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Arun Gawli doesn't make excuses for his life, says director Ashim Ahluwalia

Arjun Rampal and Ashim Ahluwalia hope that their biopic on gangster Arun Gawli will make you ask the question: who is the real criminal?

Rampal in a still from the film
Rampal in a still from the film

"I think the reason this movie happened is because it was three very 'direct' people sitting down and saying, let's plan what we need to do," says director Ashim Ahluwalia, whose biopic on Arun Gawli, Daddy, releases next month. "Gawli is a very direct man - he doesn't make excuses for his life or the way he led it. We asked him, 'can we show you smoking a chillum?', and he said, of course, everyone knows," he says. Actor Arjun Rampal, who plays the character of the father-figure gangster has a more philosophical explanation, "When I sit here, answering your questions, I have certain walls. Think about someone like Gawli, the life he has lived and then imagine the walls he may have built around him. It takes a lot to let go of those and say, 'ok, this is what I want to say'. I think that kind of confidence only comes with complete acceptance. It shows you about circumstance and situations and how those can sometimes make a man a murderer."

We are sitting with Rampal and Ahluwalia at the former's office in Khar. Rampal, who has also produced the movie, is in work mode, calling out directions to his team, sorting out promotions and social media interactions. Ahluwalia is more reticent, even shy of posing for pictures. But, they both are on the same page when it comes to the motive of making the movie on Gawli. "I had always wanted to make a gangster movie, much like Goodfellas, the kind Martin Scorsese makes, and, when someone once suggested I should play Gawli, I started researching him," says Rampal.

Arjun Rampal and Ashim Ahluwalia on the set of Daddy
Arjun Rampal and Ashim Ahluwalia on the set of Daddy

Gawli, once a gangster, now politician, was part of the Byculla Company, a criminal gang led by Rama Naik and Babu Reshim, operating in central Mumbai in the 80s. After Naik was killed in a police encounter, Gawli took charge and began operating the gang from his home at Dagdi Chawl. Under his tutelage, the gang got involved in gang wars with Dawood's D-company. He later entered politics and started his own party, but in 2012, was sent to jail for the murder of Shiv Sena leader Kamlakar Jamsandekar. Once Rampal wrote the movie, he got Ahluwalia, whom he had worked with on an advertisement, on board. "For me, the question to ask was - who is the real criminal? Is it the gangster who is asked to clear a land, or the politician who asks for this clearing, or the rich mill owner? Everyone was complicit in this affair," says Ahluwalia, to which Rampal adds, "They start seeing this as their job, and they have their own guidelines, so it becomes a question of 'if I don't kill him, he will kill me'. But Gawli, who was called Daddy, also had a very human side to him. Most gangsters do good for their community, because they want to encourage the loyalty of people. When he comes out on parole, people throng to ask him how he is."

The first order of the day after getting the screenplay in order was to get Rampal to look exactly like Gawli. The lanky actor may be towering over his real-life counterpart, but for both Ahluwalia and Rampal, the trick was in getting the spirit of the person in question right. "I told Arjun to slouch in the frames, a trait Gawli has to not be noticed. But it wasn't really about the height, it was about getting the spirit down pat." Rampal, who sat for six hours at a stretch to get the prosthetics on, was clear that if he didn't pass the look test, he would still make the movie, albeit with a different actor. "But then, I think I got it spot on!" Ahluwalia, who says he was alien to the ways of Bollywood, and had expected Rampal to play the typical hero on set, was pleasantly surprised when he didn't. "He was ready to give it all, and go the extra mile. And I put him through all the rigours, which he went through willingly!"

Right now, as the movie gets ready for release, both director and actor have very different takes on what they want the audience to take away once they walk out of the theatre. "I don't think of the audience, just because I don't want to lose my original intent of making the movie, not that I don't respect them. I just don't want to second guess my process and not make it how I like it." Rampal on the other hand says, this is the most important movie he may have ever done. "I feel refreshed after doing it, as it was so different for me from the usual Bollywood stuff. I just hope the audience feels the same, too."

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