A scene in director Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy nicely captures the very dichotomy that makes the film’s protagonist, famed Mumbai gangster Arun Gawli such a fascinating figure. Interrupted by his crying baby daughter while discussing business with an associate, Gawli (played by Arjun Rampal) comforts the infant, picking up a rattle in one hand, while never putting down the gun he’s holding in the other.
It’s a small throwaway moment, but it serves as an analogy for the big picture. Gawli, currently serving life imprisonment, has some 120 odd cases of murder, extortion, and the like against him. Curiously, in the mid 90s he formed his own political party and in 2004 he was elected as an MLA from the Chinchpokli constituency, having positioned and reinvented himself as a modern-day Robin Hood of sorts, committed to the cause of the Marathi manoos. And hence the moniker Daddy.
Ahluwalia’s film, made with the blessings of the Gawli family, shines a spotlight on many of the characters that played key roles in the gangster’s life, including his partners in the BRA gang Babu Reshim and Rama Naik, former ally-turned-arch rival Dawood (referred to as Maqsood in the film), an obsessed cop determined to bring him to task, and the wife who stood firmly by his side.
Beginning in the 70s and culminating in Gawli’s conviction in 2012, the film benefits greatly from the filmmaker’s keen eye for period and atmospheric detail. Ahluwalia conjures up an authentic Bombay of the past – the chawls, the docks, seedy bars and brothels that instantly look and feel real. That meticulous recreation is evocative of his own last film Miss Lovely, a dark drama set against the underbelly of the city’s B-movie industry.
Problem is that Daddy sacrifices plot and pace at the altar of craft and visual aesthetic. The back and forth narrative is distracting, and the film unfolds slower than a snail race. The first half is particularly testing and feels much longer than it actually is.
What’s also disappointing is that the film fully sympathizes with the Dagdi Chawl don. Although the narrative is pieced together from the memories and testimonies of others, this is a version skewed unmistakably in Gawli’s favor. So while he may have been a mafia boss with blood on his hands, we’re told he was ‘forced’ into a life of crime, that he fought to get out of it but was sucked back in, that he tried to stride back into respectability but was never given a chance. This is Arun Gawli, more victim-of-circumstance, family man and do-gooder, less ruthless don.
Nevertheless, Ahluwalia stages some impressive scenes, particularly a visceral elevator shootout, and one in which a chillum is cleverly smuggled into Gawli’s jail cell. Rampal, who has produced the film and is credited as one if its writers, looks eerily like the man he plays, particularly in his later years, sporting his trademark Gandhian topi, gold watch, and white kurta pyjama. It’s a shrewd performance, relying almost entirely on body language over histrionics, and the actor doesn’t disappoint.
Less effective is a surprise cameo in the role of Maqsood. It’s a case of bad casting; a weak performance reduces the part to caricature. Thankfully Ahluwalia assembles a fine ensemble to fill out supporting roles, and they add to the authentic texture of the film.
In the end, there’s a lot to appreciate in Daddy, yet sadly it’s not enough. The craft is admirable and the big denouement is thought provoking, but pacing issues cripple the film to the extent that you’re exhausted by the time the lights come back on.
I’m going with two-and-a-half out of five.
Rating: 2.5 / 5