The year was 2002. Shah Rukh Khan of DDLJ had been impressing us with his shenanigans in Europe and Maratha Mandir for seven years. Amrish Puri was mouthing his I Love My India rhetoric in Pardes. We were a proud nation, give or take a few Godhras, aroused by our new global expanse while holding on to our lineage and heritage. We were delighted by the desi diaspora. Raj not touching Simran, not even giving her the quintessential shareer ki garmi, was, hell, more Indian than us Indians, more deshpremi than us lesser mortals living in the desh could ever be. In fact, that’s how the desis always had been in Bollywood. From Purab Aur Paschim (1970) to Des Pardes (1978) to Aa Ab Laut Chalen (1999), the authentic, true Indian living in the foreign lands always had his sanskaars intact, pining, longing and rooting for our values and sarson ka khet. And if he or his progenies ever went astray, there always was somebody known as Manoj Kumar or equivalent to show them their path. They were all good guys, they were good Indians, and the good Indians were there to win.
And then came Sanjay Gupta with his Kaante.
Six men of Indian origins living in Los Angeles, speaking in Hindi. Period. Beyond that, Hindustan, deshprem, mitti, sona, aansu, angaare, et al, were asked to take a walk where there was no sunshine. The six men had nothing in common with the quintessential Hindi film leading heroes of the foreign lands. They didn’t care for the roti-making biba in the pind. If they did, the references were very subtle, almost consciously hidden in the boisterousness of the film. Barring one Hindustan-Hindustani scene added essentially for the gallery, they didn’t really cry for the unfurling tricolor. But, most differently, and unapologetically so, they were all bad guys, they were bad Indians, and the bad Indians were there to win.
That they happened to be from India was coincidental, helping us see the story in Hindi.
This was blasphemy. Kaante disrupted everything that Hindi movies had stood for till then. Even if Raj had gone all rogue and rebel, he would have never become Ajju, Major, Marc, Andy, Bali or Mak. EVER. For Gupta took the rule book, and decided to break every single regulation in style, with this rather cocky flair that one had seen traces of in his very first film, Aatish (1994). Minus a few, the characters have no past that the audiences are told about, they don’t know each other from before, they don’t care about each other’s existence, and they are too self-engrossed to even care about the audiences’ interest in them!
With six manly men, a bank-robbery gone wrong, an undercover cop, a Mexican stand-off, six dead bodies and a helicopter chase leading to an almost open-ended conclusion, Kaante was like nothing that India had seen since the existence of Hindi movies. Not that we had not witnessed multiple-hero films or bromances. Not that the anti-heroes were not celebrated before. Not that men were not presented as swigs of swag and swagger. There was Feroze Khan in his Stetsons. There was the Vinod Khanna chin-cleft porn. There was Sunil Shetty sharing muscle space with Arnold Schwarzenegger in the roadside poster stalls.
But Kaante was a raw, basal celebration of the raw and the basal!
Every single frame of the film fetes and feasts on the coarse masculinity of its protagonists. Right from the title sequence onward, Kaante is a ride from gloating machismo at its best to bloating machismo at its worst. Only, Gupta does not try too hard. He knows he has six good looking men. He does not traverse the journey of sweat droplets across ripped muscles. Outside of the close ups at the right angles, showcasing them sharp chins and piercing eyes, he just makes his heroes walk, that’s it. The Kaante walk. The famous Kaante walk. On the streets. In the corridors. Down the steps. And then some. God, that bravado! That effortless appeal of Suniel Shetty, Lucky Ali, Kumar Gaurav, Mahesh Manjrekar, Sanjay Dutt and Amitabh Bachchan. Oh, and then there are bikes and cars and leather jackets and suits and sunglasses and guns, too. Five minutes into the film, you are all pumped already. The Adrenalin has rushed and gushed.
After you have seen them walk, you hear them talk. The world is a locker room, and our six men are the happy co-residents. They are brash, they use their middle fingers to communicate, they discuss their women, they call each other assholes, and they are ingloriously crass and crude. “Jab tak main halka nahin ho jaaun, apna dimaag kaam nahin karta hai”, says Bali about going to prostitutes without batting an eyelid. This is the world where Milap Zaveri’s not-so-vague references to a certain male body part with lines like “Mere ko mere chhote bhai ke baare mein sochne de” and “Jab woh naachti hai toh Baburao bhi naachta hai” are considered normal. This is the universe where the home truth of “Isse toh software aur underwear ka bhi farak pata nahin” and philosophical undertones of “Takdeer woh chhinal hai jo mere saath nahin soti” actually make an impact.
The men, complete with their four-lettered vocabulary, are not sorry for, well, being men. And the audiences are meant to be a conscious reflection of their heroes. Because Gupta works with the premise that he has to adult his viewers. Not just with the item numbers featuring Isha Kopikar and Malaika Arora, and the gyrating butts of white-skinned women, but with the pronounced thought that it is okay for boys to be men and men to be mean. I was there, sitting in the theater, feeling it! Having said that, he also does brilliantly capitalize on the vulnerabilities of his heroes. So the attitude of Banda Yeh Dheeth Hai Yeh Kuch Nahin Jaanta is actually followed by the tender Jaane Kya Hoga Rama Re submission. And while the second all-male song, Chhod Na Chhod Na Chhod Na Re, is supposedly just a daru ditty, a Kallu Mama happening in the middle of LA with better-looking people, the director subtly shifts the tone to Chhod Aaye Hum Woh Galiyaan for a fleeting moment. Which is when one realizes that while their suits, glares and alcohols are expensive and exclusive, their angst, agony and ecstasy are universal. Only, Gupta does not give his viewers the time to reflect on this. The prep of the heist is not shown. All that you know of the robbery is the cheekily sassy “Aaj tak uss bank se unnki salary aati thi, ab hamaari aayegi” line. Immediately after the song, the audiences get into it cold. Now there is the anticipation of what is going to happen with these six men, their angst a thing of the past. Now there is only wide-eyed wonder, intrigue and drama.
Kaante does not have only six protagonists, though. Sanjay Gupta is the seventh hero of the film. One can see the director in every frame, shot and dialogue. He definitely knows his guns, glares, girls, and goons. I would know that first hand now since I have worked with him on a project. He is out there to unabashedly tell the world his tale with his virile, brazenly sexy offering. There are top angles, wide angles, low angles, and the shot taking seems ahead of its time, skillfully capturing both the grey indifference and the silver familiarity of the urban landscape housing his macho men. Not for a minute does this rhythm of the film change. The explosions and the gunshots are in-your-face, and there is a considerable portion where there are no dialogues at all, just blazing fires. This roaring testosterone festival, both on and off the screen in the theaters, was an experience never-seen-never-heard-never-felt before.
Broadly basing the movie on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, Gupta does a Tarantino on Tarantino, giving a tribute to QT as QT does to the filmmakers that he admires. And dare I say, he actually ends up doing a better Tarantino than Tarantino himself. For if we were to compare apples to apples, he has constructed an amalgamation – of his personal language, Bollywood’s sur, and QT’s narrative – far better than at least some of Tarantino’s later outings. My belief is Tarantino would also agree with this.
The film is as contemporary in 2020 as it was in 2002. The men look as sexy. Their invincibility looks as fragile. The political incorrectness is as delicious and dark. But Kaante’s competency and contribution go far, far beyond just being a guns-and-guys film which stands the test of time. With this film, Gupta gave a new grammar and language to India, and its audaciousness changed the way we were making and consuming our content. Sanjay Dutt, Suniel Shetty, Mahesh Manjrekar, Lucky Ali, Kumar Gaurav and Amitabh Bachchan gave birth to the loud Chandigarh-Se-Hoon-BC arrogance of Roadies. The film made us perceive and receive the ugliness of the Bigg Boss skirmishes as entertainment. It gave legitimacy to the reality TV cockiness. Sanjay Gupta started the mainstreamisation of the counter-culture. Eighteen years later, the results and reverberations can still be felt.
“The Italians have their mafia, the Columbians have their cartel, the Chinese have their triads. And we, we Indians, what do we have? Nothing!”, goes Major/ Amitabh Bachchan in the film.
That’s not really correct. The Indians have their Kaante.