Indians love mob movies as much as Americans do--partly because both of our countries unfortunately have a history of thriving organized crime--to the point where stories about the mob have become a kind of mythology, and Bollywood's robust gangster genre is the one that bears the most similarity to Hollywood. In both countries, those films are made in the same gritty style.
There are some key differences, however. Musical numbers, for one. Although they're rare in Bollywood mob movies, they do pop up sometimes, in a surprisingly fitting way. But perhaps that isn't such a difference after all--musical sequences are prominent in many American mob movies, from 'The Godfather' (1972) to 'The Departed' (2006).
Another crucial variation comes from the slang used to describe criminal syndicates. In the U.S., they're often called "families" or "gangs," words that signify personal connections. There's a little bit of that in India--'bhai,' which means "brother," is a euphemism for criminals, but their illegal enterprises are often called "companies." (India's most notorious was known as "D-Company.") The American naming convention is perversely romantic while the Indian word choice is much more accurate--the mob has a corporate-like hierarchy and operates for the sole purpose of making money--and this reality is more starkly reflected in Indian mob movies.
The notion of the separation of business and personal is the theme of 'Company,' a film that belongs on any list of best mob movies of all time. It's directed by Ram Gopal Varma--the Martin Scorsese of India. While many of Varma's films are highly stylized, his approach here has a documentary quality. Actor Ajay Devgan turns in one of the best performances of his career as Malik, a smart, smooth mid-level gangster. Vivek Oberoi makes a brilliant film debut as Chandu, a cocky, small-time hood. Malik outsources low-level thuggery to contract workers like Chandu, who thinks his freelance status exempts him from being told how to do his job, much to the consternation of the company's impotent upper management. Malik sees an opportunity for advancement in this discord and he takes Chandu under his wing. Together, they pull off a hostile takeover through violence and savvy. The two men are perfect foils--Chandu is all heart, Malik is all brain--and they become friends. Or do they merely bond over their mutual self-interests? Neither man is sure as they consolidate their power and move headquarters to Hong Kong to escape prosecution in India. Mistrust inevitably seeps in and cracks the company wide open. Whatever Chandu and Malik once were to each other, they're enemies now--and there's no question that their enmity is deeply personal.
While their complicated relationship is the crux of the story, their romantic entanglements are equally engrossing. The only thing that warms Malik's cold blood is his girlfriend, Saroja (Manisha Koirala), a vaguely self-loathing woman, conflicted about her lover, whom she half-jokingly calls a devil and a monster. Chandu's abiding love for his devoted and fearless wife Kanu (Antara Mali) makes him a happy husband with a lot to lose. Both actresses, but Mali in particular, hold their own next to their outstanding co-stars.
- The Bollywood Ticket: The American guide to Indian movies (Subscribe: The Bollywood Ticket)