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Social Dystopia or Entrepreneurial Fantasy: The Significance of Kaminey

Celebration of social decay started with the film Satya, and Kaminey takes this to a new high altogether. Bringing out the idea of "social Darwinism", where the fittest are defined by their degree of immorality, it depicts agents of the law as being completely detached from their role in its enforcement. What is even more striking is that the viewers are no longer disturbed by this; rather, they seem to take satisfaction in the fantasy of a crumbling social structure.


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Social Dystopia or Entrepreneurial Fantasy: The Significance of Kaminey M K Raghavendra may be the first to do the same to law-abiding people who appear to exist only to be taken advantage of. Consi dering that not long ago the Hindi film was a sanctuary of virtue, its new avatar is bizarre. But this celebratory vision of criminality cannot simply be dismissed as perverse; the fact that it is consumed avidly suggests that one must go beyond lamenting it and inquire into its so-

Celebration of social decay started with the film Satya, and Kaminey takes this to a new high altogether. Bringing out the idea of “social Darwinism”, where the fittest are defined by their degree of immorality, it depicts agents of the law as being completely detached from their role in its enforcement. What is even more striking is that the viewers are no longer disturbed by this; rather, they seem to take satisfaction in the fantasy of a crumbling social structure.

M K Raghavendra ( is a film scholar and critic.

Economic & Political Weekly

September 19, 2009

atching the much hyped film by Vishal Bhardwaj, Kaminey, was a new experience. After sitting through more than two hours of gangland killings, drug-dealing, unwed motherhood, gun battles, squalor and corruption, in which no social group remains morally untainted, I found myself sharing the elevator with three unlikely members of the audience – a sprightly old pensioner perhaps with a son in the software industry, a wellanointed young woman trying to distract a noisy child and a student preoccupied with a quiz book. The three were an “unlikely” audience because I could not believe that they found the film’s message attractive. Yet they appeared at ease as though what they had seen and heard – that given the chance, each of us will act in the most shameful way possible, that justice is an idle dream and that the law is an agent of corruption – was naturally satisfying.

Celebrating Criminality

Kaminey is an unusual experience in Indian cinema – nearly as much of a novelty as Hum Aapke Hain Koun…! (1994). If that film was the first to evict the poor from the domain of the story – providing spa ces for them only as servants of the rich – Kaminey

vol xliv no 38

cial and political significance. Indian popular cinema was often regarded as escapist and a “colle ctive daydream”1 but the “fantasy” taking the shape of rampant lawlessness could be revealing.

Urban criminals, until the mid-1990s, were not glamorous figures in Hindi popular cinema, and only people led astray (as in Deewar 1975) became criminals. The film that changed this was perhaps Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1999). Satya appeared “realistic” but had a discourse interpretable in the context of the economic liberalisation initiated by P V Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh in 1991-92, which also marked the end of Nehruvian socialism. Law enforcement has been treated in different ways by Hindi cinema but Satya was the first film to treat the police as though they were no different from a private agency, made stronger by their indifference to the law. The protagonist of the film casually proposes the killing of the police commissioner as though he were a gangland rival and the police responds as another gang might have – by liquidating his group without attention to legality. While many saw Satya as portraying an actual state of affairs, its world is deliberately depoliticised and its discourse may be interpreted as the “privatisation”


of forces of the law in the popular consciousness (as manifested in cinema), perhaps owing to the perceived withdrawal of the State from its own institutions after 1991-92 (Raghavendra 2008: 270-74).

There are key dissimilarities between Satya and Kaminey and the chief among these is that while in Satya there was still a world outside the underworld, in Kaminey the underworld is the world and it would appear that everyone is somehow implicated in criminality. There is a view promoted by the media that Vishal Bhardwaj is the Indian Quentin Tarantino because Tarantino is, likewise (Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill), preoccupied with criminals, violence and the underworld. But the difference between the two filmmakers is important. Tarantino’s world is make-believe and he identifies no recognisable social groups in his stories. Entities like “The Deadly Viper Assassination Squad” in Kill Bill are essentially playful creations.2 Tarantino avoids subjects that might be taken to be socially pertinent (racism, for instance).3 Bhardwaj, in contrast, deals directly with recognisable socio-political issues. A male protagonist of Kaminey works in a non-governmental organisation and the opening dance sequence involves an AIDS awareness campaign. He marries the sister of a politician/hoodlum standing on a “Mumbai-for-Maharashtrians” plank. Bharadwaj’s film is also steeped in grimy Mumbai – using actual locations saturated with social connotations, and it can hardly protest its innocence as Tarantino’s films can. Where Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill deliberately disengage with social issues, Kaminey is culpable of treading a virtual minefield of them but using them only to further a fantasy, one about advancement in a milieu in which enterprise is completely unregulated.

The story of Kaminey is, despite its effort to appear complicated, quite simple. Charlie and Guddu are twins, with their family from UP. While Charlie works with a gang that fixes horse races, Guddu works in a non-governmental agency. Guddu’s girlfriend Sweety is pregnant and the two get married but Sweety’s brother Sunil Bhope, a hoodlum and a politician expoun ding Marathi chauvinism, takes exception. Charlie, Guddu, Bhope and Sweety are accidentally brought into contact with another gang run by a drug trafficker named Tashi, who is hand in glove with the anti-narcotics squad. The object cove ted by Tashi and his associates is a guitar case stuffed with cocaine, and this falls accidentally into Charlie’s lap. The film ends in a shootout over the cocaine and there is a bloodbath. The police who arrive to arrest the traffickers are tempted by the offer of a share in the drug money, but even they cannot save the cocaine. Charlie, Guddu and Sweety however, escape the carnage and live happily ever after – Charlie as a prosperous bookie with a glamorous girlfriend, and Guddu and Sweety as the parents of twins. There are two Africans in the story who negotiate with Tashi to exchange some blood diamonds for the cocaine, and these two also perish in the shootout, leaving the diamonds to the protagonists.

To those familiar with the past of Hindi cinema, this account may make Kaminey

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September 19, 2009 vol xliv no 38

Economic & Political Weekly


appear as an unusual cultural artefact, but the film does not abandon Hindi film convention altogether. Charlie and Guddu are estranged – as the two brothers were in Yash Chopra’s Deewar (1975). They are also from the working class and their father – a railway employee – took his own life when he was accused of being a thief. This motif carries forward the one in Deewar, in which the hero had the legend “Mera baap chor hai” inscribed on his forearm, and carried the indignity from the unjust accusation in his heart thereafter. But neither Charlie nor Guddu is a wounded soul (as Deewar’s protagonist was). Charlie is not living a life of illegality because of a deep sense of injustice but is cheerful about “shortcuts” being necessary. Moreover, their dead father was not the morally upright figure that the father in Deewar was; indeed, he taught the twins that all people were “kaminey”.

Social Darwinism

Kaminey has, by and large, been taken to be a “dark” film and while it must be conceded that it is dimly lit, it is almost celebratory in its approach to corruption and social decay. For instance, Guddu is lawabiding but his disinclination to engage in criminal activity is not a moral quality but simply a quirk. In fact, Guddu needs Charlie to save him and Sweety, and the message is that a social ethic is a hindrance. The vision promoted by the film may be roughly described as “social Darwinism”

  • that society is a lawless jungle in which only the fittest survive. And one’s “fitness” is perhaps commensurable with one’s willingness to shed moral scruples. The presence of the Africans reflects the fact that the film’s “moral vision” is extended to include the global world in which criminality and thievery is the norm.4
  • The portrayal of the law in Kaminey is unprecedented in Indian cinema. The anti-narcotics squad functions as the handmaiden of drug-runners and when the police arrive at the final exchange, the criminals due to be “arrested” announce on the street their open offers to the men in khaki
  • 25% of the take increasing gradually to 33% – and thereby make the police waver. This is far more extreme than even Satya because policemen in Kaminey are only acting for themselves, and not even nominally engaged in enforcing the law.
  • Economic & Political Weekly

    September 19, 2009

    While the law has hardly remained un- Kaminey suggests that its meaning to
    tainted in India and the police have been those in the middle to high income brack
    discredited through their doings, Kaminey ets has also been a weakening of enforce
    is grotesque in the way it exaggerates the ment. To restate the obvious, the economic
    prevailing situation. But instead of dis liberalisation of 1991 was devised essen
    turbing the spectators or causing them tially to free the economy of the impedi
    distress, the film is actually being enjoyed; ments of what was known as the “control
    there is apparently some strange kind of raj” but what is apparently not recognised
    satisfaction in the fantasy of a crumbling is that there was a miscalculation in the
    social structure in which a person has only way the State went about its “withdrawal”.
    two options – either eat or be eaten. Even if one concedes that freeing the econ
    Kaminey’s excellent box office showing omy from the shackles of control was a
    in its first week is generally credited to big good thing, it would have been appropri
    city multiplexes but its showing elsewhere ate at that point to streng then enforcement
    and in single theatres has apparently fall in areas where intervention was still neces
    en.5 The film has received much more une sary. This, unfortunately, did not happen
    quivocal praise from the elite English lan and India today is an enforcement night
    guage press than the Hindi one, in which mare. But it is appa rently a nightmare that
    the response has been lukewarm. The Eng allows certain classes to dream.
    lish press has also been clear that the film Hindi popular cinema is now sufficiently
    is intelligent entertainment – suggesting differentiated to cater separately to various
    that it is the “intelligentsia” it is meant for. social segments, but much of it still remains
    If all this suggests that it is targeted at the a fantasy or a collective daydream and
    aspiring urban classes, the discourse in the speaks the language of myth. As Roland
    film tends to confirm it. For all the show- Barthes argues (Barthes 1973:143), myth is
    casing of the squalor and grime of the city a kind of language, a set of conventions by
    – and its male protagonists being ostensi which the exigencies of a historical moment
    bly from the working class, Kaminey does are given eternal justification. The world of
    not indicate that making a living in the city Kaminey is dehistoricised because it treats
    is a difficult matter. The figures routinely its own vision of “people as kaminey” not as
    invoked – crores or tens of lakhs of rupees the creation of historical circumstances, but
    – are not figures that one associates with as an eternally valid philosophy for “prag
    working class aspirations. Guddu lives in a matists”. It is a depoliticised world in which
    chawl but catching a flight somewhere even politics is only “enterprise”. Kaminey
    with Sweety seems an easy matter that gives us an entrepreneurial fantasy for the
    does not need deliberation. The muscular upwardly mobile urban classes – disguised
    bodies exhibited by Charlie and Guddu are as a social dystopia.
    not working class bodies built through
    physical labour, but bodies acquired at Notes
    great expense through fancy equipment 1 The writer to use this phrase was Sudhir Kakar
    and gym instructors. All this suggests that Kaminey’s vision is a low life fantasy lived (1989). 2 The epithet “post-modern” used to describe Tarantino’s films is largely because of his playful pastiche
    out by the aspiring, upwardly mobile classes who have no idea of what “low life” re of other cinema, usually of the violent kind like Kung Fu action films and spaghetti westerns. 3 Marriages in Pulp Fiction are, for instance, deliber
    ally means. Why the aspiring, upwardly mobile urban classes need to live out a low ately indifferent to the issues of colour and race. 4 Hindi films like Dhoom 2 (2008) have concluded earlier that global enterprise is advantageous be
    life fantasy is difficult to explain but it might be the best way to sustain their faith cause it promotes thievery. See M K Raghavendra (2008). 5
    in “social-Darwinism”. “Clawing one’s way new-releases-fizzle/151582/0
    to the top” is perhaps a self-justifying day
    dream enacted by those with advantages. References
    Raghavendra, M K (2008): Seduced by the Familiar:
    A Miscalculated Withdrawal Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema
    (New Delhi: Oxford University Press), p 296.
    India embracing the market whole-heart- Roland, Barthes (1973): Mythologies (London: Paladin),
    edly from 1991 onwards meant a decrease in economic intervention by the state, but p 143. Sudhir, Kakar (1989): Intimate Relations: Exploring Indian Sexuality (New Delhi: Penguin).
    vol xliv no 38 17

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