prison and starts cleaning up the scum from bottom to top.
This structure has its roots in Taxi Driver. We have Travis Bickle bickering about the ruin of New York city, and modern society, in the first half of the film. Then there’s the failed assassination attempt on Charles Palantine, after which Bickle prepares himself to cure the city of prostitution and save Iris. Of course, the big action sequence in the end ties it all up. To put more historical reference into this, Bickle himself is inspired by John Ford’s classic The Searchers. John Wayne’s cowboy is similar to De Niro’s Bickle. Funnily enough, Harvey Keitel’s pimp character Sport calls him a cowboy when they have their first exchange.
Structurally, Ghayal takes its cues from these movies. The connections are clear. Taxi Driver makes us feel very anxious and it has a very different point to make. But if Travis Bickle was actually a good guy, and not a racist that he is, he would’ve looked something like Sunny Deol in Ghayal. Deol and Santoshi would go on to make another kick-ass action movie in the vein of Ghayal. I suppose it is intentionally named Ghatak. Like its predecessor, it opens with strong images of a good-natured Deol dipping himself in the holy river Ganga. But once he enters the big city with his simpleton father, he recognizes the filth and decides to clean it. Deol had another smash on a similar note: Ziddi, albeit with another director.
It is peculiar to think that the Bollywood of 1990s was written off as a romantic era. That is partly true because of the massive success of Shah Rukh Khan. His films, backed by the rise of Aditya Chopra and Karan Johar, were huge hits. But here’s another interesting connection. Look at what KGF is today and you will see that Rockstar Yash is Sunny Deol of our times. You have the down and out character who witnessed cruelty of a flawed system vowing to seek revenge. And he gets it.
(It will also be interesting to see how criminality in Mumbai back then was on the forefront. Names like Dawood were getting a lot of traction. There was large scale political and economic turmoil throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Although crime has vanished from the front page, large scale political and economic turmoil is something India faces even today.)
Tarantino writes about the core of these revenge/exploitation films extensively throughout the book. When he speaks about the Clint Eastwood classic Dirty Harry, he shares an excellent argument that has value even today. Here’s what he writes about the audience for Dirty Harry and why it worked: “frustrated older Americans who by 1971—when they looked out their car door windows, and read their daily newspapers, and watched the evening news—didn’t recognize their country anymore… the generation that fought World War Two in the forties and bought homes in the suburbs in the fifties were the ones who went looking for their America and couldn’t find it anywhere… youth culture had taken over pop culture. If you were under thirty-five, that was a good thing. But if you were older, maybe not”.
It was representation and venting of frustration. If we were to use the principle of the argument, that the audience for a particular type of picture wanted to see what they really wanted to but found it absent in media, and that they were frustrated about it, and apply it to the kind of male characters seen in Bollywood from roughly late 2000s to first half of 2010s, then we can see why and how movies like KGF and Pathaan are a massive success. As Tabu in the recent movie Kuttey quips, “They’ve stopped making men”. The kind of men like Sunny Deol who are not violent for the sake of violence, who are strong and paternalistic but not toxic (at least, the older definition of toxic), and who won’t back down in the face of oppression. Basically, men who get shit done. However, it is not limited to men as a sex, but the things men stood for. Remove the ‘men’ and add ‘women’ who get shit done, you have Gangubai Kathiawadi.
These days, such aggression has disappeared a little from Bollywood. But for a whole lot of us who grew up on T.V watching Nagarjuna Akkineni bash criminals in Mass and Don, the South still ‘made men’. Even today, it’s the South that still ‘makes men’. Can they be toxic? Sure. Do men care? No. Should they? Yes.
Whether it is right for the audience to expect such characters or not is something out of the purview of this piece. What seems to be happening is that the lost charm of men who get things done is finding a place again. Time will tell what form and shape it takes. I hope it is less Travis Bickle and more Sunny Deol. I hope it is more Pathaan and less Kabir Singh. Most importantly, I wish for the revengeamatics to find a place in the cinemas again. We need a space where we can be absolutely angry without apologizing for it. To those who have a problem with that kind and level of violence, here’s some wisdom from Tarantino’s mother:
“Well, Quentin, it’s very violent. Not that I necessarily have a problem with that. But you wouldn’t understand what the story was about. So since you wouldn’t understand the context in which the violence was taking place, you would just be watching violence for violence’s sake. And that I don’t want you to do”.