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Arjun Rampal explores Mumbai's underworld in 'Daddy'.

Summary: Filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia says the film is nothing like the typical Bollywood flick

Manjusha Radhakrishnan, Chief Reporter

It is rare to find an actor-director team that acknowledge their shortcomings.

Indian National Award-winning actor Arjun Rampal and independent filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia are weirdly proud of their quirks. The duo will roll out their gangster epic Daddy on September 7 in the UAE.

While Ahluwalia describes himself as a neurotic director, Rampal, who found fame through mainstream Bollywood films such as Rock On 2 and Om Shanti Om, chooses a milder term.

"We are both strong-headed characters, to put it nicely," said Rampal, looking at his partner in crime with an understanding smile. They both appreciate keeping a rational mind during a clash of ideas.

Rampal has acted, produced and co-written Daddy , a biopic about Arun Gawli, a gangster-turned-politician who is currently in jail for his 2008 conviction for murdering a politician.

Daddy represents the marriage of two schools of thoughts: the director hates sanitising his films to suit a formulaic Bollywood mould, while the actor understand his need for creative control.

Rampal, who has pumped in money and poured four years of his life into this no-frills film, reiterates that he didn't have any sway over Ahluwalia's directorial decisions.

"Ashim can be a producer's delight and a producer's nightmare because he loses sense of time. He gets so immersed in his work that he has that tunnel vision where he will just go into one thing - the nuts and bolts of a scene - and remains there. I have to pull him out and ask him to see the bigger picture," said Rampal.

For instance, the coveted and crucial job of director of photography was picked by Ahluwali. A 27-year-old woman from Canada, Jessica Lee Gagne, was his choice, much to Rampal's surprise.

"I told Ashim 'we are going to war here and we are going to shoot in the underbelly of Mumbai and you are bringing a foreigner to shoot'... Ashim has this ability to make people push themselves to their limits," said Rampal.

The actor predicted that Gagne would be felled by food poisoning just by eating a Punjabi samosa in a country that she isn't familiar with. What Rampal said came true, but Ahluwalia's trust in his team wasn't displaced.

Their union wasn't doomed and their collective struggle for Daddy has garnered widespread praise for its unique treatment.

The trailer for Daddy, which got more than 9 million views, is tipped to be one of the most promising gangster films of 2017. It is shorn off the usual gangster film tropes, such as the token item number by a starlet or a larger-than-life hero jumping off sky scrapers; there's no superhero in this film. Even the poster is a grim, black and white image of Rampal's character posing for a prison mug shot.

Gawli was a legendary contract killer who ran a tight ship in the 1970s and emerged as the leader of an organised crime syndicate. As his clout grew, he took on other underworld criminals such as Dawood Ebrahim and Chotta Shakeel, and their gang wars dominated that era.

It isn't going to be a propaganda film where Gawli is glorified and painted as a misunderstood, reluctant criminal with a conscience, Rampal insisted.

"In a way, Gawli appreciated our brutal honesty when we told him that the movie won't be called Robinhood of the poor... There were many other mainstream filmmakers pitching for it, but he made the conscious choice to choose us. Somewhere, he realised that he will have far more credibility than anyone else diluting his journey. He's an intelligent man - brave and gutsy," said Rampal.

Both the director and actor met Gawli when he was out on parole at least three times to convince him to hand over the rights to make a film about his life.

Initially, Rampal was approached by another producer and director team with the same story, but their attempt to blend the content with Bollywood stereotypes made him take a step back. That party didn't want to keep it real and Rampal locked himself in a room for three months collating data and writing a raw script, which then went to Ahluwalia. The director's disdain for Bollywood is known and Rampal was relieved that the project would be led by a man who shared his vision.

Ahluwalia said: "I have always wanted to make a Hindi feature film, but I wanted to do it on my own terms... I have been getting offers to do mainstream Bollywood since I was about 25 [years old]... [I] was even offered a Salman Khan film to direct. I consciously stayed away from doing formula films. It is just not me."

Daddy was no swift project. Rampal, a former model, stayed away from the gym for two years, shed 11kg to get a non-sculpted body and stuck on a prosthetic nose to look more like Gawli.

"For an actor, the most amazing thing is when you get an opportunity to play such a role... We as actors want roles that are memorable. This was a character that I could get lost and escape into," said Rampal. The director wanted to erase Rampal the star from the film and push him into being Gawli. While Gawli's family resisted the idea of a film about their patriarch, the gangster was a lot more welcoming of the idea.

"Gawli is not a guy who is embarrassed of his life. [The] three of us don't mince words and that helped. Here we are making a film [about a] person in a maximum security prison and we have been sensitive because we understand the responsibility and the ramifications... He's not a sportsman or a freedom fighter, he comes from a world of crime and our attempt is to be as authentic as possible," said Rampal.

Both attribute the increasing interest towards Daddy to the changing landscape of Bollywood films. Star-driven films aren't working anymore, with audiences seeking content-driven movies.

"The old industry is collapsing, the old formulas are changing. People are burnt out by that stuff and that is why is it not working," said Ahluwalia. Rampal, who has been in Bollywood for the last 16 years, has become wiser with age.

"What I have learnt is that nobody is bigger than the film, neither the director, the actor or producer. A film is like a puzzle and we just pieces to that puzzle. The only language that viewers now understand is the language of earnest,honest and authentic work. With Daddy we have tried that," said Rampal.


Don't miss it!

Daddy is out in the UAE on September 7.

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Publication:Gulf News (United Arab Emirates)
Date:Sep 5, 2017
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