KAANTE . Director: Sanjay Gupta. Players: Sunjay Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan, Sunil Shetty, Mahesh Manjrekar, Kumar Gaurav, Lucky Ali, Malaika Arora. Hindi with English subtitles. Theatrical release (Media Partners).
Hindi cinema’s detractors have fre-quently nosed-up against Indian prod-uct as being too provincial. Not any more. As a genuinely international Indian-American project (Indian faces in front of the camera, sizable American crew behind the scenes), the much-delayed, much-anticipatedKaante tugs every which way before settling on a new wave crime thriller that hooks the viewer right from the beginning. As compelling argument that a Hindi film can stand it’s own cutting edge footing, Kaante successfully delivers an immensely attractive crime story that jumps leagues ahead in artistic chutzpah.

Mayhem and murder soon acquire free reign after six divergent desi strangers converge on modern L.A. to rob a bank. Intentionally targeting a bank that services the L.A. police, the plotters each have both real and imagined old scores to settle. As an unofficial ringleader, there is the Major (Bachchan), a suited scoundrel mysteriously at ease with commando tactics. There is the goateed roughneck Ajju (Dutt), the nightclub bouncer Marc (Shetty), a software hacker (Gaurav), a dapper man-about-town (Ali) and Balli (Manjrekar), a stuttering, small time shyster.

Cleverly drawing an uneasy alliance amongst these six crooks by using flashbacked detours in narrative, Gupta’s story soon adds the element of high mystery when the gang suspects one of their members of being a police informer. The well-written script deliciously lingers on each perp just long enough to hint at possible treacherous traits in all of them.

Kaante would not succeed without the powerful performances of the six-pack. As Ajju, Dutt dependably provides the leather-and-chains muscular backbone to the group while Shetty’s easy-on-the-eyes Marc is a sexy pitbull dreaming of someday returning to India with his girlfriend (Arora). As the Major, Bachchan lends a solid unspoken guardian of the gang’s morals—or what’s left of them—while Dutt’s brother-in-law Gaurav gets kudos as a reserved bloke trying to regain custody of his only son.

The plot, however, may go searching if not for filmmaker Manjrekar (Vaastav ) making an impressive acting debut as the comic fodder Balli. Balli serves as the questionably witted advanced warning system for the fears and insecurities all six men harbor. If Bachchan and Dutt serve as the gang’s foundation, Manjrekar serves as the grease that makes the story gel. Despite his street-smart exterior, Balli’s core reveals a floundering, agitated soul desperately gasping for an end to the madness everyone soon find themselves dragged into.

Musically, Arora’s nightclub singer provides a suitable outlet for Anand Raj Anand and Lucky Ali’s soundtrack to insert a musical jolt with a couple of sizzling dance-bar numbers. Anand’s “Ishq Samundar” duet with Sunidhi Chauvhan and the party song “Rama Re,” which Dutt contributes to vocally, are commendable tunes. In rounding out a great cast, both Arora and Rati Agnihotri (as Bachchan’s ailing wife), use their limited screen time well.

With so much at stake, including an impressive-for-India $7 million budget and an equally impressive cast, the hype surrounding Kaante fed into a spool of pre-release urban legends. First, there was the hoopla surrounding Sunil Shetty being questioned and released by L.A. police when Shetty was not readily able to show his identity documents following a post Sept. 11 downtown L.A. shoot.

Later, after bits of the storyline leaked out online, conspiracy hounds predicted a lawsuit against Gupta from the copyright holders for Reservoir Dogs, a Hollywood entry suspected of providing the seeds for Kaante’s plot. WhileKaante is similar in feel to both Reservoir Dogs and The Usual Suspects ,Kaante easily distinguishes itself on it’s own merit. Besides, 1992’s Reservoir Dogs is reportedly derived from the 1987 Hong Kong entry City On Fire.

Getting back to Gupta’s Kaante, the film’s violently vulgar L.A. setting matches the level of violence found in hardcore R-rated Hollywood entries. The cynical inside joke regarding the bank heist being a retribution for an incident of policy brutality against L.A. desis is not necessarily off-kilter for a city forever trying to live down it’s brush with Rodney King.

Gupta’s modern Los Angeles is an irresistible cesspool of skeletal-looking concrete monoliths, drug dealers, racist cops, transvestite streetwalkers and lots and lots of guns. These questionable artifacts aid in transforming L.A.’s urban blight into a silent accomplice to a blood bath. My 8-year-old movie-buff niece unknowingly hit bull’s-eye when she dismissed Kaante on grounds that it is a ‘guys’ film. Take the warning to heart in approaching this stunning film.

Finally, the magic of the box-office has favored Kaante. It landed on the U.S. weekly top 20 charts by raking in more than $800,000 within 2 weeks of release. Adding to an impressive $3.5 million collected in India during the same time period—earning back half the amount that went into making the film—Kaantehas the markings of a sizable box office hit.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.

Globe trekker, aesthete, photographer, ski bum, film buff, and commentator, Aniruddh Chawda writes from Milwaukee.