Dacoit. Bandit. Daaku. Whatever you call them, in the world of Hindi cinema when bad things happen to good villagers, dacoits are born. While there have been many films with daakus, here’s a look at films and characters who made a place in pop culture, and who took dacoity beyond simple banditry.
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“Kitne Daaku Thay?”
Can you imagine a baby-faced, soft-spoken, college educated man as a dangerous dacoit? Neither can I, but the Sunny Deol-Rahul Rawail combination does wonders. Now imagine you’ve just graduated college and have noble ideas on the meaning of justice and equality. Do those ideals hold up to the atrocities you witness against your family once you return home? Only if you take matters into your own hands, ala Sunny-paaji as daaku Arjun Yaadav. Is the film as good as the previous Deol-Rawail project, Arjun? Nah. But a title like that is hard to leave out from a list like this.
Ganga Ki Saugandh (1978)
Do you like masala daaku films? Do I! Do you like Amitabh Bachchan?? 100% boss! Do you want to see Amitabh Bachchan as a daaku (with a rough and manly name like Jeeva nonetheless) in a masala film?? Well then Ganga Ki Saugandh is a film for you. Never mind the fact that it borrows heavily from Mother India, from the evil money-lender, to the sentimental maa-ke-kangan (mother’s wedding bracelets) angle. This movie doesn’t bring anything new to the table, but did I mention Amitabh is paired with Rekha?? Done deal!
Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960)
A dacoit drama from one of the most famed production houses in India, Jis Desh Mein does what the RK banner does best: show humanity and goodness triumph against all odds. Raju (duh! Raj Kapoor) is a man with a heart of gold who is kidnapped by honorable dacoits (including Raka, played by Pran), becomes the love interest of a dacoit princess, AND then (in trying to do the right thing,) snitches on his dacoit buddies only to regret it when the cops show up…phew!
Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971)
If there was an award for ‘Dacoit I Wish Would Kidnap Me’ Vinod Khanna as Daku Jabber Singh would win it. Handsdown. And for a villain to be noticed for his looks with Dharmendra in the lead is an award in itself. Here’s the story: A reformed criminal is hired by a one-armed, retired army officer with the intent of eliminating a daaku terrorizing a village. Sound familiar? A precursor to Sholay, MGMD is an example of quality films directed by the man who helped define an era: Raj Khosla.
Anokhi Raat (1968)
This film is atypical of what we’ve seen when it comes to filmi daakus. It is after all, an Asit Sen film. Beautifully shot in black&white, Anokhi Raat’s USP are its nuanced approach and dose of mystery! The tale of Baldev, an innocent village man who is pushed into life as a dacoit, unfolds over the period of one night, during a frightful storm, inside a haveli, amongst a stellar cast. Thank you Asit –Da for not giving us the usual narrative and hackneyed shots of bandits running amock! And thank you Roshan, for making your final work as a music director one of your most memorable.
Paan Singh Tomar (2012)
An army man becomes a world class athlete, and soon becomes a famed Chambal Valley baaghi (rebel) not dacoit…because dacoits are found in parliament. You know this film is based on a true story, because you simply cannot make this stuff up. Dedicating his fine work to the forgotten athletes of India, director Tigmanshu Dhulia takes us on a journey where Tomar starts as a wide-eyed fauji (armyman) to a mature man who sees the world for what it really is. As expected, Irrfan Khan does what he does best…act. And having the characters speak in the dialect of the famed valley adds more depth to this rich film.
Bandit Queen (1994)
Another movie based on a true story, this film is so good because it is so difficult to watch. Typically discrimination and exploitation are addressed through a moving (read, cheesy) speech by the protagonist, and caste discrimination is rarely discussed, forget being glossed over. But director Shekhar Kapur chose to recreate the sexual and physical abuse Phoolan endured which transformed her into a vengeance seeking daaku, and ultimately into the legendary Phoolan Devi. As the lead in an incredibly powerful film, Seema Biswas did not portray Phoolan Devi. She became Phoolan Devi.
Gunga Jumna (1961)
Guess which film concocted the formula of brothers on opposites sides of the law long before Deewar? How does Gunga (Dilip Kumar) a village man who sings, dances, skillfully plays kabaddi, get pushed into life as a bandit? And which side does younger brother Jumna, (played by Kumar’s real life brother Nasir Khan) ultimately choose? Does he choose to be a loyal brother or a dutiful police officer? The film moves from joy and humor, to heartache and tragedy so beautifully. Few highlights from this fantastic movie: the raw and charming romance between Gunga and Dhanno (Vyjayanthimala), Naushad’s earthy music, well-written Awadhi dialogues, and Kumar’s last shot in the film. Classic all the way!
This list would be incomplete without Gabbar Singh, easily the most iconic filmi daaku (or villain for that matter) of all time. Do we know anything about Gabbar’s past? Not really. What led him to become an outlaw? Beats me. The mystery only adds to what we do know: he has no qualms in terrorizing and entire village, and doesn’t flinch while eliminating an entire family, even murdering a child. Anyone who knows anything about Hindi movies can quote a least one or two Gabbar dialogues thanks to Salim-Javed.
Mujhe Jeene Do (1963)
This is the daaku movie. PERIOD. Yes, Sunil Dutt has played a dacoit in Mother India (albeit, briefly) and in the mediocre Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaye, but this time it’s different. Produced by Dutt and shot under police protection in the Chambal Valley, MJD goes beyond exploring what turns a man to a life of crime and what ultimately leads him to redemption. Director Moni Bhattacharjee’s film emphasizes humanity, whether it’s asking what will become of the child of a Hindu daaku and a Muslim nautch girl? Or whether a feared bandit will ever be deemed as reformed in the eyes of society? Dutt’s portrayal of Thakur Jernail Singh shifts from dark and menacing to vulnerable and sympathetic. Waheeda Rahman’s grace in full effect, and the chemistry between both is on a different level in the naughty and sensuous mujra, ‘Raat Bhi Hai Kuch Bheegi Bheegi’. This film does full justice to the genre…and then some.