Move over Oceans' series: Vinod Khanna-starrer Gaddaar is one of Hindi cinema's most earnest heist films
Gaddaar is undoubtedly one of the best capers in Hindi cinema and the fact that it doesn’t try too hard only adds to it.
Editor's note: Whatever happened to watching a film, just because? When was the last time you watched a film, just because you stumbled upon on it, or heard someone mention it in passing? We're so used to reviews, previews and a barrage of recommendations — it almost feels like it is impossible to enjoy watching a film without it being topical. And so, here's a new column we're introducing — Films, Just Because — where we talk about films, just because.
Ever wondered why most heist films end up looking the same? The seed of this was perhaps sowed back in the 1950s with the release of John Houston’s The Asphalt Jungle (1950).
One of the earliest crime classics to humanise the criminal, The Asphalt Jungle looked like a typical B-film that was extremely popular at the time but was one of the first films to show a detailed and authentic looking heist. It also came to become the definitive caper film template that would go on to be the inspiration behind Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing (1956), the original Ocean's Eleven (1960) and even Quentin Tarantino’s breakthrough film, Reservoir Dogs (1992).
In an Indian context, the heist wasn't as well explored a genre even though Hindi films are filled with robbers and burglars and expert safe-crackers et al. Although the genre finally came into its own in the early 2000s with Vipul Shah’s Aankhen (2002), Sanjay Gupta’s rehash of Reservoir Dogs as Kaante (2002) and the Dhoom series, one of the earliest true-blue Hindi heist films, Gaddaar (1973), can trace its origins directly to The Asphalt Jungle.
The film begins with a maharaja (Ajit) sauntering into Bombay for a business deal carrying a stash of money that is cached in a safe protected by a gamut of safety features. Next we see B.K. (Pran) getting his team in place - Sampat (Anwar Hussain), Mohan (Manmohan), the Professor (Iftekhar), Kanhaiya (Madan Puri), Babu (Ranjeet) and John (Ram Mohan) – and later they meet to come up with a plan to steal the Raja’s stash. They chalk out every single move and weeks later when they put the plan into action everything works like clockwork but when a guard rings the alarm B.K. has to improvise. The police arrive on the scene and BK gets wounded. He tells Kanhaiya to escape with the loot while he misleads the police and they plan to meet next day at B.K.’s. All of them escape and meet the next day as planned but there is no sign of Kanhaiya.
After waiting it out for a few days, when the pack eventually lands up at Kanhaiya’s house, they find it to be abandoned. Here, they meet Raja (Vinod Khanna), a petty thief, who after reading about the heist comes looking for Kanhiya thinking that the latter would know something about it. He offers his services to help them search Kanhaiya in exchange for his share. The chase leads them across India and finally they learn that Kanhaiya is hiding in a remote village in Himachal Pradesh.
Raja comes as a scout and falls for Reshma (Yogita Bali), the daughter of the owner of the hotel he’s staying in and the father turns out to be none other than Kanhaiya. Raja comes back to lead the crew up to the remote hotel and once there B.K. threatens to kill Kanhaiya’s little boy in front of his eyes if he doesn’t lead them to the money. With everyone holed up inside the hotel and a storm brewing outside things aren’t what they appear and everyone including Raja seems to have a plan of their own.
Like any other genre, the heist, too, works best when the basic human nature comes into play and this is also the very thing that adorns a sense of timelessness to film. Visually Gaddaar looks very 1970s and yes, it is very much about the times as well but the narrative and the set pieces make it go beyond.
Traditionally, popular Hindi cinema of the 1960s and 1970s glossed over the fallacies of human nature unless well-known actors portrayed these characters, but in a heist film, this changes as the crew has familiar looking actors often cast against type. This is a trait seen in most heist films right from The Killing or Ocean’s Eleven to Happy New Year and the presence of actors such as Manmohan, Ram Mohan, and Anwar Hussain in Gaddaar makes it more real.
Directed by Harmesh Malhotra, who was best known for Nagina (1998) and then later the cult Govinda-Raveena Tandon-Kader Khan hit Dulhe Raja (1998), Gaddaar is undoubtedly one of the best capers in Hindi cinema and the fact that it doesn’t try too hard only adds to it. The campiness of the film is palpable and each moment continues to be a pleasure even after four decades.
The film is an ode to not only the genre but also the era it was made in and this is visible right from the production design to the musical interludes to the costumes.
What’s more at certain places Gaddaar also seems a portent of the future like the build-up to the climax is eerily close to the set-up in Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight (2015). But, it’s the manner in which the narrative blends in tropes that are now known as essentials to the genre — such as the procedural detailing, the staging as well as the shot-taking (especially the scenes where the crew is introduced) — that make it a better experience than the Dhooms and the Happy New Years.
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