The Mumbai underworld movie became a genre unto itself with Ram Gopal Varma’s productions in the late 1990s and early 2000s. These movies showcased self-contained worlds with their own rules and moral codes, vocabulary and stock characters, including shooters with cocked guns and swagger, kohl-eyed hoodlums who governed from the inner reaches of underlit rooms, posses of disposable and invariably unpleasant looking ruffians, upright as well as crooked police officials, and goodhearted women whose love posed both distraction and redemption. The genre descended into parody soon after it caught on, but it at least gave us memorable performances, new phrases with which to spice up our language (”ghoda” does not only mean horse and “thokna” is not the act of driving a nail into a wall), and perspectives on the seamy edifice on which Mumbai’s wealth is built.
The kindest thing that can be said about Dongri Ka Raja is that it tries to pay tribute to this fascinating but over-exploited genre while simultaneously trying to say something new about crime and the city. The endeavour might have worked if writer M Salim and director Hadi Ali Abrar had not sat down with a kill list of gangster film tropes. Every single cliché is packed into the 139-minute running time, starting with the portentous voiceover, the bird’s eye view of Mumbai’s Dongri neighbourhood, and the hurried montage of city scenes before swooping down to ground level.
Dongri is, of course, from where Dawood Ibrahim and various other luminaries of the underworld operated before fleeing Mumbai’s shores, and Ronit Roy’s all-powerful and fearsome Mansoor Ali is presumably modelled on the fugitive. Mansoor is the uncrowned ruler of Dongri, and his main enforcer is his adopted son Raja (Gashmeer Mahajani). Raja has been picked off the streets at a young age and brought up by Mansoor and his loving wife (Ashwini Kalsekar), and he proves his machismo by shooting a rival gang member while impersonating sub-inspector Sidhanth (Ashmit Patel). For all his posing, Raja proves that he has the heart of an ice cream in summer when he sets his eyes on Shruti (Reecha Sinha). Mansoor correctly predicts that love will cause the hand that holds the gun to tremble, and a series of plot twists, one more preposterous than the next, ensures that we are stuck with these wingless lovebirds all the way till the end.
There are hat tips to Varma’s Drohi and Satya, too many scenes with the uncharismatic and inept leads, Ashmit Patel scampering about in khaki, and valiant attempts to write lines that will linger in memory. “Sudhar ja nahin to guzar ja,” Raja advises one of his potential victims. Only Ronit Roy emerges intact from the wreckage, even though he has been playing a grim-faced reaper in so many films that he seems to have forgotten how to smile.
The movie’s moral compass is broken enough to suggest that we sympathise with Raja, who kills at will, side with Shruti’s unofficial attempts to right wrongs, and sneer at Sidhanth’s efforts to bring him down Mansoor (Ashmit Patel could have something to do our inability to warm to his character). If there is anybody worth feeling for, it’s the real king of Dongri, who is stabbed in the back by his son and wife and betrayed by his henchmen, all in the name of a love that is too unconvincing to be remotely affecting.