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Why Meeruthiya Gangsters is an absolute original

By Sreehari Nair
September 21, 2015 11:47 IST
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The poster for Meeruthiya Gangsters.

'Why is it that we are so forgiving of the glaring problems in grand multi-starrers like Dil Dhadakne Do,' asks Sreehari Nair, 'but when a small film with a truly personal vision seeks our approval, we analyse it through a prism of formal perfection?'

'With its Seinfeldian humour, episodic structure and performers who play off each other's energies, Meeruthiya Gangsters goes farther than most Hindi movies.'

In Meeruthiya Gangsters, two characters holed up inside a jail get into an argument about one of the two using his white underwear to signal surrender, when he could have very well used his white shirt. The character being cornered studies his shirt and clarifies that it's not completely white, but checkered. The point to note here: This argument happens about 15 minutes before the movie draws to a close -- usually around the time that a regular movie tries to neatly stitch all its plot-points together.

In the series finale of Seinfeld, we saw Jerry and George -- while they are locked-up -- get into a similar argument about the placement of a button on George's shirt. 'The second button literally makes or breaks the shirt,' Jerry says.

Seinfeld, the show, created an entire brand of postmodernism by letting its characters, who in the pursuit of 'big moments', digress into the minutiae of everyday life; something that Quentin Tarantino then applied in a specific way to violence.

Though it features a Django Unchained-moment involving ski masks, Meeruthiya Gangsters is more Seinfeld than Tarantino: meaning, the movie deals with violence but never once lets us forget it is essentially a 'comedy of manners' like violence without specific pay-offs.

This approach is what makes Meeruthiya Gangsters an absolute original of our time. So original a piece of work that I am sure it will be as 'jumped on' as 'adored.' 'Jumped on' because we, as an audience, are so used to violence that plays out in line with our hunches and expectations, that when we are confronted with violence of the kind shown in the movie -- something that erupts out of nowhere, is unsettling and shot in such a matter-of-factly fashion -- we wouldn't know how to react. I heard the audience laugh along in certain scenes, only to stop laughing in the middle of it. The joke was on them.

The movie doesn't have too much by way of a plot and is decidedly episodic: a set of six friends based out of Meerut get entangled in a series of kidnappings and wayside crimes, even as they try to hustle past odd jobs and business ideas. However, it's not the lure of 'easy money' that keeps them going; that'd be for a lesser movie.

Money to the sextet is just a by-product. Crime is what they thrive on, what they think about in college canteens, shady cinema halls, marketplaces, marketing seminars, swanky hotels and parties.

The real subtext of Meeruthiya Gangsters is that the guys are inherently drawn to crime and they'll keep returning to it -- crime as a way of life, the thing that charges them, gives them their highs and in their heads the thing that cleanses them.

The movie is directed by Zeishan Qadri, who you might know by now, had written 500 odd pages of what was to become the source for Gangs of Wasseypur (Anurag Kashyap has gone on record about how he had to mine-out the script of the movie from Qadri's sprawling draft).

Here again, Qadri is not totally sure-footed and the movie seems like it was assembled on the editing table from an extensive material and that there's even more stuff safe-kept in the director's head. Consequently, Meeruthiya Gangsters is replete with moments that are not fully formed.

It takes a while to actually take off and there are times when the editing by Kashyap seems too jagged; you wish he'd lingered on certain sequences a tad longer. Plus the violent sequences slowed down (something that Kashyap now seems addicted to) don't really have the balletic feel of say a Peckinpah, and the tone of the material doesn't quite lend itself to that style.

Qadri's shot-taking too at times seems laboured -- especially when he whirls the camera or pans it across, you can sense his self-consciousness working through.

However, what Zeishan Qadri lacks in directorial polish, he makes up for in his handling of actors. To appreciate how well Qadri uses his actors you'd have to understand the exploratory nature of the performances he extracts.

The six boys -- Jaideep Ahlawat, Aakash Tyagi, Vansh Bhardwaj, Chandrachoor Rai, Shadab Kamal and Jatin Sarna -- are not just good; they completely make you believe that they are living each surprise thrust upon them. The six of them play off each other's energies, there's a rhythm to even their lack of coordination -- it's the rhythm of people who know each other too well.

When one friend acts all tough boy-like, it hurts the other friend but he is too self-seeking to admit it. So he acts back tough. Jaideep Ahlawat is brilliant in that and every sequence he appears in.

The back-and-forth dialogue isn't the stuff of punchline humour or quotable lines; it's an interlock of heckling, of provoking each other's manliness and getting ready for the next bout. Survival isn't what the boys aspire for exactly either, it's only a decent combat that'll calm their nerves.

One of the boys for instance, specialises in the sort of violence that he thinks up spontaneously and on his feet -- the kind of violence that's too well-planned just don't excite him. There are implied codes of honour that are sometimes offset by codes of masculinity, not phrased yet.

We also see the boys acting a certain way when they are with each other and morph into someone else altogether when they're with girls; girls who themselves have a desire for control and a taste for danger -- a taste that they mask with their coquettish attires and cultured postures.

Bijendra Kala and Sanjay Mishra are cast to play their 'types' and that's for a specific purpose too; the story is better served with their presence alerting us a certain way. Mukul Dev as the cop -- who suffers from a specific case of genius complex (he knows he is way smarter than the system) -- is a revelation here.

Dev was always a TV actor who I thought had it in him to make it as a movie actor (Ronit Roy, Sudesh Berry and Kanwaljit Singh were others who had a zing about them), and like the story of his career, here, he plays a police officer who never quite gets his due. Why? Because weirdly enough, he is just too effortlessly charming and competent.

Meeruthiya Gangsters has in my opinion the best ensemble cast you'll see in a Hindi film this year. And Qadri deserves every bit of credit, for not just letting his actors discover the playful essence of the material but also for conveying to them the rot that exists beneath all the playfulness. Qadri often reaches out to the exact texture of evil; it's the kind of evil where if you realise, you are about to be captured by the police, you don't panic, but instead think up the next line-of-action.

The movie is not always well-lit and the near-dusky frames mirror the somber nature of the subject. It's not a screwball comedy about gangsters like what the posters may tell you. It is a movie that's always tethered to its dark side but like I've alluded to before, one that chooses to play itself out like a 'comedy of manners.' There is the same primitive force of the very early Martin Scorsese -- we are talking here specifically about the Who's That Knocking at my Door? Scorsese -- with the intensity being replaced by a sense of rhapsody.

In a particularly surreal scene, one of the characters gets his ear cut in a bloody fight. When rushed to the hospital the doctor says he can restore the ear, if he was handed out the severed piece. So the boys rush back to the spot of the fight and swoop up whatever's left of the ear. On the surface the entire thing might seem like a David Lynch-ian wink, but what it actually is, is an act of tough guys that can turn 'professional' anytime.

The critical reception that Meeruthiya Gangsters is receiving seems to follow a pattern that we are so used to in this country. Critics acting like high priests of morality and questioning something that disturbs them. That's like saying a movie is supposed to evoke in us a set of fixed responses and a movie that doesn't do that, needs to be thoroughly queried.

Why is it that we are so forgiving of the glaring problems in our grand multi-starrers like Dil Dhadakne Do, but when a small film with a truly personal vision seeks our approval, we analyse it through a prism of formal perfection?

Why is it that we cry hoarse about being dished out the same stuff over and over again, but when offered something that shakes up our viewing comfort, we act all evasive?

Do we find our own realities disconcerting?

Are we too confounded by the fact that not everything around us offers us lessons and so we search for those lessons at the movies?

Meeruthiya Gangsters turns little moments into a series of questions relating to our tastes as viewers. The greatest achievement of the movie is that even when the lights come up, these questions don't quite dim out.

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Sreehari Nair