Classic Indian Gangster Movies
It is upon entering the cinema’s criminal underworlds that one realises the kind of impact the gangster genre has on an average moviegoer. Gritty, punctuated with tough talk and as straight-to-life depictions of the bloodlust inherent in the human self, these films are clever introspections within the psyche. From directors like Martin Scorsese to Ram Gopal Verma, these films have also become the director’s favourite points of interest, as everyone likes an underdog story. We watch the characters live the lives of power, the ones that we only wish we could lead. We relate to their rise, and to their fall, alike.
So, get ready to dive into this underworld, I’re sure it is an offer you can not refuse.
1. Nayakan (1987) – Tamil
It is often said that Tamil cinema can be divided into two eras, one before Nayakan and one following it. The Mani Ratnam film stars Kamal Hassan and Saranya in lead roles. The plot takes reel inspiration from The Godfather and bases itself around the real-life Mumbai gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar. Technically speaking, the film succeeds on almost all fronts, which is what makes it an even better watch. With highly impactful casting, earthy dialogue writing by Balakumaran, P.C Sreeram’s brilliant cinematography and Ilayaraja’s ace music score, the film succeeds on many fronts.
The film is a testament to the fact that storytelling can be well-rooted in reality, and yet be entertaining and interesting. It earned three national awards: Best Actor (Kamal Hassan), Best Art Direction (Thota Tharani) and Best Cinematography (P. C. Sreeram) and inspired generations of filmmakers after. Over time, it has found a place in several best film lists, including TIME‘s All-Time 100 Best Films.
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2. Parinda (1989)
This cult crime drama follows the classic revenge plot line involving two brothers on either sides of a crime. How the story pans out from there involves the protagonist’s infiltration into the same gang that caused his friend’s death. The film is inspired from a Hollywood film titled Broken Horses. Starring Jackie Shroff, Anil Kapoor, Nana Patekar and Madhuri Dixit, the film essentially attempts to change the audiences notions about the Mumbai underworld. It also deals effectively, with the moral predicaments of defending an immoral profession. Nana Patekar’s character Anna is rendered with a unique vulnerability and humanism, adding realism to the narrative.
The climatic scenes are pivotal and strong, showing director Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s intelligent grip over the film. Parinda was India’s official selection at the 1990 Academy Awards, and won 2 National Awards besides several Filmfare Awards that year.
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3. Agneepath (1990)
Despite having a remake made, the evergreen quality of the older film hasn’t faded away. The cult class Indian mafia movie draws its title from a poem of the same name, penned by Harivanshrai Bachchan. Taking his angry-young-man image forward, the film follows the journey of Amitabh Bachchan’s character into the criminal world.
The film earned Bachchan his first National Film Award for Best Actor at the 38th National Film Awards. It is still considered as one of his landmark performances. Having acquired a cult film status over time, it has also been critically well received.
4. Thalapathi (1991) – Tamil
This Mani Ratnam directorial follows the journey of an orphan who is raised in a slum. After befriending a crime boss, he starts working for him, only to have the existence of the collective threatened upon the arrival of an honest police officer. The film is based upon the mythological friendship between Karna and Duryodhana, both of whom are characters in the Hindu epic Mahabharata. It fictionalises the same tale from Hindu mythology into a gangster flick. What is interesting about this film starring Rajnikanth is that he was extremely keen on working with director Mani Ratnam after watching Nayagan. With cinematography by Santosh Sivan and music by Ilayaraja, the film succeeded on several technical fronts as well.
5. Satya (1998)
A refreshing tale told with undercurrents of black comedy, Satya captures the many underpinnings of the Bombay underbelly with finesse. Written by Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla, and directed by Ram Gopal Verma, the film is based around the life of an innocent man who gets falsely framed for a crime he did not commit. That defining moment which actually leads him into the life of crime is followed throughout the length of the film. An enormous critical and commercial hit, it marked a crucial starting point for the filmic careers of many, including Manoj Bajpayee, Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla.
When Bhiku Mhatre delivers the ever-iconic line ‘Mumbai ka king kaun?’, it is an underdog uprising of the rarest kind that takes shape at that moment. With exceptional lyrics by Gulzar and brilliant music score by Vishal Bhardwaj and Sandeep Chowta, the film was truly a melting pot of talents. Although Verma attributes the film’s success to chance, it is clearly not so.
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6. Maqbool (2003)
This Indianization of the Shakespearean Macbeth manifests into an utterly riveting crime-drama film. Transferring the plot to the Mumbai underworld, the film is embedded with layers of universality. Starring Pankaj Kapur, Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri in prominent roles, the film does not just rest on their able shoulders, but draws potentiality from their powerful portrayals. The inner conflicts of characters along-with the themes of guilt and deceit run in the very veins of the film.
The film was screened in the Marché du Film section of the 2004 Cannes Film Festival along with a premiere at 2003 Toronto International Film Festival. Besides, it won Pankaj Kapur a Filmfare and a National Award each, for his performance.
Watch Maqbool on Amazon Prime
7. Black Friday (2004)
‘Black Friday is a moving and exhausting work of angry humanism‘, describes Matt Zoller Seitz of The New York Times. Told in a Rashomon like fashion, the film adopts multiple perspectives to the 1993 serial Bombay bomb blasts. Ranging from police to middlemen, the film shows all sides of the story, which is where its strength lies. Director Anurag Kashyap has proved his mettle over and over again, and this film is one of his most underrated gems. The film is based on a book by Hussain Zaidi titled Black Friday: The True Story of the Bombay Bomb Blasts,
As a chronicler of an extremely sensitive incident in Indian history, Kashyap grapples with a lot of bare threads, consolidating them into one whole. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles. It was also a nominee for the Golden Leopard at the 57th Locarno International Film Festival.
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8. Sarkar (2005)
This Indianization of The Godfather revolves around a man who runs his own parallel government in the underbelly of Mumbai, which when challenged, is avenged by his son. The film derives its essence from the book by Mario Puzo, and makes it as Mumbaiya as it can get. What differs is the treatment of an altogether same plot. Another interesting aspect of this film is that it is not just limited to the underworld, it has a political undercurrent alongwith a Bollywood backdrop to it. Delivering their roles with utmost panache are Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan and Kay Kay Menon in prominent roles.
The film premeired at the New York Asian Film Festival. It won Abhishek several awards for his nuanced performance, and is still considered as one of his best roles.
Watch Sarkar on Amazon Prime
8. Omkara (2006)
A film that is sure to blow the mind of any Shakespeare lover, Omkara is an adaptation of one of his most coveted plays, Othello. Disarming the possible verbosity and complexities that come with telling a Shakespearean story, Vishal Bhardwaj infuses local flavour into the language of the film by using the Uttar Pradesh language. The earthy nature of it coupled with its rustic quality makes the film what it is. While the handkerchief from the play transforms into kamarbandh in the film, the digressions from the plot are negligible. Bhardwaj stays true to his story, and Indianizes it to fit the milieu he sets it in.
The ensemble cast is impeccably chosen, and all of them come together to deliver the masterpiece. With its incredibly slow intrinsic nature, the film flows smoothly and is creative in its adaptive strategies. Besides being critically well received, it was screened at the Marché du Film section at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. It shined bright, winning multiple awards across the board, including the Kara Film Festival, the Filmfares and most notably, the National Awards.
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9. Pudhupettai (2006) – Tamil
Pudhupettai is considered to be one of the most original gangster films ever made in Tamil cinema. It follows the trajectory taken by a high school kid who goes on to become a drug dealer upon joining a gang, to eventually become a gangster. Exposing the talents in his film through skillful making, director Selvaraghavan merges the personal with the political in this film, making it a riveting watch.
Dhanush is now all set to collaborate with brother and filmmaker Selvaraghavan for Pudhupettai 2.
10. Big B (2007) – Malayalam
Following a cold-blooded murder of their mother, four brothers go on to search for the killer in order to discover the truth about the matter. Adapted from Hollywood film Four Brothers, this film is set in Fort Kochi. With crisp dialogue writing, brilliant cinematography and excellent performances, the film becomes as gripping as it could get. Director Amal Neerad’s adept direction comes to the fore with the film.
11. Subramaniapuram (2008) – Tamil
Highly critically acclaimed for almost every aspect of moviemaking, this film is is set in the Subramaniapuram area of Madurai city. It follows the story of five youngsters who undertake a journey of joys and sorrows to arrive at earthy situations in life, becoming epicentres of money and power. Despite being director Sasikumar’s debut work, it surely doesn’t seem so as it is crafted with the finesse that an experienced director would possess. With a story well grounded in the space it is set in, the film works out well in terms of space-time relationship as well. It was received outstandingly by critics and audiences alike.
12. Aaranya Kaandam (2010) – Tamil
The first neo-noir film in Tamil cinema, this film deserves a special place on the list for its gritty-natured storytelling. The plot centers around a mob boss, who is forced to deal with a resentful concubine alongwith a misplaced bag of cocaine. Combined with an engrossing plot, are the many minute technical details, which make the film what it is. With apt casting, aesthetically potent cinematography and befitting background score, it creates the atmospherics it needs to succeed. It is not only well conceptualised, but also well fleshed out.
The film had its world première at the South Asian International Film Festival. It went on to win Grand Jury Award for Best Film at the festival, alongwith 2 National Film Awards.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
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13. Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
This Anurag Kashyap directorial revolves around the coal mafia of Dhanbad. With cold blooded crimes and unabashed bloodlust depicted faithfully, the film depicts the underlying power-politics and hunger for vengeance that runs through three crime families in the region. Hailed as a new wave in Indian cinema, the film revolutionised how we look at the gangster film genre in general, and shifted the onus of the genre from Mumbai to Wasseypur. It was deemed ‘one of the most ambitious gangster films ever made, and quite possibly one of the best‘ by film critic and commentator, Roger Ebert.
The film was screened in its entirety at the 2012 CannesDirectors’ Fortnight alongwith the Sundance Film Festival. It garnered several awards, most notably the National Award for Best Audiography. With a novel, thrill inducing plot and a gripping storyline, GoW is a genre-defining film, to say the least.
14. D-Day (2013)
The supremely explosive D-Day follows a team of experts who attempt to bring back home, a man who is ‘Most Wanted’ in India, until something goes horribly wrong. A taut as well as highly sensitive narrative artistically crafted for the screens, the Nikhil Advani film is a must watch for gangster film lovers. The tension-provoking, high-octane suspense drama is sure to rattle your senses.
With an arresting screenplay structure, the film thoroughly involves the audience in the drama. The plot is extremely engrossing in nature, specifically due to its treatment. It invokes a certain kind of patriotism within the viewers; the climax would appeal to every kind of viewer alike. With a non-linear story told through flashbacks, comes greater responsibility, which is well taken care of in the film.
Watch D-Day on Amazon Prime
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15. Jigarthanda (2014) – Tamil
A film that presents to us a microcosm of the filmmaking process, this one revolves around the blood-soaked world of gangster films by revealing how they come to be made. On the verge of directing his first film, the film’s protagonist is told, very poignantly so, to accept the compromises that he has to make, by a man who himself failed to do so when he was young. Besides being a gangster film, this is definitely a film about filmmaking in general. Other than that, it also fuses the musical genre with the gangster film genre. Deemed as one of the most technically sound Tamil films ever made, this film won 2 National Awards.
16. Kammatipaadam (2016) – Malayalam
Directed by Rajeev Ravi, this film follows the journey of Krishnan, who goes on to travel from Mumbai to Kammattipaadam in order to find his childhood friend, whose life is suspected to be in danger. It revolves around the themes of the role of money in gangster friendships and the change in dynamics that comes about. Among the finest mob movies in Malayalam cinema, this one is a must watch for the gangster geeks. [Related: 8 Best Malayalam Movies Of 2016 Worth Your Time]
Where to Watch: Hotstar
17. Angamaly Diaries (2017) – Malayalam
The film is based in a town called Angamaly, which is home to two gangster clans, a righteous one which has been ruling the city for a long time, and a rival clan that rises to power later. It follows the trials and tribulations of Vincent Pepe, who wants to be the leader of the righteous clan. A black comedy in its true right, this slice-of-life film reflects the gritty underworld of the town of Angamaly situated in Kerala. With an unconventional story and even more unconventional treatment, this film is unique in all measures. With top-notch characterisation, specifically with respect to the protagonist, the film lands well at every step through the journey.
All in all, it is worth a watch if you’d like some non-serious gangster stuff, as its comedic bits are equally heavy as the gangster bits. What is the most special bit about the film is that it features an uncut 11-minute long take in the climax featuring around 1000 artists.
Where to Watch: Netflix
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18. Vada Chennai (2018) – Tamil
This film follows a young carrom player who ends up becoming an unwilling participant in a feud between two warring gangsters. Written and directed by Vetrimaaran, it adopts a non-linear narrative. Vada Chennai is blatantly violent and layered in its narrative. Reflecting the realities of North Chennai as a breeding ground for gangsters with honesty, this film is as much about bloodlust as about revenge and retribution. With absolutely pitch perfect acting that brings the action alive on screen, the film relies on Dhanush’s shoulders as he serves as the protagonist carrom player. All in all, while this might seem like just another film set in North Madras gangster milieu, what sets it apart is its direction and acting.
Where to Watch: Hotstar
We hope these films prove to be an essential addition to your pending watchlist.
Let us know what we missed in the comments below!
By Sanghmitra Jethwani
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