Early one Sunday morning 30 years ago, a young man came to meet a newly married couple who had moved into the first floor of an old Goan house, close to ours, on Chapel Road in Bandra. The two men hugged. Then the visitor took a gun out of his pocket, shot the other man point blank and walked away. Friends came running, eyes wide, to tell the tale of how he fell down the stairs, how much blood. By 10am, we were watching He-Man as usual.

“I know this landscape of the city, I remember the texture of it,” Ashim Ahluwalia said of the time and place that was 1980s Bombay. The city is second skin to Ahluwalia, who grew up here before the boundaries came into focus, when the architecture and the sociology informed each other. “We were always spilling into each other,” he said. “The city was fluid across class, religion, community. If anyone asked what community you were from, we assumed they were from out of town. We didn’t live in a bubble, life was lived on the streets.”

The lack of that bubble afforded you a more intimate aspect of Bombay, the director said: “It was a certain age; grungy, filthy, raw, a very visceral city. Colaba, Marine Lines changed completely after dark. We grew up knowing about Datta Samant, the mill strikes, the derelict wasteland that was Parel, gangland shootouts, seeing graphic pictures in the morning paper of a guy, shot at a dance bar, face down in the chana. This was our truth, our childhood mythology.”

The story of Arun Gawli is part of this mythology. Gawli’s generation suffered as the mills were locked down. They bore the cruelty of realising those mass strikes were futile. Unemployed, young, angry, some of them found ways to survive beyond the law.

But unlike other gangsters whose names peppered the press more frequently and were whispered in rumours about someone in the hood with a “Do number ka kaam,” Gawli inspired a certain awe, even an affection. In local lore, Gawli became the gangster with heart, one of Bal Thackeray’s “amchi muley” (our boys), a tear in his eye even with blood on his hands. He was “Daddy”, and he has inspired Ahluwalia’s new movie, starring Arjun Rampal.

The filmmaker said that he has grown to understand Gawli too. “He’s led a heavy life but he’s done his time,” he said. “I found him very straight up. He tells you things he’s done very directly, no attempt to cover them up or brag about them either.”

Daddy (2017).

Over the course of the making of Daddy, Ahluwalia developed a rapport with the gangster, a level of trust. Yet, when Gawli watched the film, Ahluwalia didn’t know what to expect.

“He didn’t speak for a while, and it was nerve wracking,” the filmmaker said. “The film is based on real life incidents. It’s not typically heroic and maybe he was unnerved at how close to the actual history it came. It was strange to watch him watch a scene of the killing of another gangster, his close friend and mentor. He found parts of how we depicted the killing upsetting, so we toned that down. Once he knew we were going for the real deal though, he went with the film all the way. He has an amazingly sharp eye. He asked me to change a newspaper headline from 1987 that he remembered differently – that’s how on he is.”

Parts of the story could not be told for legal reasons. Gawli is still seeking an appeal, there are cases in court. “We asked if we could show him getting high, and he said, go ahead, everyone knows I’m a smoker,” the director said. And while the legends of Gawli grow taller in the telling, there are truths that viewers have to be reminded of – the friendship he developed with Dawood Ibrahim despite their bloody rivalry, Gawli’s primarily Muslim electorate, how he fell in love with a Muslim teenager who became his wife.

“This is the cosmopolitan nature of the Bombay I grew up in,” Ahluwalia said. “Our histories are intertwined, any separation we try to create is artificial.”

Unearthing the truth in the histories was still easier than showing the physical nature of the old neighbourhoods. Ahluwalia said, “I’ve made two films set in this city’s past. Miss Lovely, was set in the mid-1980s. Daddy starts in the late 1970s and goes all the way up to 2012. Most of the locations I shot in for Miss Lovely have already been bulldozed. Many of the locations in Daddy are earmarked for re-development. In the next five years, it will be impossible to find locations to make a genuine period film here. This is a sad situation for filmmakers because there is then no way to visually reconstruct your city’s past.”

Arjun Rampal as Arun Gawli in Daddy (2017). Image credit: Kundalini Entertainment.

Ahluwalia found his Bombay/Mumbai onscreen during the early ’80s. “Mumbai filmmakers started venturing outside of the comfort zone of tourist landscapes like Marine Drive and VT station,” he recalled. “Chandra Barot’s Don has some killer locations but that was rare at the time. You first see a real insider’s view of the city in Saeed Mirza’s Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. Mirza was an absolute pioneer when it came to representing this city on screen. You’ve never seen Dongri and Mohammed Ali Road filmed like that before. I love Rabindra Dharmaraj’s Chakra for its early view into Dharavi. By the late 1980s, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! took off from there and suddenly you were seeing Falkland Road instead of the Gateway of India.”

That the city is changing, physically, demographically and even in spirit is just a sign of the times, he added: “It’s true of the whole world. Everyone wants to be everyone else. The internet makes us unconsciously copy each other’s imagery, towards a complete homogeneity. Bandra is turning into a faux-Brooklyn. Brooklyn wants to be Berlin. In New York, in a part of Williamsburg that used to be industrial suddenly it seems like a cluster of urban Indian glass skyscrapers had just sprung up. We like to say that Europe preserves its buildings, but I’m prepping a film in Berlin right now and they’re taking down old buildings, putting up towers that look like they could be built by Lodha.”

The Mumbai of John & Jane, he added, which is set in “a kind of third-world science fiction – the fluorescent interiors of call centers, hypermalls, vast swamps with semi-constructed buildings, generic glass and steel towers”, is totally unrecognisable from the city depicted in Daddy.

Daddy was about me reconnecting with my city,” the director said. “A big part of me belongs to the street, feeds off its energy, thrives on the long relationships I’ve had, not all ‘people like us’, many are from very different worlds. But we live that hybridity here everyday.”

Ahluwalia showed the film to his local Bombay guys who are familiar with gangster folklore. “They said, that’s correct, or suggested a correction,” he said. It was encouraging because to him, Daddy works at two levels. “There is a big gangster movie. But there are details that Mumbai people will get. This film is for them.”

The younger, multiplex audiences will like the film too, he believes. “It could be a revelation for them because many Bollywood gangsters, outfitted by stylists, look and act nothing like the real deal,” he said. “No Dolce & Gabbana in this film unfortunately. Our real gangland history is very wild, we’d give the Colombians a run for their money, we just have to tell real stories.”

Gangsters on film or shot down in broad daylight on the streets of our childhoods aren’t as daunting to consider as a city increasingly ghettoised after the Bombay riots of 1992. “Boundaries demarcate everything; Muslims or single women have a hard time getting flats, certain neighborhoods won’t allow you to cook this or that food,” Ahluwalia said. “Where is the tolerance we all had for each other that made this city amazing?

His way to counter it is to reject the bubble and constantly engage with the real city. “I get out, get a ganna juice, gossip with the cigarettewalla or the drug pusher I’ve known since he was a kid,” he said. “I’ve wandered this entire city. It’s something else to feel the physical entity that is the streets. I don’t need social media or the English press to know what’s going on. I just go down the road to my chanawala, the folks there, maybe a mother with her child… We all chat about politics, or life in general. Then we go our own way. It’s beautiful.”

Ashim Ahluwalia. Image credit: Stephanie Cornfield.