The problem with making yet another gangster film is that somebody has done it before and, in all probability, done a better job.
Ashim Ahluwalia picks Arun Gawli for a biopic, a gangster whose hold was mostly over a small area of Central Mumbai. The trajectory of his descent into crime due to poverty and rise to Dagdi Chawl’s “Daddy” is predictable. The big mill strike in the 1970s left a lot of workers jobless and starving. It was very easy to recruit them into criminal gangs. It was undoubtedly a turning point in the city’s history.
For the handsome Arjun Rampal to play the gangster, changing his face with prosthetics must have tickled the actor’s vanity, though he obviously could not shrink himself to Gawli’s slight five foot, three inch frame. (In a 2015 Marathi film titled Dagdi Chawl, Makrand Despande was a dead ringer for the Marathi don.)
When taking up the story of a benevolent don who cares about his people, there is only so much more that can be said after films like Nayakan, Satya and Once Upon A Time in Mumbai covered the entire gamut. All films about the underworld – whether based on real characters or not – tend to white wash the violence and glamorise the world of crime. Daddy is based on the life of a living underworld figure and politician, albeit one serving a life sentence for the murder of an MLA, so there can be no real criticism of his methods.
He may be a smuggler, extortionist or killer, the film seems to say, but he is a loving family man, loyal friend, secular, generous – and all-round good fella.
Ahluwalia has gone into parts of Mumbai not seen before and shot in dimly lit frames; he has also used a back and forth narrative style that can confuse and jar. The enmity with a bespectacled don who flees to Dubai, called Maqsood for some reason and played by Farhan Akhtar, does not quite play out for thrills.
The ’70s-’80s style – the big hair, broad collars and bell bottoms – is recreated well. Most actors in supporting parts are cast perfectly – Anand Ingale as Babu Reshim, Rajesh Sringarpure as Rama Naik, Nishikant Kamat as an evil cop and Aishwarya Rajesh as Asha Gawli.
Despite all that works for the film, what kills it in the end is déjà vu.