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Does crime pay?

The latest film on the Mumbai underworld, "Company" leaves the viewer with some troubling questions, forcing one to take a look at reality, says UMA MAHADEVAN-DASGUPTA.

Unanswered questions ... Mohanlal in "Company".

THREE scenes stand out in Ram Gopal Varma's new film "Company". One: There is a moment when Malik and Chandu, who have just killed two men, get out of the victims' swanky car and drive off in their own SUV, leaving the wipers of the car going up-down, up-down, mechanically, in the pouring Mumbai rain. It is a defining moment in the film. Even Chandu is chilled by Malik's ruthlessness.

Another moment. They must decide on killing a policeman: can they get away with it? It is the only time we see Malik in any sort of doubt. For them it's not a moral question, nor is it sentimental — just a common sense decision to be made. Can they get away with it? A moment of doubt: then, after a quick thinking-it-out, the go-ahead. They can.

The third scene: Chandu is in jail, but there are things left unsaid. He asks the police officer, Srinivasan, to let him speak to Malik. A brief cell phone conversation with Malik, after which Chandu hands the phone back to Srinivasan. The top cop then tells Malik, in his gentle, ponderous way: "I was just saying to my wife last night that if only these two men would leave the path of crime and come on to the straight path, they could reach amazing heights."

There are very clear rules in the world of crime. The first is, kill them before they kill you (no soft sentimentality). The second: if you must think before you act, think fast — and that too, only when you are killing a cop. Think, that is, about whether you can pull it off without getting caught or killed in the process. As for reaching amazing heights in the law-abiding world: could they, I wonder. Are there any qualities that we see in Malik or Chandu — beyond, that is, the very potent one of being able to stick a gun to another man's head, and pull the trigger? "Company", like "Satya", is about violence - and the quest for supremacy. But by dismissing "Company" as little more than a glamourised crime story, one would miss out on many other things about the film, good, bad and ugly. It is not a perfect film — there are minor flaws and major — but it is an important enterprise, technically and thematically, and ranks Varma as the best commercial filmmaker in India today.

Most importantly, "Company" is an essay about this strange, teeming, island-metropolis called Mumbai, where thousands of young boys, hardly men, come from the small towns and villages scattered across the hinterland, dreaming dreams of money, and join the fraternity of Mumbai's underworld, where they find a sort of surrogate family. Here, they learn the only lesson they need: that the easiest money comes from killing. The danger is that everyone else knows this too.

Crime in film, and in the real world outside, always has two sides: one is soft and sentimental (the Bhai's mother, his wife, his friends), the other is cold, heartless and ugly (threats, extortions, and above all the killings, the killings, the killings). We see both sides in "Company".

Caught in a web of violence ... Vivek Oberoi as a gangster.

Malik (Ajay Devgan, in a thin, taciturn, icy-eyed version of D-Company don Dawood Ibrahim) climbs to the top of the heap by killing his rivals before they can kill him first. Chandu (rough-looking Vivek Oberoi, a Bhai-With-Heart, based on Chota Rajan) joins Malik's lethal force by the same means.

Towards the top of the heap, the family is awkward, inarticulate and undemonstrative. Malik himself is always tense, smoking, never relaxed, and has no time for small talk, even after lovemaking.

And as for Srinivasan (an avuncular, gentle Mohanlal, sweet smile, sibilant accent and all, a cop the city wants to believe in — based on Mumbai's Sivanandan), his information is obtained through more violence.

Tell us, or we'll kill you, he tells one of his prisoners. Pointing to the sweating policeman who is trying to make the detainee talk, he adds: they're doing their job. I'm doing mine. And in another reversal of roles, one of Mohanlal's juniors turns informer by letting Malik know about the arrest warrants.

The third arm of the lethal triangle is the political one: greedy Raote (Bharat Dabholkar), the Home Minister in waiting, who wants his rival Patil to die. "Not to be killed — but to die." The supari is agreed upon. And some road accidents are not accidents at all.

It's chilling because it's true. "Satya", with its restlessly outside camera, had these young men, drifters, stumble into the underworld by accident. "Company" takes us deeper inside, where once they get in, they can't leave. Lawmakers, lawbreakers, and those who are to uphold the law, are all caught in this well-oiled machine that is built over the cesspool of extortions and killings, larger than all of them - a machine that is always hungry for more.

This is where we live. This is the city.

The holier-than-thou have also been upset by Kanu (Antara Mali) wanting to marry a Bhai; and by Seema Biswas's portrayal of a mother delighted with her son's new job. But "Company", rather than preaching about the way things are, depicts it with so much accuracy that we are forced to ask ourselves some troubling questions. Beyond the simple but powerful message of living and perishing by the sword, "Company" shows us how there is nevertheless a huge margin in just taking this risk.

More than socially relevant messages, the job of a filmmaker to tell an entertaining story. And Varma has told a good story, moving forward obsessively with every scene, even at the expense of exploring character. What one would have liked, however, is a bit more attention to detail, not merely in the address of the Minister's house (5, Peddar Road, with that open sea behind?) or the phone numbers on Krishnan Pillai's shop (Andheri numbers, though he is stated to be a Wadala property dealer). The story weakens with Raote's sensational killing, and with the rapprochement at the end.

As for the Hong Kong and Nairobi locations, for me, both in "Satya" and in "Company", Mumbai - this gritty, grimy, generous city - is really the biggest character in the film, and when they leave, the film starts to decline.

Most importantly, one would have liked more detail in the exploration of character, and a looser script, perhaps, with more conversations, introspections, silences, white space.

I'm not sure if the film shows a way out. Is there away out? Or is it a part of the human condition that as long as supremacy remains the ultimate goal, we will always have killers and robbers in our midst?

Finally, does "Company" teach that crime doesn't pay?

I don't know for sure. At best, it doesn't teach that crime does pay, either. Crime pays - but not for long; and then you die. As Martin Scorcese, another artist of violence, said: "This is the reality. This is what it looks like."

And a film like `Company' forces us to look at the reality just outside the darkened windows of our cars, in the mean streets of the city.

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