Shamshera, Sholay, Paan Singh Tomar: What makes dacoits so irresistible?

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Rugged, tough, gun-toting and bad… There’s reason most Hindi film dacoits are so darned attractive! What could be more captivating to the imagination than the thought of a rough life of looting lived deep in the ravines, where belts are made of bullets and honour always prevails – yes, even amongst thieves. India has been blessed – some would disagree with that term! – with the badlands of the Chambal ravines as the famed river flows through Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan, which nurtured some of the deadliest gangs of armed bandits. They naturally found their way into the artistic imagination and onto the Hindi film screen over the decades, striking terror or winning honour, as the scriptwriters saw fit.

With no less than two dacoit films currently under production – Son Chiriya and Shamshera – ­the baddies we love are back on the big screen, bringing their brand of dark allure back. Abhishek Chaubey’s Son Chiriya starring Sushant Singh Rajput has already raised our expectations going by the stills of this thriller that have been released. Sushant, lean, mean and shorn of all star trappings, looks like he could well greet one during a real-life swoop in the badlands. The action gets more exciting as he clashes with another dacoit, a dangerous widow, played by the deceptively simple Bhumi Pednekar.

And if that seemed like a stray bullet in the dark, there’s YashRaj’s recently announced Shamshera, another film which is bringing the outlaws into the reckoning again. The teaser presents Ranbir Kapoor no less, playing the battle-scarred bandit, holding on to an axe and arrows as he declares himself to be “Karam se dacait, dharam se azaad”.
Ranbir is clearly very much under the popular spell of the dacoit, revealing that while growing up watching Hindi commercial cinema, he had an image of what a film hero should be doing. “Shamshera allows me to do everything that I had imagined and it’s a very exciting project for me. Karan (Malhotra, director) is going to take me completely out of my comfort zone and I’m looking forward to this challenge.” We are, too!

Over the decades Hindi films have provided considerable fodder to boost the popular image of the dacoit. Sunil Dutt as Birju in Mother India (1957) gave us one of our earliest brushes with the tilak-wearing, gun toting raiders. Unable to bear the oppression heaped on his family by the rich moneylender Sukhilal, Birju goes over to the bad side, ultimately meeting his end at his mother, (played by the legendary Nargis)’s hands, as she shoots him down to protect the honour of a woman, and the entire village.
Pran as Raka in Jis Desh Men Ganga Behti Hai (1960) exuded meanness, while Dilip Kumar had the ladies swooning as the hot-headed lad who becomes the leader of a dacoit gang and must now be brought to book by his police officer brother in Gunga Jumna (1961).
Mujhe Jeene Do (1963), shot in the Chambal area, looked at how love transformed the dreaded Thakur Jernail Singh, while Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) portrayed Dharmendra as the reformed thief who stands up against the dacoit Jabbar Singh (Vinod Khanna). After all, like Hindi films always tell us, it takes iron to cut iron!

As men of iron go, none get more iconic than Sholay’s Gabbar Singh essayed with such memorable finesse by Amjad Khan, that it overshadowed all his other work for the rest of his life. If there was one name we could well believe could strike terror in hearts of innocents, it was the merciless, deceptively quiet and suddenly raging Gabbar. His have remained very large shoes to fill.

Women can take up the gun, as Zeenat Aman showed us in Daku Hasina (1987) playing Roopa Saxena, who becomes a dacoit to avenge the killing of her parents. Shekhar Kapur brought the far more real and unsettling picture of a woman dacoit to the screen with Bandit Queen (1994). Starring Seema Biswas, the film shocked with its graphic representation of the violent life of one of India’s deadliest dacoits, Phoolan Devi.

Turning outlaw is more often not a choice but a result of oppression, we learnt as Dacait (1987) portrayed the hero, a simple man who turns dacoit after being oppressed by the zamindars of the area. The theme echoed that of Patthar Aur Payal (1974), which depicted two brothers becoming outlaws after their parents are hanged, when someone gives a false statement against them in court.

Irrfan Khan in Paan Singh Tomar gripped viewers in this biographical account of a soldier and athlete who turns dacoit due to trying circumstances, till he is finally killed in a police encounter in 1981.
With Sanjay Dutt poised to play the antagonist in Shamshera, we can safely say that the romantic aura surrounding the dacoit in Hindi films will continue to be preserved. Baddies with hearts of gold always get our vote, don’t they!

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