It is believed that dacoits become a popular subject in Hindi cinema when Vinoba Bhave in 1960 urged the Chambal River Valley dacoits to surrender. Perhaps Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960) started the trend of dacoit movies; but there were some earlier films such as the seminal Mother India (1957). Even Awara (1951) was about a dacoit Jagga, played by KN Singh. Then there were lesser known dacoits like Daaku Maan Singh on whose life Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) was based. The film was shot in the ravines of the Bhind-Morena ravines of Chambal valley.
But it was Jis Desh Mein… that set the ball really rolling and will be remembered for Pran’s landmark performance as Raaka. The bandit roles were attractive to leading men. Dilip Kumar played one in Azaad (1955) and Rajendra Kumar in Suraj (1966). Even the urbane Sunil Dutt appeared as a dacoit in several films such as Mujhe Jeene Do in 1963 and into the 1970s in Pran Jaye Par Vachan na Jaye (1974) and Heera (1973). In 1973, the stylish Feroze Khan discarded his leather jackets and became Daku Shakti Singh in Mela (1971).
While he was a dacoit in Samadhi (1972) Dharmendra’s role as the kind-hearted daku Ranjit Singh in Patthar aur Payal (1974) brought him, as well as the film, great success. Superstars Amitabh Bachchan in Ganga ki Saugandh (1978) and Rajesh Khanna in Bhola Bhala (1978) and Dharam Kanta (1982) were followed by Sunny Deol and Sanjay Dutt who picked up the baton and charged on their horses through the 1980s and 1990s in Dacait (1987) and Jai Vikranta (1995) respectively.
While these were dakus with hearts of gold, there were the out-and-out villainous ones such as Raaka, Jagga and Shamsher Singh in Jwala Daku (1981) and Thakur Vikram Singh in Ganga aur Suraj (1980). These bad guys killed, looted and raped for money and had no redeeming qualities. But there was a significant change with Vinod Khanna in Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971) where he portrayed the dreaded Jabbar Singh. Vinod Khanna played the bad dacoit Sarju once again in Patthar aur Payal and marked the emergence of the star-villain.
In real life, three real life dacoits caught the imagination of filmmakers and the public alike. They were Sultana Daku, Phoolan Devi and Veerappan. Mohd. Hussain’s Sultana Daku (1972) with his favourite hero Dara Singh in the lead role succumbed to poor production values. However, Anurag Kashyap’s highly acclaimed Bandits of Wasseypur (2012) did well. It had an interesting twist in which Sultana Daku (played by Pramod Pathak) is shown to be alive even in 1941 when the official news was that he had been hanged by the British Government in 1924. The real-life Sultana Daku had abducted a nautch girl called Putli Bai who later became his wife. There were two films by the name Putlibai, one each in 1972 and 1999.
Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1996) was an official biopic of Phoolan Devi with the events in the film based on dictated prison diaries of Phoolan Devi herself. Paan Singh Tomar (2012) by Tigmanshu Dhulia was an official biopic on the Army man and a National record holder in sports, Paan Singh, who turned dacoit. Irrfan Khan won accolades for the film that also won two awards at the National Film Awards that year, besides being a commercial success. Veerappan, the sandalwood dacoit who had eluded law for 20 years in the jungles of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu too was ‘honoured’ with a biopic Veerappan (2016) by Ram Gopal Varma in which Sandeep Bhardwaj played the lead. Wounded (2006) was about the infamous Seema Parihar and it was also remarkable as Seema Parihar played herself in the film.
But of all the real life dacoits, one that had the most lasting impact was Gabbar Singh. Such was Amjad Khan in that role that few remember that there was actually a real-life daku who had inspired this role. The real Gabbar Singh (also known as Gabra) was born in 1926 in Bhind district of Madhya Pradesh and he was active between 1955 and early 1960s. Writer Salim Khan’s father who had been a Deputy Inspector General of Police at Indore, had narrated his exploits to Salim – and Gabbar Singh was born and immortalised in Sholay.