SHOOTOUT AT WADALA.  Director:  Sanjay Gupta.  Players:  John Abraham, Anil Kapoor, Manoj Bajpayee, Kangana Ranaut, Sonu Sood, Tushaar Kapoor, Jackie Shroff. Theatrical release  (EROS).  Hindi with English sub-titles.

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Sanjay Gupta directed two of the cleverest crime capers of the last decade with the Los Angeles-based Kaante (2002) and Goa-based Musafir (2004). With a keen eye for transforming sharp-looking backdrops into intentional unwitting silent characters, Gupta now turns his focus on the Mumbai-anchored Shootout at Wadala. Drawing from true-crime gangland headlines from the early 1980s, purportedly the first real-life encounter between Mumbai police and an organized underworld gang in broad daylight, Gupta, with a sizable boost from an eye-catching cast, elevates a bullet-ridden Shootout at Wadala up from mediocrity for worthwhile viewing.

By all accounts, the college-educated Manya Surve (Abraham) had an ambitious and yet unremarkable background—except that his brother was an underworld enforcer who got caught in a tug of war between two enemy gangs. The sibling connection inevitably draws Manya into a circle of violence where he can no longer choose a destiny for himself.

Muscling up through the ranks fairly quickly, Manya draws attention not only from ACP Afaaque Baaghran (Kapoor), a determined cop, but also from the brothers Zubair (Bajpayee) and Dilawar (Sood), unhappy that Manya’s newcomer is encroaching on their enforcing specialty.

The plot unspools backwards. Opening from the back of a speeding police van, where ACP Baaghran is cajoling a bloodied Manya into confessing, Wadala takes many turns as Baaghran gets Manya to revisit turning points in his life. Are we witnessing a requiem? Is it a dream? Where they are exactly heading remains a tight little mystery.  The biggest characters in Manya’s life—his girlfriend Vidya Joshi (Ranaut), his gang side-kick Sheikh Munir (Tushaar Kapoor), his enmity with the Zubair and Dilawar—paint a conflicted man fighting a tide that he alone will never be able to overcome.

Abraham’s Manya is an overtly (duh!) muscular presence where the balance between brain and brawn wavers depending on Manya’s mood swings. The 1980s getups in threads and gear—that means no cell phones, no texting and no internet—is maintained rather nicely. Anil Kapoor, who lately has opting for unflattering caricatures of his former screen persona (Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol, Race 2) comes in from the cold to counter Manya’s moodiness with a pragmatic approach to crime.  As if extending a similar outing from her role in Once Upon a Time in Mumbai, Ranaut’s Vidya demonstrates  the pathos of being torn between her tortured love for Manya and her aversion to his trade. In the fine ensemble cast, meanwhile, Bajpayee and Sood add low-life charm by taking to crime with guns, sharp knives and even better, a sharper wit.

The standout entry on the soundtrack is Sunidhi’s Chauhan’s torchy “Babli Badmash,” a phenom dance track conjured up by Anu Malik. Filmed on Priyanka Chopra as a hottie cabaret number, Chauhan’s vocals nearly match the speed of the drum machine from start to finish. Filmfare magazine recently named Chauhan the fourth most popular Hindi playback singer of all time —behind only the two Mangeshkar sisters and Shreya Ghosal. “Babli” drives the point home quite well, thank you.

At the core of the back-and-forth relationship between ACP Baaghran and Manya there is a subtle nod to an age-old Indian cultural metaphor. The unspoken alliance between two well-intending men can easily be replaying bits from the Mahabharata with a single-minded and determined charioteer/van keeper (Krishna/Baaghran) leads to (or is it leading away from?) battle a worn down would-be warrior (Arjun/Surve) who is undergoing a philosophical/matinee epiphany about nature warfare.

Setting aside the pseudo-controversy about Gupta being pressured into changing the name of one of the Zubair-Dilawar brothers away from the name of the “real” Dawood Ibrahim from the original headlines, this fictitious re-telling has changed the names of all the characters except Manya Surve. Charged up by credible action sequences, a well-staged narrative and a robust soundtrack, Shootout at Wadala has attained box office creds. While not quite the precision crime instrument in the context of other recent new wave crime thrillers (Aakrosh, Special 26, Gangs of Wasseypur), the threats to Wadala are non-life threatening.

EQ: B

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