After spending two and a half hours in the company of Ali Abbas Zafar’s new movie, I have that concluded Gunday is a textbook example of what a huge difference a tightly cut promo of a loosely woven film can make.
The trailer made me believe I could expect better.
In this erratic throwback to the volatile 1970s-80s, two teenage friends run away from a refugee camp in Bangladesh and illegally immigrate to Kolkata then Calcutta. Despite the overused voiceover technique, featuring Irrfan Khan’s crisp timbre, Gunday starts out sharply as the young boys – Bala (Jayesh Kardak) and Bikram (Darshan Gurjar) demonstrate their deep bond in dark times
From revolting paedophiles to bullying bosses, Bikram and Bala take on every enemy with a clenched fist and crunchy dialogue. Both Jayesh and Darshan are fantastic in their brief screen time and lend Gunday a rawness that is fleetingly reminiscent of Slumdog Millionaire.
Mistake not, this is a very safe, predictable and desi film. And like in the movies of the era it pays tribute to, these mini angry young men grow up, whilst running on tracks or top of a train, to become unusually accessible kingpins of the charcoal mafia (Ranveer Singh and Arjun Kapoor) who fall for the same cabaret dancer (Priyanka Chopra).
It all happens too easily, unconvincingly. And rather early in the story, Gunday forsakes its initially displayed grit to collapse into yet another tale of style over substance.
Retro has to have a point that goes beyond pointed collar shirts and bell-bottoms. Special Chabbis uses it to point out the strategy of conducting a heist in the absence of technology at one’s fingertips. Om Shanti Om treats it as a premise to mock the entertainment scene of a bygone era. Once Upon A Time in Mumbai employs it to fashion an old-school exploration of underworld origins with an edginess that is entirely contemporary.
A victim of sluggish screenplay, Gunday draws a blank. To think it could have been set anywhere. The makers probably picked Bengal because Bombay has provided the backdrop of countless such crime capers. And so Kolkata contributes by way of Howrah Bridge and Durga Pooja, which lend Gunday a canvas, a flavour it doesn’t have the flair to realise.
Instead of building Bikram-Bala’s friendship with emotional information, Zafar takes Kapoor and Singh’s natural chemistry for granted. No doubt, they are comfortable around each other, there’s a disarming, credible vibe, which, sadly, never once translates into that epic brotherhood I witnessed on Koffee With Karan.
Moreover, their professed immigrant woes are too much too feebly conveyed to strike a sympathetic chord or lend clarity around their deep-rooted resentment and rebellion. Forget Jai-Veeru (Sholay), Bikram-Bala doesn’t even match up to the likes of Nawab-Baba (Aatish). Even Sohail Sen’s catchy earworm Tune Maari Entriyaan strangely loses its impact in film.
Zafar (who previously directed Mere Brother Ki Dulhan) is equally unimaginative in introducing inevitable complications. The upshot is most sloppy. Some of Gunday’s most strategic run-ins suffer from such tepid shot taking.
One expects something momentous to come out of the first face off between Irrfan’s cop and Bikram/Bala. But thanks to its problematic pacing and sleepy editing (Rameshwar S Bhagat), the scene just falls flat. All that the rousing guitar play in the background does is draw our attention to a wasted opportunity.
For all its swagger and insolence, the script is full of silly loopholes, annoying clichés and glaring superficiality. No matter how hard Zafar tries to create an action hero that speaks Amitabh Bachchan/Anil Kapoor/Raaj Kumar (at one point I could almost hear “Jaani” before Kapoor’s Bala declares, “Yeh tevar humare khoon main hai”) he fails to substantiate it with charisma that goes beyond surface value.
What’s worse is how Gunday’s main twist is foolishly (think they were going for sly) and prematurely insinuated in one scene. After that, it’s all a no brainer. Not that it was a breakthrough anyway. Really, Zafar could do so much better than that.
It’s all the more disappointing because Gunday reflects his ambitions, his love for grand action set pieces (executed by Shyam Kausal) and dedication to the dynamics of an anti-hero as he tips his hat to films like Sholay, Don, Kala Patthar, Mr India and, given its proclivity for all things shirtless and slo-mo, I’d also add Dabangg.
The only time Gunday goes full throttle is when Bikram and Bala are engaged in brisk daredevilry. I quite enjoyed their stunts and intensity in the steam train sequence, the movie theatre date gone awry and an elaborate shootout/chase amidst the Durga idol immersion.
Occasionally, blemished scripts too are salvaged by solid performances. Gunday is inconsistent on that front as well.
While Arjun Kapoor gets the tone of his mercurial character and plays it with equal measure of ferocity and helplessness, Ranveer Singh appears to have modelled Bikram around The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. The actor goes from spectacularly subdued to hysterical and hamming within a span of seconds.
Their onscreen ladylove Priyanka Chopra exudes unflinching glamour and pluck, in burlesque costumes and Dhaka saris, only to be dumbed down into a namby-pamby.
Finally, there’s Irrfan Khan, wearing the expression of a man standing in the middle of a mess — that is Gunday.
This review was first published on rediff.com.