When Bombay Velvet’s Johnny Balraj declares in a poster that he is “pleased to meet you”, three possibilities arise.

One is that the anti-hero of Anurag Kashyap’s period movie, due to be released in May, is a pleasant and convivial chap. Balraj, played by Ranbir Kapoor, could also be reminding audiences of Bombay Velvet’s debt to hard-talking and sharp-shooting gangsters from American cinema, especially the two versions of Scarface from 1932 and 1983 (a line from the 1983 version goes, “Say hello to my little friend?”). Finally, Balraj could be referring to the two Thompson submachine guns he is holding – the noisy and deadly efficient automatic firing weapons that were a part of popular lore in 1930s America along with its fugitive bank robbers, Prohibition violators and law enforcement officials.

In real life, Johnny Balraj would perhaps have wielded a pistol, a revolver or a rifle. He would have been hard-pressed to find one, let alone two, Tommy Guns, as they are known, in Mumbai in the 1960s, the decade in which the film is set. Despite its healthy crime rate, Mumbai does not have a gun culture. The Arms Act, 1959, has stringent don’ts and a few dos. The weapons permitted for purchase are strictly regulated by the government, which specifies the make (revolvers, pistols and rifles only) and the type of cartridges. Private gun licences are not given out easily, the police keep a firm eye on arms consignments, and weapons don’t go off even in rough neighbourhoods, unlike in similarly economically stratified cities such as Sao Paulo and Johannesburg.

Not only is gun ownership restricted, licence holders cannot parade their weaponry, said Adi Suder, veteran photographer and former instructor at the Maharashtra Rifle Association in south-central Mumbai. “There are many restrictions – you are not supposed to use your rifle anywhere in the cities and only in the jungle,” said Suder, who has eight arms licences and a rifle collection. “If I fire in the air and somebody reports it to the police, I can be arrested immediately. I can’t even shoot a crow or a squirrel.”

Small is beautiful

Mumbai is no stranger to illegally procured arms, and it has seen its share of machine guns, especially since the ’90s. Yet, “it is not easy to smuggle guns into Bombay”, said S Husain Zaidi, journalist and the author of several chronicles of the Mumbai underworld. Films often sacrifice fact for fantasy, Zaidi pointed out. “A big gun looks fancy in the hands of a macho hero, but in real life, gangsters and criminals use mostly small guns such as revolvers and pistols,” he said. “The revolver is more of a police weapon.”

The guns that come into the city are usually purchased at illegal bazaars in Peshawar and Kathmandu. Country-made guns come from northern India. The Mumbai underworld prefers small weapons that can be as easily transported as they can be concealed. Most of the notorious police-led encounters of the '90s were committed with revolvers rather than machine guns, Zaidi noted.

It is only in 1992 and 1993, when Mumbai was torn apart by communal riots, that machine guns such as AK-47s and AK-56s began to be smuggled into the city. A few weapons and hand grenades were famously delivered to actor Sanjay Dutt by underworld don Abu Salem, eventually resulting in the movie star’s imprisonment.

Man and his machine gun

It was actually in the US that the machine gun was embraced by criminals and eventually the enforcers of the law in the tumultuous ‘20s and ’30s. The Tommy Gun, writes John Ellis in The Social History of the Machine Gun, was designed by Colonel JT Thompson “specifically as a weapon for trench warfare”, to be used “in close-quarter combat”. The showmanship opportunities afforded by automatic firing guns were not lost on notorious American hoodlums such as bank robbers John Dillinger and “Machine Gun Kelly” (real name George Frances Barnes Jr). “Even if the raid went off without a hitch, one member or the other of the gang could be relied upon to loose off a burst of shots at a ceiling or a plate-glass window,” Ellis writes. The rat-a-tat impact and instant results made the machine gun the perfect weapon to strike terror and express a philosophy of nihilism and destruction. “The sheer violence of its action, and the indiscriminate deadliness of its effect, has made it a useful symbol for expressing modern man’s frenzied attempts to assert himself in an increasingly complex and depersonalised world,” Ellis says.

If Johnny Balraj reminds us of such American movie stars as James Cagney and Paul Muni in the Bombay Velvet trailer, it’s entirely deliberate, Kashyap said. “The whole look of Johnny in the film is inspired by James Cagney,” he said. The repeated use of the phrase “big shot” is a reference to a closing line from Raoul Walsh’s 1939 classic The Roaring Twenties, Kashyap added. In the film, “you will also see Johnny watching The Roaring Twenties at Regal [cinema] that fuels his ambition, and posters of James Cagney that he puts up in his house”.

Cinematic liberties

Bombay Velvet claims to be a period piece, but it is also a heavily stylised recreation of the past, which allows Kashyap to put Tommy Guns into a story that doesn’t have any place for them. Manish Tyagi, who supplied the weapons for the action sequences, says the guns seen in the trailer were real rather than fabrications, as is usually the case. He remembers having supplied fake machine guns to various action potboilers in the past, such as Anil Sharma’s 1999 hit Elaan-e-Jung. “We fabricated the guns in that movie, but Anurag wanted real guns for Bombay Velvet to enhance the impact,” Tyagi said. “I have never had a request before for Tommy Guns.”

Tyagi procured the guns from a German armourer. He escaped stringent government rules that prevent the import of firing weapons into India since a bulk of the movie was shot at a studio in Sri Lanka. Usually, film production crews need to collect imported weapons from Customs at the airport and get a no-objection certificate that these weapons are indeed non-firing and contain blanks from the Arms Department of the Mumbai police.

“We used six guns in all,” Tyagi said. “They are very expensive – I can’t say how much they cost, but I can reveal that the fee for the guns was equal to what I was paid for a week on the film.” He also supplied revolvers that were used in the ’60s.

Filmmakers usually use fakes for action scenes and create the visual and aural effects of gunfire through special effects later. “However, Anurag did not want VFX,” Tyagi said. A tribute to the ’30s in a movie set in the ’60s, and a gun that has possibly never been fired in the city but lends the climax its ballast – whatever happened to historical authenticity?

“The Tommy Gun is a tribute to The Public Enemy (1931) and James Cagney and gangster noir of America in the ’30s,” Kashyap explained. “The ’20s and the ’30s saw prohibition in the US, and in Maharashtra, Prohibition started in 1949 and extended to the late ’60s. In India, Tommy Guns were illegal and since our film deals with prohibition and cabaret and jazz and all things illegal in that Bombay, we decided to import the Tommy Guns and use them, take that cinematic liberty and complete the one wish that most filmmakers have had, which is to show their hero using a Tommy Gun in their films. You will be surprised how many filmmakers called me to say just, Fuck, you used a Tommy Gun.’ It was just a kick.”