January 15, 2003
Robbing the American Bank: Sanjay Gupta's Kaante
The new Hindi film Kaante is a bit of a tawdry spectacle, but it has at least two really cool aspects to it. On the surface it's a big, ugly movie that cribs equally from John Woo's shoot-em-up, shoot-em-down fight choreography, major plot points from Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, the general gloss of Soderbergh's Ocean's 11, and a kind of ironic knowingness a la The Usual Suspects. If that sounds like a good pedigree to you (and if it does, you're probably male and under age 30), imagine all four of those sources glommed together into a 2 1/2 hour gunfest complete with five garishly loud song sequences. Oh, and did I mention the Indian-owned strip club in L.A., filled with mostly blonde dancers dressed like the girls in the music video "Baby Got Back" ? This could be a recipe for disaster, especially since the filmmakers have spent the last three months embarrassingly trumpeting their U.S.A. credentials -- the fact that the film was actually filmed in Los Angeles with a U.S. crew and a U.S. director of photography. Oh happy day. Fortunately, the density of the America fetish is undercut by the film's deep ambivalence to the whole 'Amreekan' thing. And it's this ambivalence -- or schizophrenia -- that I like.
The plot is at once too intricate and too banal to recount here, but suffice it to say that the six Indians come to forge the plan to rob a major American bank when they are rounded up for the nth time by cops that seem to have it in for those "damn Indians." I emphasize American because the bank is called the Service American bank. In this film, America means much more than the usual Hindi image of the U.S. as the Heart of Hussies. It may be a bit oblique, but a really interesting thing (cool thing #1) in Kaante is the emphasis on the obscene disparity in wealth between the U.S. and the rest of the world. Many of the robbers are actually in the U.S. legitimately, to try and raise money for important family obligations. Major's story (Amitabh Bachchan) is the best example: a former crook, he's come to America with his Ailing Wife (a Hindi film cliché), to try and raise Venture Capital for a multinational Indian fast-food scheme. He's turned down by a Mr. Adler, the film strongly suggests, because he's Indian. The heist plan takes shape when the legitimate attempt to work American capital fails. At the end, all of the characters envision heading home -- to India -- with bags of US dollars. Though they end up stuck in the U.S. (anyone who's seen Reservoir Dogs will predict the final scene), to me the fantasy of the flight home -- to the moral uprightness of India -- suggests that this isn't a movie about robbing a bank that happens to be American, it's a fantasy about robbing America as the only patriotic way to achieve globalization. Given the intense plot/shot borrowing from mostly American films in Kaante, it could be argued that the theme of theft is also gleefully recapitulated in the form of the film.
The second cool thing: The heist, since the gangsters specifically target a "police bank," is also envisioned as a revenge against racist cops who pick up the Indians on suspicion anytime there's a robbery. Early in the film, Amitabh's character complains that it's "we Indians" who get pulled in because Indians are the only ethnic criminals in L.A. to be both disorganized and cash-poor. The film dwells for a good 20 minutes on the random arrests of Indians and brusque, unforgiving LAPD cops. Watching this part of the film, it's hard not to think of the random arrests of Arab and South Asian men that began after 9/11, and which have resurfaced in the past two weeks as various immigrant "registration" deadlines have resulted in hundreds of Muslim/Arab men detained and deported on trivial visa irregularities. None of the filmmakers or stars here are Muslims and none are known for being particularly sympathetic to Muslims, but the parallel is unmistakable. Indeed, word has it that the actors in the film -- most of them superstars in Bombay who happen to wear goatees and beards -- were repeatedly picked up by police for questioning doing the outdoor shots of the film!
Desi Famiglia (a sidenote): According to my friend prof. Tejaswini Ganti, the male leads in the film are all sort of incestuously related in a dense spiral of nepotism, with shades of mob financing lurking not too far off screen. Sanjay Gupta, the director is close buddies with Sanjay Dutt, who he has playing the ringleader of the heist. Dutt's brother-in-law is in the film too, playing a U.S. based computer engineer who's separated from his shrieking, materialistic wife and his son -- who speaks with an American accent. Other actors are also friends or kin in various forms, and there are widespread rumours that Sanjay Gupta's first film Vaastav was financed with mob money: Bollywood begins to seem like a kind of extended famiglia, only everyone is named Khan instead of Capone.