Arjun Rampal on his Arun Gawli biopic: ‘It doesn’t have one opinion that is thrust down your throat’

Udita Jhunjhunwala

Arjun Rampal’s office is sparsely decorated. Standees of his production Daddy occupy pride of place and a smattering of framed posters of American gangster movies and The Beatles hang off the walls. After playing a crooked film producer in Om Shanti Om, a guitarist in Rock On!! and a politician in Raajneeti, Rampal now steps into the gritty, realistic world of a Mumbai don. Directed by Ashim Ahluwalia, Daddy is a biopic of Arun Gawli, the gangster and politician who rose to prominence in Mumbai in the 1980s and ’90s as a counterweight to Dawood Ibrahim. Gawli, who is referred to by his followers as Daddy, was convicted for the murder of a Shiv Sena politician and is serving out his sentence. His bail application comes up in September, in time for the movie’s release on September 8.

How did the former ramp model and actor transform himself into a bespectacled and gaunt gangster in a Gandhi cap? Excerpts from an interview with Rampal.

Looking at the posters around your office, you are clearly a fan of the gangster genre.
Yes, I love the genre. Some of my favourite films are Godfather, On The Waterfront, Goodfellas, Carlito’s Way and Scarface. These films have had a strong influence on me because they are realistic and have authenticity, style and a different demeanour. There are good qualities to these characters, but there’s also a very scary side at the same time. As an actor I was extremely greedy to play such a part.

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How did you go about putting together the story of Arun Gawli?
Besides news reports, we met people who were part of his world. His family was initially hesitant to share information, but over time we earned their trust. We also met people who may have had an impression of him or had met him occasionally.

We also wanted the point of view of his rivals and of the cops. Most important was to get the perspective of those who may not be alive anymore – those who had close interactions with Daddy. Initially, Gawli himself was not accessible as he was in jail. We were able to amass great stories moments and incidents and then started putting them all together. It was then that I started getting obsessive. I started writing the story and then took it to Ashim.

How did your collaboration between Ashim Ahluwalia come about?
I knew Ashim from the advertising films we had done together. I like his sensibility. He’s quite a reluctant filmmaker and I knew that even if he doesn’t want to direct the film, he would at least give me honest feedback. But he loved it and came on board, with the proviso that I had to get the look exactly right and that we had to create the world – from the 1970s to 2012 – exactly the way it was.

We also decided that the film must not have one opinion that is thrust down your throat – that he’s a good Samaritan, or the underdog or the don. What we liked about Gawli was that he was quite an accidental don and that he’s called Daddy, not Godfather or Dada or Bhai, or Ustad, but Daddy. In Dagdi Chawl, his wife is called Mummy. So we figured out that the film should be from the perspective of various people.

When making a biopic of a living person, especially a gangster, were you conscious of keeping the story balanced so as to not upset him?
The best way to not have to worry about that is by being honest. Whether you piss him off or not is not why you are making the film. When you meet Gawli, it’s very hard to read him. There is no way I would have made this film without his consent.

The first meeting was about what he wants to do for people, his political career and the terminology of a kind of Robin Hood. Then you say fine, that’s one aspect¸ but what about the other aspect? This film is not Robin Hood. This film is about Daddy. So who is he? What was his journey, what was the relationship between Babu, Rama and Arun [his early gang mates] What’s his psyche? He says he is a reformed man today, so what’s his stand now? We had to coax him to show us the depth in his life so that the film would not be shallow.

Recent biopics have tended to veer towards hagiography. Were you not concerned about criticism that you could be glorifying a criminal?
This is a valid question. That was a concern for me too. But I am not worried because we have not glorified anyone. One is not trying to promote this lifestyle or this world. We are just putting it out there. I didn’t want to portray a one-sided opinion. What excited us was that he has many different faces and facets. He even stood for an election and won, so he must have done something right.

Equally there must have been a lot of people he pissed off and hurt. We were interested in possible feelings of paranoia and understanding why he made Dagdi Chawl his fortress. Our challenge was to make this movie both real and accessible. For that it had to have authenticity while also being entertaining.

Postponing the release to wait for Gawli’s bail gives the impression that the movie has his stamp of approval.
We already have that. He allowed us to make the kind of film we wanted to. Even his family is on board. But he didn’t impose even one sanction. He did watch the film and observed it very closely, bringing up detailed notes such as how a particular headline was wrong or a date needed to be corrected and pointing out how Babu wouldn’t have reacted in a certain way. In fact he got quite emotional about Babu and Rama.

Anyway there is no guarantee of him getting bail.

You underwent quite a physical transformation to become Daddy. What was your process?
If you are making the true story of a man who is alive, who has a following and is very recognisable – with a distinct nose, style, the cap, the kurta – the look is critical. But in the ’70s and ’80s, he was not dressed like that. He was thinner and had different hair.

Ashim was clear that in order to play him, I had to look like him and also feel like him. So I had to shrink a lot. I stopped going to the gym. I lost 11 kilos. I had to look like a normal person who has never lifted a weight. I lost all that muscle and that was very difficult for me because I love going to work out. And then to sit there and think: we have come all this way where we have a script, I am producing, we are going to shoot, Ashim is directing but what if I fail this look test? Then what? I decided that if that happened, I would still produce and we would just cast another actor. But with the costumes, make up and prosthetics, it all came together.

What reactions did you get when you went to the real locations to shoot dressed as Gawli?
We did not get very good reactions when we went to Agripada and crossed the road into Nagpada. It was a bit hostile. We needed police protection. Here we were with a large crew of some 200 people and me dressed as Gawli. And we had to recreate that era, dress up the place with props. People were curious to know what was going on. Those areas were not very shooting friendly, and there were a few disruptions with guys asking why we are shooting, who gave us permission and abusing the crew. Then the shooting would stall for a bit till the cops diffused the situation.

But it was great, actually, because it created that tension which you needed. There was an urgency to get it done. At one point I asked Ashim, why the hell are we doing this? And he said, “You see, you see, it’s going to be beautiful.”