Bob Biswas and the company he keeps: What movies say about assassins

What keeps movie assassins from getting waylaid is an unwritten personal code espousing Spartan discipline, a loner lifestyle, and a severe reluctance to display emotion.

Devarsi Ghosh December 02, 2021 13:37:43 IST
Bob Biswas and the company he keeps: What movies say about assassins

We saw Bob Biswas catch his targets unawares all across Kolkata, shoot them at point-blank range, and walk away without breaking a sweat for the first time in Sujoy Ghosh’s 2012 thriller Kahaani. While the balding and potbellied Bob (Saswata Chatterjee) is a loser at office, the Bhodrolok insurance agent displays tier-A efficiency as a hitman.

Now Bob, played by Abhishek Bachchan, has a wife and two kids in Diya Annapurna Ghosh’s release Bob Biswas, a spin-off of her father Sujoy Ghosh’s film.

Can you be an assassin but also have a normal domestic life? Can an assassin be at peace with their profession? Can an assassin afford to catch feelings?

The movies tell us, no, as guilt, soul-searching, the stress of living a double life, and the fear of reckoning is dreadful enough to make Bob Biswas lose his hair.

Nikita (Anna Parillaud) in Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990) is teary and distraught as she shoots a target from her bathroom, while her boyfriend complains about her secretive ways from outside the door. The deaf-and-mute hitman in the 1999 Thai thriller Bangkok Dangerous is left heartbroken when his freshly acquired girlfriend screams and runs away on seeing him live in action.

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

The job is easy only if you are a sociopath like Richard Kuklinski (Michael Shannon) in The Iceman (2012). Mafia hitman Kuklinski, who claimed to had killed up to 200 people, is a real-life example of the cine-assassins whose unsentimental approach to murder inspire awe. Kuklinski, however, was a product of child abuse who killed homeless people for practice in his early years until the mafia found him and paid him to do what he loved. He also managed to compartmentalise his private and professional lives without fuss, and was seldom conflicted about his life choices as seen in The Iceman.

The movies, however, provide their assassins with a moral compass, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel.

The wuxia heroine of Hou-Hsiao-Hsien’s The Assassin (2015) is an ace killer, but is failing her objectives by showing kindness on the field. “The way of the sword is pitiless,” her mentor observes. “Saintly virtues play no part in it. Your skills are matchless, but your mind is hostage to human sentiments.”

So hostage is the assassin’s mind to human sentiment that he cries every time he kills in the three films adapted from the Crying Freeman manga.

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

What keeps movie assassins from getting waylaid is an unwritten personal code espousing Spartan discipline, a loner lifestyle, and a severe reluctance to display emotion.

Alain Delon’s portrayal of assassin Jef Costello in the 1967 French film Le Samourai is the most memorable example of this character, given its overwhelming influence on subsequent films of this genre. In the Hollywood production Three Days of the Condor (1975), Joubert (Max Von Sydow) is clearly inspired by Le Samourai.

Unlike Jef, Joubert does not mind explaining his life: “Well, the fact is, what I do is not a bad occupation. Someone is always willing to pay [...] no need to believe in either side or any side. There is no cause. There's only yourself.” About his purported claims of having no moral concern about his work, he says, “I don't interest myself in why. I think more often in terms of when, sometimes where, always how much.”

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

Jef has inspired assassins back home as well. In the Hindi film Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Yadav ji (Harish Khanna) is a cow-belt Jef Costello/Joubert in kurta-pajama. In the 2018 Tamil film Pariyerum Perumal, an unassuming old man Thatha Maistry (Karate Venkatesan) comes up with an ingenious way to dispose of his victims in a village.

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

But Maistry, unlike Jef or Joubert, does not rely on personal code alone to do his work. He is a higher-caste assassin exclusively hired by higher-caste peoples to do their bidding, which he sees as his divine purpose. Although his line of thinking might be distasteful, he is no different from the mob assassin (Forest Whitaker), who swears by the 17th century samurai manual Hagakure in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999).

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

The trope of the ultra-professional and monastic assassin is parodied in Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki’s bizarre thriller Branded to Kill (1967). The number one assassin bullies and patronises the number three assassin by discussing his weird lifestyle that has helped him maintain his ranking: sleep with eyes open, piss in pants, lest you miss your target.

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

Are the best assassins then philosophers first? Like Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who thinks death at his hands is merely a matter of chance and has no more meaning to it, in No Country for Old Men (2007).

Sometimes, it is not your chosen ideas that help pick your job, but your inherent temperament. “One's profession is very often determined by one's personality,” the killer Wong (Leon Lai) observes in Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (1995), adding that being lazy and preferring people to arrange things for him suits him as his work just includes showing up at the designated spot with a gun.

Bob Biswas and the company he keeps What movies say about assassins

And watching too many of these movies can, in turn, create a composite assassin. Ambitious hitman Lok (Andy Lau) is a cinephile who references Le Samourai, Crying Freeman, and El Mariachi (1992), while waxing poetic on the connections between cinema and his trade in Johnnie To’s Fulltime Killer (2001): “I love movie trailers. They represent the best a movie has to offer. Just like when you die, your life flashes before your eyes.

All these bad boys and bad girls ultimately yearn for domesticity, and therefore, redemption. Like Kong (Pawalit Mongkolpisit) muses that it was only a week-long romance that gave him hope for a normal life in Bangkok Dangerous, hitman Nanda is fully reformed, and accepted as part of mainstream society, when he finds a girlfriend and a family upon escaping to a village in the Telugu film Athadu (2005).

But not all hitman movies star Mahesh Babu. If an assassin ignores their head and listens to their heart (John Woo’s The Killer) or loins (Stephen Frears’s The Hit), starts a family (David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence), or even, unfortunately, becomes somebody’s crush (Fallen Angels), they are just inviting ruin. What can poor Bob Biswas do?

Devarsi Ghosh is a journalist, writing on film, culture, and music.

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