In the world of “Daddy”, darkness rules in the frame and in the story being narrated. Ashim Ahluwalia’s biopic of one of Mumbai’s most feared gangsters is full of dank, seedy alleys and teeming chawls, where bullets fly easily and you never know where the enemy could be lurking.
Much in the style of his debut feature film “Miss Lovely”, Ahluwalia infuses “Daddy” with atmosphere and we see Arun Gawli (Arjun Rampal) leaping across red-tiled roofs in pouring rain or praying in a secret cave as the police come to arrest him.
But “Daddy” doesn’t quite get a hold on its subject. Perhaps this is because it’s an authorized biopic and the man on the wrong side of the law (Gawli is in prison for murdering a lawmaker) doesn’t want his secrets revealed, or perhaps because the film-makers choose to leave those holes in the story deliberately. Whatever the reason, “Daddy” falls short of giving us a no-holds-barred look at its subject.
The film is told in a series of flashbacks and characters seem to keep criss-crossing time periods. Gawli, whose rivalry with Dawood Ibrahim and subsequent reinvention as a politician and lawmaker is well known, is revealed through various viewpoints to Nitin Vijaykar, the Mumbai policeman who has been chasing Gawli his whole life. Vijaykar meets Gawli’s mother, wife, a former associate, and others who worked with him, in the hope of finding incriminating evidence.
From a small-time robber to his first murder and subsequent run-ins with Maqsood (Farhan Akhtar in a toupee and signature squeaky voice trying his best to play Dawood Ibrahim), the policeman learns everything about Gawli. If a man had spent half his life chasing Gawli, you’d have thought he knew his story already, but “Daddy” doesn’t much care for details like these.
There is no doubt that Gawli was one of Mumbai’s most feared gangsters - he killed dozens of people and indulged in criminal activity, and yet the film is reluctant to pin responsibility of the path he chose on Gawli.
Time and again we are told he never wanted to get into the gangster business or kill people. If only his father hadn’t lost his job in a mill strike or if only the police hadn’t gunned down his best friend, he would never have taken to crime.
That sympathetic view of their subject means Ahluwalia (and co-writer Rampal) make Arun Gawli a somewhat one-dimensional character. The cases against him are politically motivated, the police are controlled by Maqsood and everyone is out to get Gawli - at least that’s what the film will have you believe. You get amateurish scenes like MLAs shunning Gawli inside the state assembly or Maqsood’s henchman lurking while the police try to arrest Gawli.
What tides the film over these bumpy spots is the strength of its cast (except for Akhtar, who sticks out like a sore thumb). Nishikant Kamat as the determined and sometimes vengeful police officer, determined to see the end of his nemesis, is stellar and almost unrecognizable from his previous avatar. As Gawli’s devoted wife Asha, Aishwarya Rajesh is one of the film’s standout performances. But the film belongs to Rampal, who excels in an author-backed role.
What distinguishes “Daddy” from the many campy gangster films Bollywood has produced is that it at least attempts to try something different within the genre. But scratch the surface, and it is yet another film that romanticizes a gangster and attempts to redeem him.
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