India cinema's love affair with gangsters

KUALA LUMPUR - Many of the biggest Indian movies over the past few decades have revolved around the theme of criminal gangs.

Almost every major star in Indian cinema in recent times would count playing a gang-related character as one of their biggest successes, whether it is Amitabh Bachchan in Deewar (1975), Kamal Hassan in Nayagan (1987), Rajnikanth in Baasha (1995), Ajay Devgan in Company (2002) or Vijay in Pokkiri (2007).

It is no coincidence that storylines related to street crime and gangsters started becoming more prominent in Indian cinema in the early 1970s, a period which saw mass migrations of people from rural areas to the cities.

This also marked a time of economic, political and social crises, where the rise of poverty and corruption caused the public to lose faith in the government and the police force.

Alongside the growth of gangs came the belief that justice was far more easily sought outside of the legal system. It is this sentiment that is most often reflected, even today, in Indian gangster movies.

Although the movies have a tendency to glamorise their portrayal of gangsters, the plots typically also feature a strong sense of morality and justice.

There is usually a clear distinction made between the "noble" gangster - who turns to a life of crime out of necessity but retains a strong moral code - and the "villainous" gangster, who is usually the personification of evil.

Most big-name actors usually take on the role of the "good" gangster, a character that is likely to go down better with the audience.

However, from the late 1990s, Indian movies saw a change in the way gangsterism was portrayed, particularly with the influence of Hollywood and the rise of film-makers who were more willing to examine complex themes in their works.

Movies like Company, Vaastav (1999) and Shootout At Lokhandwala (2007) not only portrayed the gritty realities of the underworld, but were also loosely based on Mumbai's actual criminal gangs and dons.

Since the early 2000s, there had also been an increased willingness by big stars to tackle out-and-out negative roles, thereby showing the realities of the gangster life.

The violence portrayed onscreen was increasingly stylised and life as a gangster often came with a heavy dose of cool, not to mention the requisite cash, booze and women - such as Don (2006) starring Shah Rukh Khan, and Mankatha (2011) with Ajith Kumar.

In Hindi, we have thus far seen D-Day, based on former Mumbai don Dawood Ibrahim, Once Upon A Time In Mumbai Dobara (a sequel) and Shootout At Wadala, based on another 1970s Mumbai gangster.

In Tamil, Thalaivaa - which stars Vijay as the son of a gangster - is currently doing well in cinemas.

If this year's Indian movie releases are any indication, there is still no shortage of stories revolving around gangsters.