Vishal Bhardwaj can do it all. Produce movies, write, direct and compose music for them, and even sing a line or two if he feels the need for it. And the resulting product of his short but amazing career as a director seem equally blind to the word “impossible” – he adapts Othello to fit seamlessly into the ethos of the U.P. badlands, turns Macbeth into poetic mafia lore and is that rare person who not only makes movies for children but does so without condescension.
So it was no shock when I sat down to Kaminey, his latest effort, expecting a caper film and discovered an updated masala flick about dysfunctional families set in Mumbai’s underworld instead.
There are high speed chases through hotel hallways and the rain-slicked streets of Mumbai, life is repeatedly shown to be cheap, gunfire goes off like crackers at Diwali, and as Chalu Charlie the Bad Twin (Shahid Kapur) disgustedly lisps early on in the film, “Fab fale mental hain (the fuckers are all mad).” If you like a bit of violent action served up with generous dollops of humor, you won’t be disappointed with what Kaminey has to offer.
But that’s not the sum of it. Seconds into the movie, Charlie slips into his favorite dream about a posh life on the racetrack complete with a woman in a fancy hat, the mandatory Eurotrash suit, and a booking window all his own – and you realize there’s more to Charlie than his thuggish exterior. Not the secret sentimental nobility that Hindi movies often ascribe to their heroes, no matter how fallen he may be, but the raw ambition of a lonely man to survive the best he can rather than just as much as he can.The first time we see him, he’s running for his life.
In direct contrast is his identical twin brother, the Nice Twin Guddu the Good. Guddu does noble work for an NGO, has a girlfriend appropriately called Sweety (Priyanka Chopra), and he doesn’t dream as much as plan – in ambitiously plotted graph form. Life for Guddu is not something to be attacked and devoured as best he can swallow it. It’s something to be approached with caution and care. It’s no coincidence that the first time we see him, he’s dressed up in a giant red condom.
Charlie and Guddu think they have it hard, scrabbling for money, all alone in the world, estranged from each other and existing in lonely mental pockets of a teeming metropolis thanks to a family tragedy that neither twin can bear to remember. But Kaminey consistently makes the point that in this city, everything is possible, nobody is truly disconnected however much they wish otherwise and everybody is supremely fucked up in their own little ways.
Take, for example, Sweety. She is, as a Mumbaikar friend of mine used to say, a total “Don”. It’s standard movie practice everywhere for the womenfolk in crime families to often appear as though they’re from another universe entirely – soft-spoken, sweet, often timid, intimidated by the males. It never made any sense to me because a family’s personality isn’t gender specific. It thrilled me, therefore, to meet Sweety – a girl who might not be directly involved in the family business but knows the score well enough and when the chips are down, is clearly cut from the same cloth as her brother. A disillusioned Guddu isn’t being complimentary when he brusquely informs her she’s more her brother’s sister than any relation of his. But she’s exactly what he needs in his scurrying little existence as her subsequent ruckus at the police station where he’s in trouble bears out.
Everybody else in the movie is equally caught up in their family squabbles – the Bengali mafia brothers are stifling their youngest brother into gross stupidity; the beachrat don might strike fear into his henchmen’s hearts but he has to maintain appearances in front of his Angolan in-laws; Sweety’s brother is not just struggling with her inter-racial (heh) love affair, he’s also got his “boys” of varying sizes – including one greedy little tyke who’s all too easy to bribe – to worry about; and our khaki brothers in uniform are juggling loyalties and bottomlines like hosts at a wedding. It’s all so very Indian. And so very entertaining in spite of it all running pretty much parallel to the main plotline (which I won’t spoil for you because it’s hysterical).
That said, there are times when the movie is jarringly hamhanded in its banter. There is definitely a thing called trying too hard and Kaminey is all too familiar with the concept, especially when its dealing with the various crimelords, each of them so enamored with themselves that they constantly threaten to slip towards cartoonish villainy. But then, trying too hard is a much more forgivable sin than trying too little – and any movie with the wit and imagination to interject a (hilarious) haggling session in the middle of a complicated Mexican standoff is automatically to be forgiven much.
Whether you like Kaminey or not – and by no means is this movie going to be an universal favorite – depends on what you’d like from your movie-watching experience. Let me put it this way: if Maqbool was an elegant stiletto and Omkara a vicious Rampuri, then Kaminey is an axe. Wielded by an expert to be sure, but still chops like one.
I’m a stiletto person myself, but I do enjoy a little axe action on occasion. This was one of them.