The ‘Daddy’ director, Ashim Ahluwalia recalls the first time he met the gangster and former MLA, Arun Gawli in Dagdi Chawl.
“I was late for the meeting so no one introduced me. He (Gawli) was seated with a few older gang members and was speaking to Arjun (Rampal) with a few cops lurking around awkwardly,”
remembers Ashim, who also claimed that Gawli was a bit disturbed by his presence. Eventually, he turned to Ashim and voiced his concern saying, “Taping kar raha hain kya?” This is when Ashim was officially introduced to Gawli.
“He is so used to watching the door, he’s always got eyes at the back of his head,”
says Ashim, who found this agitated temperament an asset to drafting his first onscreen avatar. The communication between them also revealed that Gawli wasn’t a “proactive don”, but an ‘observant and reticent one’.
“First thing I told Arjun was, you’re not going to be delivering monologues or speeches here. This is a guy who watches from the shadows and you can’t fathom him, he’s impenetrable,”
says the filmmaker, who made Miss Lovely in 2012.
While we all know the film is based on a living felon, the consequences of any kind of imprecise portrayal could influence a possible appeal and put Ashim into trouble, it makes his job a tough one.But he’s quite determined.
“I’m not doing a propaganda film. If I were to make a film on Arun Gawli and just show him as a social worker, it would seem unnatural. I don’t want to judge his life, I only want to observe what it means to have a vile life for 40 years and whatever the circumstances may be,”
says Ashim, who has consciously ensured the film doesn’t portray Gawli as an aspirational hero.
“Based on who you speak with, the story will be different. If it’s his mother, she will tell you how he grew up in poverty and that he was just unfortunate.”
Ashim had his own set of conditions to be agreed on while the producers had a different take on the same to which Ashim said,
“They wanted me to include item songs, cast A-listers and recommended someone for the part of Asha Gawli, who actually looked Norwegian. But I wanted it to be about just Gawli, there’s enough masala there. You don’t need to put him in a Dolce and Gabbana suit. I’ve already had to work with Arjun, who doesn’t look Maharashtrian,”
as he laughed away. Eventually, the promoters backed out and Arjun Rampal agreed to produce the film.
Ashim wanted to leave no stone unturned and decided to completely immerse in Gawli‘s life, for which he interviewed him, his family, former gang members, those from opposing gangs, cops who hated him and even those who loved him.
“What fascinated me was the protocol gangsters followed at the time. For instance, on religious holidays, there would be a ceasefire. Then, it was understood that you don’t kill someone who is next of kin or close family. Also, during festivals, members of warring gangs would invite each other into their homes and would sit down over a lavish spread and try to sort out their differences. If it ended badly, they would be back to killing each other on the streets the next day. This was just like how kingdoms functioned, there was so much etiquette,”
‘Daddy’ covers the 62-year-old’s life from various perspectives and spans across decades required depicting Mumbai in the ’80s and Gawli in his youth. Armed with a file photo from Agripada Police Station, shot in 1979 when he was first picked up, Ashim was surprised to know that Gawli, unlike the white kurtatopi wearing politician, ‘used to be a man who wore shirts with long collars and even flaunted a cool hairstyle’.
“Arjun just had to get an artificial nose to get the look right. So we planned on this and got him a nose, cheek and forehead from Italy, based on the archival photographs.”
But the transformation also had to be internal and Arjun had to mirror Gawli‘s body language. Picking up from video interviews and personal meetings helped, but there was a bit of hesitance.
“I’d never seen a film of Arjun‘s, except parts of Rock On, when we began working. We got along following a commercial we shot together. He had a paranoia about me that ‘Is this guy going to be super arthouse’ and I was worried that ‘Is he going to turn hero on me’. But when I told him that he was going to wear clothes that I bought from Mahim for Rs 200 and sweat in prosthetic makeup for 14 hours a day, he just said, ‘OK let’s do it’ and then I was assured,”
says the filmmaker, who feels his lead has “not had great roles written for him” in the past.
Shot in locations in Kamathipura and also in parts of Mazagaon, Cotton Green and Sewri in the Eastern belt of Mumbai — the last vestiges of erstwhile Bombay, Ashim was very particular when it came to choosing the locations.
“I have grown up in Bombay and have seen how police stations, dance bars etc looked like in the ’80s. These are spaces that most Bollywood movies get wrong.”
But Ashim‘s concerns with Hindi films also strays into storytelling.
“Gangsters don’t have families in our films. They only have families when they have to get shot. But here we have a life in crime of a family man in the midst of a gang war.”