There is an amusing scene in Tigmanshu Dhulia’s 2012 biopic on the incredible life of athlete-turned-dacoit Paan Singh Tomar. Hounded by cops, Tomar (Irrfan) and his rag-tag bunch of baaghis (rebels), the word commonly used by locals to describe the dacoits of central India, are taking a much-needed breather when one of the men points at something in the distance. In the twilight, Tomar sees a buffalo. Sitting astride it is a little boy, his head turned, his eyes fixed on them. To the flagging Tomar and his men, the boy appears as a visitation from Yama – the god of death who is usually depicted mounted on a buffalo. Disquieted, the armed men quickly make their way from the spot.
The boy on a buffalo. It is a fleeting but memorable image, one that is fittingly referenced by lyricist Varun Grover in a song in Sonchiriya, a riveting film that, from its very first frame, is pervaded by death. If songwriter Manvendra referred to the rebel as “banwasi” in Dhulia’s film, the baaghis of Sonchiriya, in Grover’s clever wordplay, are “abhagis” (the ill-fated ones), reminding us of Sahir Ludhianvi’s poem from Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), one of the classic films in the genre. In Mujhe Jeene Do, the mother of a dacoit’s child laments, “Tere bachpan ko jawani ki dua deti hoon/Aur dua deke pareshan si ho jaati hoon.”
Sonchiriya keeps reminding us that even dreaded daakus can be good-hearted people. Not that we needed any prompting. From Dilip Kumar in Ganga Jumna (1961) to Sunny Deol in Dacait (1987), the daakus of Bollywood have largely been depicted as good guys forced to make a difficult choice.
But when he picked up the gun and rode away into the wilderness, the daaku crossed an invisible line and lost his singing voice. Even the wronged young men who become terrorists in Gulzar’s Maachis (1996) got to strut around in picturesque surroundings singing “Chhod aaye hum voh galiyan.” The seething Vijay also had an opportunity to put forth his views on love in Trishul (Mohabbat bade kaam ki cheez hai,” he helpfully informed us). No such luck for our hero. The singing (and dancing) had to be accomplished in the pre-baaghi phase.
But it is not that only the sound of bullets and horse hooves rang out in the desolate, filmy beehad. Gang members and lovers were exempt from this sonic embargo. There was also, of course, always a Munni bai around. If urban gangsters had the nightclub, then the dacoit – good or bad, especially the latter – had recourse to a kotha, often landing up there in hideous mufti to nurse a drink and savour a mujra or a qawwali, and some sensuous dance moves.
There are variations on the kotha theme. In Sholay (1975), we had the good old, amorphous banjaras, led by the ever-dependable Helen, entertaining daakus and arms smugglers with Mehbooba Mehbooba. If you were the bad dacoit, like Sunil Dutt’s Thakur Jarnail Singh in Mujhe Jeene Do, you could always get the enchanting dancing girl kidnapped and brought to your den.
The bad dacoit’s den also served as the perfect setting for a number of climactic songs, not least that antakshari perennial Maar Diya Jaaye Ya Chhod Diya Jaaye (Mera Gaon Mera Desh, 1971), and the iconic Jab Tak Hai Jaan (Sholay). Hema Malini’s Basanti in Sholay memorably danced over shards of glass, triggering a whole sub-sub-genre of sadistic song and dance sequences that reached their creative apogee in the 1980s.
The relationship between the dacoit and the courtesan was not restricted to that of, well, client and vendor. Both outsiders to the system, they often found themselves becoming confidantes and romantic partners.
Some dancing girls, though, wanted a piece of the action. In Raj Khosla’s Mera Gaon Mera Desh, Daku Jabbar Singh (Vinod Khanna) seeks the assistance of a dancing girl (Laxmi Chhaya) to ferret out the true intentions of Dharmendra’s Ajit. In Mera Saaya (1966), another Raj Khosla film, Sadhana serves as a willing decoy, setting up unsuspecting villagers for pillage as she gyrates to Jhumka Gira Re.
Taking the daaku-courtesan relationship to the next level was Putlibai (1972), loosely inspired by the real-life story of a dancing girl who became a legendary “bandit queen” in the 1950s. The film’s director, Ashok Roy, was probably influenced by the writings of Taroon Coomar Bhaduri (Jaya Bachchan’s father), a journalist who documented the lives of Chambal’s dacoits in best-selling books in Bengali.
The highpoint of Putlibai, unsurprisingly, is its soundtrack. The banter-filled Aise Besharam Aashiq Hain, performed by Yusuf Azad and Rashida Khatoon, is a delightful qawwali that received tremendous traction in its time. Contemporary listeners will probably take more of a liking to Mere Meet Bataa, a groovy Kishore-Asha duet with a bizarre orchestral arrangement, composed by Jaykumar Parte, a long-time assistant to Kalyanji-Anandji.
A little more than a decade later, Roy was back with another real-life-dacoit-inspired film. Kahani Phoolvati Ki (1985), with the late Rita Bhaduri in the titular role, was based on the sensational story of a young woman who in February 1981 gunned down 20 men, her higher-caste tormentors, in a village called Behmai in Uttar Pradesh. Phoolan Devi’s high-profile exploits sparked off a series of indifferent avenging angel dramas in the ’80s. But it was Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1994), based on Mala Sen’s book India’s Bandit Queen, that finally told her tragic story in all its gory, unflinching detail.
Bandit Queen was not a genre film, but its stark realism clearly set the agenda for any future movie on the dacoit theme. For one, deeply embedded caste divisions and hierarchies could now no longer be papered over by convenient class identifiers.
Sonically, too, the film’s mix of rustic folk tunes combined with contemporary orchestration and the use of unconventional vocal textures showed the way forward. The generic folk of traditional Bollywood could now be jettisoned wholesale, though the Ennio Morricone-influenced components that RD Burman had introduced in the background score of films like Khote Sikkay (1974) and Sholay would persist as trace elements.
While Hindi cinema has long been inspired by the lives of the baaghis, it has not always been one-way traffic.
In early 1981, a journalist from the news magazine Sunday travelled to “the ravines of Chambal and desolate stretches of U.P.” to report on the lives of some of the region’s more famous rebels, including Phoolan Devi. “The police officers dealing with the anti-dacoity operations in UP,” the journalist later wrote, “blame the censors for passing certain shots in the multi-starrer Sholay…which they feel inspired the dacoits to run amuck.”
And, no, it was not the chopping off of Thakur’s arms that seemed to have grabbed the attention of the dacoits. Rather, they were captivated by the stylishly shot scene where Gabbar and his gang kill off members of Thakur’s family in the latter’s absence. A serving senior police officer, reported the journalist, “told me that in three cases, while interrogating arrested dacoits, he was told that they had been influenced by this shot. One dacoit told [the police] during interrogation: “Neta kahte the ab to Sholay jaisa badla lenge. (The leader of the gang said that now we would take revenge in the Sholay style)“.
Barely months after the reporter filed this story, one of the “dreaded” dacoits he wrote about, Paan Singh Tomar, was killed in a police encounter, again bringing into sharp focus the fact that the life of a baaghi in the badlands of central India was a life on the run, a life lived under the constant shadow of death. The buffalo rider would get you sooner rather than later.