The boisterous and entertaining new Bollywood buddy-gangster melodrama “Gunday” is set mostly in the 1980s, and in its plot and characters it harks back strongly to the anti-heroic, still-beloved Amitabh Bachchan blockbusters of that period. Even its title treatment is intended to spark nostalgia, typographically evoking the classic 1975 Bachchan vehicle “Sholay.” Indeed, the film’s production company, Yash Raj Films, and its exuberantly gifted young writer-director, Ali Abbas Zafar (2011’s “My Brother’s Bride”), seem to be positioning the film as the culmination of a recent trend toward old-fashioned dal-and-roti (meat-and-potatoes) actioners, as exemplified by the recent likes of “R. Rajkumar,” “Bullet Raja” and, worst of all, the Salman Khan headbanger “Jai Ho.” It’s off to a good start with nearly $5 million in its first two days.
The storyline is the element that owes the most to the macho masala pictures of the 1980s, centering as it does upon two oppressed refugees from the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971 who become friends for life. By the dawn of the ’80s, they’ve clawed their way to alpha-dog status as Calcutta’s top gunday, a term that can mean “hoodlums” or “bullies,” but is translated as “outlaws” in the film’s subtitles. Our anti-heroic protagonists are classic poor-boy outcasts who pursue the only opportunities available to them, rising through sheer resourcefulness to become the gaudy rulers of the city’s underworld. Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in America” is only one of the obvious antecedents that spring to mind.
“Gunday” is a period piece, but it is first and foremost a mainstream commercial movie aimed at the biggest possible modern-day audience. It isn’t a fanboy pastiche of the genre movies it refers to; in fact, there’s some evidence that the filmmakers have gone out of there way to avoid even the appearance of geekiness. The film has been skillfully realized as a commercial entertainment on a huge scale, and it is often surprisingly beautiful, especially in the sequences shot on location in the West Bengal capital of Calcutta, a novel setting for the Mumbai-based Hindi movie industry.
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A light wash of ’80s style for the costumes and hair styles (wide lapels here, allusions to bellbottoms there) offsets the washboard abs and flowing manes (dreamy in slow-motion) of the film’s muscular young co-stars. The pals are distinguished by familiar broad-stroke character traits — Bala (Arjun Kapoor) is a hothead, Bikram (Ranveer Singh) a self-controlled pragmatist. From that dichotomy, most of the major plot turns can be extrapolated, and by the time the pic introduces its third major character, slinky cabaret dancer Nandita (Priyanka Chopra), and both Bala and Bikram take a shine to her, the outcome is all but written in stone.
The film’s first half is boisterous and light-hearted, charting Bala and Bikram’s rise to power and the giddy initial phase of their infatuation with Nandita. Rather less effective is the more serious second half, which is never as dark and intense as it should be to achieve the desired emotional payoff. Some of this must be laid at the feet of the hard-working but ultimately slightly dull Kapoor; in genre terms, Bala is the tumultuous “angry young man” figure, a role that an inspired actor like the young Shah Rukh Khan would have used pilfer the entire movie. (Amitabh Bachchan did it, in several movies, with just a single passionate soliloquy.) Kapoor puts a lot of energy into capturing the sinew-straining outward signs of Balu’s turmoil, but he never makes us feel the anguish truly runs deep. Reaching for the full effect, director Zafar resorts to dying Kapoor’s face a demonic bright red during a pivotal Holi celebration.
Kapoor and Singh are good together as young hellraisers early on, but when they part company after the intermission, Singh tucks the movie’s center of interest under his arm and takes it with him — even though he has the could-be-thankless “good brother” role. But Singh is such an outsized visual presence, a natural swashbuckler with his great slab of a chest and flashing grin, that he reads as a movie star in every scene he’s in, even when he’s just lurking in the background, playing with his hair.
It seems unlikely that Singh could ever play an understated or an ordinary character, or a single-minded professional like the one portrayed here by the great Irrfan Khan (billed here simply as Irrfan), a chess player who grins when he’s describing how he plans to manipulate the two lifelong friends into becoming bitter enemies: “It’ll be fun.” And Chopra brings so much conviction to the role of the femme fatale that she sweeps away all our recent memories of upstarts Katrina Kaif and Deepika Padukone, who have the natural endowments but miss the all-important bold attitude — the what-are-you-going-to-do-about-it swagger that stirs men to rise to the challenge.
What makes “Gunday” work and pulls us along is the great skill and obvious affection with which these familiar elements have been deployed. This could be, in part, because the film is flagged as a tribute to the late Yash Raj founder, Yash Chopra, who directed several of the best masala films, including 1975’s “Deewaar,” 1978’s “Trishul” and, perhaps most significantly, 1979’s “Kaala Patthar,” a melodrama whose disgraced hero (Bachchan) redeems himself by working in a coal mine.
Coal is a defining metaphor in “Gunday,” too, a substance that soils the characters’ hands and faces and marks them as members of the underclass, and that they doubt can ever be washed off. A lovingly detailed interior set depicting the coal mine run by Bala and Bikram reps a dark and dusty triumph for production designer Rajat Poddar, dominated by an enormous metal digging machine. During the whole length of the fight staged here, one anticipates the lethal corkscrewing of at least one baddie, a promise that is duly fulfilled. When a movie goes full Bollywood, as “Gunday” so enthusiastically does, it would never settle for a mere gun over an ordinary fireplace: Bigger, bolder and louder is always better.