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Ghajini to Johnny Gaddaar: a look at noir influences in Bollywood
- Lidia Ostepeev           Let us know what you think about this article

Commercial Bollywood films tend to shy away from the dark themes and ambivalent morality associated with the film noir style. The popularity of the current Ghajini (2008) remake proves that its director and writer - Murugadoss has correctly estimated the level of negativity his audience is prepared to bear. A little and no more. He knew from the success of the Tamil version (2005) just how much of the original Memento (Nolan, 2000) would work with a mainstream Indian audience and he was right the second time around.

Memento is an extremely dark and complex portrayal of a damaged mind. Its protagonist - Leonard (Guy Pearce) is ensnared by circumstances arising from his amnesia - an easy target for people with exploitative agendas but his unstable mind also protects him from understanding his own darker nature. We eventually realize that Leonard himself - through unreliable memory, killed his wife by administering an overdose of insulin. Yet he is hell-bent on finding a killer and becomes an assassin in the process. Other people use his handicap to extract vengeance on their enemies but Leonard is guilty of programming himself to kill as a way of sublimating his own guilt. All up, it’s nasty and unrelentingly dark viewing with some unsettling, ironic twists and turns at the end.

Both the Tamil and Hindi versions of Ghajini put a lighter almost masala spin on Memento’s very bleak subject matter. They feature protagonists who are flawed but whose quest for vengeance redeems them. In this respect the character played by Aamir Khan and Surya Sivakumar is no different from the angry young men portrayed by Amitabh Bachchan in the 70s and 80s. Bachchan’s vengeful forays were justified by the fact that society was shown to be rife with corruption which infiltrated law enforcement and blocked off avenues for justice. In Ghajini the law is portrayed as misguided while the real killer is a respected pillar of the establishment so that turning vigilante is the only way to seek justice. As a lover Ghajini’s Sanjay often presents as a tragic figure whose irrevocable loss consumes him - a bit like a punch-drunk version of Devdas.

The main structural device used in the film is well known to Bollywood audiences - that of a retrospectively told romance designed to win them over with its sweetness and grace. The noir influenced Parwana (Jyoti Swaroop,1971) has the same structural flow: a retelling of a romance for about a third of the film, acts of vengeance and finally redemption of the lover whose destructive potential is stilled. Clearly the noble savagery of Ghajini and the chaotic sanguinity of Memento are poles apart with Bollywood showing a preference for a more saccharine product focussed on romance, melodrama and action rather than irony.

This is not to say that all Bollywood noir influenced films are like Ghajini. Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar (2007) for instance, is much darker because the moral underpinnings are rather shaky and redemption doesn’t enter the equation. Vikram (Neil Mukesh) strays from a dubious kind of morality - the bond of loyalty between racketeers. He cheats his partners and greed leads to murder. The structure of the film follows a pattern similar to that of the 50s Hollywood noir film Quicksand (Pichel) or the more recent Fargo (Joel Coen, 1996) where a relatively small transgression compounds, leading to more serious crimes and finally entrapment. Raghavan credits the crime fiction of James Hadley Chase (1906 - 1985) as his inspiration, reflected in his morally compromised protagonist, escalating sense of wrongdoing and “up-against-a-wall” ending. He also pays tribute to Vijay Anand (1934 - 2004) many of whose films exhibit shades of film noir.

Some critics have wrongly identified Johnny Gaddaar as a homage to Anand’s Johny Mera Naam (1970). The latter is a romantic, cyclical tale of brother bonding - masala-like and melodramatic in its effect while Johnny Gaddaar is built on a much darker premise and makes heavy use of irony. Vikram double crosses his partners very early in the piece so that we already know the identity of the gaddaar (traitor). The irony is that the other gang members still trust him. For instance, he is presented with Seshadri’s watch by a partner who doesn’t suspect that Vikram actually murdered their mentor (Dharmendra). Or Vikram’s girlfriend - Mini (Rimi Sen) tries to placate him by asking ‘Did you steal? Did you murder anyone?’ not realizing that Vikram has actually committed these crimes. There are many such examples as a web of irony is built around the not-so-innocent character of Vikram.

References to Johny Mera Naam and Parwana in Johnny Gaddaar come in the form of ironic allusions. Although the colouring and credits have been done in the style of a 70s crime thriller, I’d argue that snippets of actual vintage footage serve to emphasise, through contrast, just how shaded the narrative is. Vikram gets ideas of how to implement his double cross from these two rather innocent and relatively naïve vintage Bollywood crime thrillers that he sees on TV. Parwana supplies him with an alibi. By committing his crimes on a train, he is able to alight at a designated station and return to his place of business without arousing suspicion - a sequence which echoes the Hollywood noir classic Double Indemnity (Wilder, 1944). Johny Mera Naam is playing in the hotel lobby when Vikram is checking in after making his moral detour. Inspired by the film he books in under the name Johnny G. The irony is that the character whose name (alias) he adopts is in fact, a law abiding police officer.

Johny Mera Naam is predominantly a romantic melodrama. Admittedly there’s the darker character of Moti (Pran) - the brother who has run foul of the law but there’s a reason for it. As a child he was kidnapped and raised by villains who killed his policeman father. Moti eventually sides with Johny to save their mother and his country’s honour from the dastardly clutches of Ranjit Singh (Premnath). In other words he is redeemed. In Kala Bazaar (1960) - another noir influenced Anand film - the protagonist, played by Dev Anand dangles dangerously over a precipice that is literally a moral one - to be pulled up by the redemptive spirit of his love (Waheeda Rehman).

The songs in noir influenced films are often indicators of orientation. Whether we are being plunged into darkness or heading for the light becomes apparent through a quick inventory of the musical score. Ghajini has a predominantly romantic score as does Johny Mera Naam. In contrast, the music of Johnny Gaddaar is sparse and gritty. Take the theme song with its message that ‘life’s a gamble’ which shows the darkened road and Vikram’s shaded face. Or there’s Move Your Body - just a snatch of a song while Vikram joyously dances at the prospect of cheating his partners. Dhoka shows anonymous vamps dancing in a club while Shardul (Zakir Hussain) - one of the partners begins to suspect Vikram of treachery. The last song Johnny Breakdance is played while the credits roll. The songs and their picturization do not really advance the story - that’s more the function of the screenplay but they do show darker leanings. In films with a romantic focus songs tend to play a much bigger part because they secure the emotional and sentimental backbone of the film.

Raghavan has said that Johnny Mera Naam is not pure film noir. There are certainly elements in it that are designed to make the bitterness a little more palatable. Consider for instance, the nostalgic resonance of Dharmendra’a role as Seshadri - Vikram’s mentor. The audience identifies Dharamji with noble causes because he has traditionally played a hero in Hindi films. Seshadri listens to an old fashioned song recorded by his pretty, sari-clad wife seen in flash back as his life ebbs away. Or Shiva (Daya Shetty) - the gang’s bodyguard has a sick mother whom he dutifully visits in hospital. These touches of humanity in the characterization evoke sympathy through time tested channels.

Despite some lighter touches, Johnny Gaddaar is quite heavily influenced by the film noir style as other recent Bollywood films among them - Being Cyrus (Homi Adajania, 2005), Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh, 2007), No Smoking (Anurag Kashyap, 2007) and Mithya (Rajat Kapoor, 2008). Some of these have achieved a measure of critical acclaim but have not been box-office hits. The crowds are drawn by celebrity driven films like Don (Farhan Akhtar, 2006) and Ghajini which have noir packaging but are still basically frothy masala confections underneath.

Lidia Ostepeev 2009 ©

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