Inspired by the protagonist of his next film, Paan Singh Tomar, filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia draws a list of his 10 favourite cinematic bandits
DACOIT. BANDIT. What lovely words. Even going beyond obvious associations with mustachioed, intimidating men, a common theme runs through them — anarchy, subversion, violence and the maddening lure of adventure. While cinema has always flirted with dangerous men, a select few films have created characters of bandits that resonate through the ages.
The first name that comes to mind is Thakur Jernail Singh from Chambal — Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do (1963). Dutt played many dacoits during his career, but this was different. Jernail Singh is about stillness and absolute anger. Add to this an effortless portrayal of rural characters, and you have an unbeatable mix.
Gunga Ram, Dilip Kumar’s character in Gunga Jumna (1961) delivered a subdued yet poignant performance. If Jernail Singh is stillness, then Gunga Ram is subtlety. I continue to be awestruck at how Kumar, a Mumbai boy with immaculate urban English portrayed such subtlety in Bhojpuri.
Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) was the film that made Vinod Khanna a star. Khanna as Jabbar Singh didn’t care much for nuances or realism. He was big, bombastic and as Bollywood as it gets. He was about sheer presence.
No piece on bandits would be complete without mentioning Sholay’s Gabbar Singh (1975), but reams have been written about him already. The one I’d rather tell you about is Ranga Khush (1975), written and directed by Joginder Shelly. It was a spinoff from Joginder’s two-word dialogue in Bindiya Aur Bandook, and its wild bandit Ranga, played by Joginder himself. Ranga’s dialogues were full of gibberish, chirps, rolling eyeballs and a maniacal laugh. He was a deliciously complex character who would slaughter people, return to his cave and act like a vulnerable child. Children loved Ranga — they mimicked his laugh and his rolling eyes — making him a household name in the 1970s. He was also a constant feature in Parliament debates because of his extended rape sequences, and blasphemous views.
Gian Maria Volonte, who played El Indio in For A Few Dollars More (1965), delivered a mannered performance. Observe his silences. Listen to the powerful dialogue delivery that betrays heroin addiction. If it seems familiar, it is because the evergreen Gabbar was loosely modelled on him.
Tuco from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) was played by a comic, fast-talking and lethal Eli Wallach. Once again, Tuco provides the blueprint for Bollywood’s Ranga. These mannerisms can’t really be authored, they’re the result of improvisation and often, true genius.
Once Upon A Time In The West (1968) had Frank, played by Henry Fonda. A romantic hero till this film, Fonda’s portrayal of a cold-blooded killer was even more compelling. Once Upon… was released during 1960s, the era of flower children and change. Nothing epitomised this better than a blue-eyed boy playing a bandit. The killing sequence used freeze frames for each kill — another familiar motif used in Sholay.
In Unforgiven (1992), Gene Hackman doesn’t play a bandit, but Little Jim Daggett is as close as it gets. A cruel twisted sheriff whose cruel acts are being chronicled.
For the final act, The Good, The Bad and The Weird is a 2008 South Korean film inspired by The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. Yoon Tae-goo plays ‘weird’ here. The film juxtaposes western and period genres, and throws in a bit of fantasy. Song Kang-ho, who plays Yoon, flits effortlessly between all these genres. He delivers a bandit who’s crazy as hell, but has impeccable style.