The earliest true-blue Hindi heist films, ‘Gaddaar’ (1973) directed by Harmesh Malhotra, has its origins directly to the Hollywood film ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950)
The earliest true-blue Hindi heist films, ‘Gaddaar’ (1973) directed by Harmesh Malhotra, has its origins directly to the Hollywood film ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ (1950)

Ever wondered why most heist films end up looking the same? The seed of this was perhaps sowed back in 1950 with the release of John Houston's ‘The Asphalt Jungle’. One of the earliest crime classics to humanise the criminal, ‘The Asphalt Jungle’ looked like a typical B-film that were extremely popular at the time but was one of the first films that showed a detailed and authentic looking heist.

 It also came to become the definitive caper film template that would go on to be the inspiration behind Stanley Kubrick's ‘The Killing’ (1956), the original ‘Ocean's Eleven’ (1960) and even Quentin Tarantino's breakthrough film, ‘Reservoir Dogs’ (1992). 

In an Indian context the heist wasn't as well explored a genre even though Hindi films are filled with robbers and burglars and expert safecrackers et al. Although the genre finally came into its own in the early 2000s with Vipul Shah’s ‘Aankhen’ (2002), Sanjay Gupta’s rehash of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ as ‘Kaante’ (2002) and the ‘Dhoom’ series, one of the earliest true-blue Hindi heist films, ‘Gaddaar’ (1973), can trace its origins directly to ‘The Asphalt Jungle’.

The film begins a Raja (Ajit) sauntering into Bombay for a business deal carrying a stash of money that is cached in a safe protected by a gamut of safety features. Next we see BK (Pran) getting his team in place and later all of them - Sampat (Anwar Hussain), Mohan (Manmohan), the Professor (Iftekhar), Kanhaiya (Madan Puri), Babu (Ranjeet) and John (Ram Mohan) - meet to come up with a plan to steal the Raja’s stash. 

They chalk out every single move and weeks later when they put the plan into action everything works like clockwork but when a guard rings the alarm BK has to improvise. The police arrive on the scene and BK gets wounded. He tells Kanhaiya to escape with the loot while he misleads the police and they plan to meet next day at BK’s. All of them escape and meet the next day as planned but there is no sign of Kanhaiya. 

They wait it out for a few days for the dust to settle and eventually when they land up at Kanhaiya’s house there is no sign of their former partner. They meet Raja (Vinod Khanna), a petty thief, who after reading about the heist comes looking for Kanhaiya thinking that the latter would know something about it. He offers his services to help them search Kanhaiya in exchange for his share. 

The chase leads them across India and finally they learn that Kanhaiya is hiding in a remote village in Himachal Pradesh. Raja comes as a scout and falls for Reshma (Yogita Bali), the daughter of the owner of the hotel he’s staying in and the father turns out to be none other than Kanhaiya. 

Raja comes back to lead the crew up to the remote hotel and once there BK threatens to kill Kanhaiya’s little boy in front of his eyes if he doesn’t lead them to the money. With everyone holed up inside the hotel and a storm brewing outside things aren’t what they appear and everyone including Raja seem to have a plan of their own.

Like any other genre, the heist too works best when basic human nature comes into play and this is also the very thing that adorns a sense of timelessness to films. Visually ‘Gaddaar’ looks very 1970s and although it’s very much about the time as well, the narrative and the set pieces make it go beyond. 

Traditionally popular Hindi cinema of the 1960s and 1970s glossed over the fallacies of human nature unless well-known actors portrayed these characters but in a heist film, this change as the crew includes familiar looking actors often cast against type. This is a trait seen in most heist films right from ‘The Killing’ or ‘Ocean’s Eleven’ to ‘Happy New Year’ and the presence of actors such as Manmohan, Ram Mohan, and Anwar Hussain in ‘Gaddaar’ makes it more real. 

Directed by Harmesh Malhotra, who was best known for ‘Nagina’ (1998) and then later cult Govinda hit ‘Dulhe Raja’ (1998), ‘Gaddaar’ is undoubtedly one of the best capers in Hindi cinema and the fact that it doesn’t try too hard only adds to it. 

The campiness of the film is palpable and each moment continues to be a pleasure even after four decades. The film is an ode to not only the genre but also the time it was made in and this is visible right from the production design to the musical interludes to the costumes. 

What’s more at certain places ‘Gaddaar’ also seems a portent of the future like the build up to the climax is eerily close to the set-up in Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Hateful Eight’ (2015). But, it’s the manner in which the narrative blends in tropes that are now known as essentials to the genre such as the procedural detailing, the staging as well as the shot-taking (especially the scenes where the crew is introduced) that make it a better experience than the Dhooms and the Happy New Years. 

By: Gautam Chintamani