Shootout at Lokhandwala, it says, is based on true rumours. One suspects that this somewhat confounding phrase 'true rumors' may have been used by the filmmakers as an excuse to' masalafy' the facts to an extent that the scandalous dilutes the factual. This may be allowed especially when you are making a film on a man (and his mobster friends) dead for more than fifteen years and is remembered more for the way he died than for the way he lived. But how does one negotiate the treacherous path of fact and fiction? How does one tell a story about a daylight encounter lasting 6 hours between 5 criminals and the Mumbai police in 1991 that transformed suburban Mumbai into a virtual war zonewhere the end is already known; where 'how' is more important than 'what', and the film’s structure and narrative processes are of key significance.
Sanjay Gupta and Apoorva Lakhia have attempted the colossal task of working on an original story, and they deserve to be congratulated for it. The intellectual and creative energy consumed in the story has understandably left them with little time for minor things like screenplay, dialogues and characterization. The film uses a narrative frame where a Q&A session is used between protagonists to jump to flashbacks (however, there is little to suggest this framework is ‘based on rumours’). With inane accusations, questions that soon start losing their edge, and smart alec lines that fail to tickle, Amitabh Bachchan is seen shouting and berating the Anti Terrorist Squad (ATS) police officers (Sanjay Dutt, Suneil Shetty, Arbaaz Khan) with alarming authority as the officers go on explaining their expertise in encounters and deadly feats with Maya Dolas (Vivek Oberoi) and his gang (Tusshar Kapoor, Rohit Roy, etc). This weak and monotonous question and answer technique extends till the very end of the film. That Bachchan turns out to be a civil lawyer who was being briefed by the police officers before they go on trial for human rights issues adds more incredulity than surprise-at-the-end that filmmakers so very much crave for.
For some strange reason the ATS officers’ story begins with a digression to the Operation Blue Star! Then they relate an encounter with Sikh terrorists in Bombay, the sole purpose of which seems to introduce Dia Mirza, a failed representation of public conscience in the garb of a TV reporter (the logo of the news channel conspicuously absent on TV sets). And finally, the narrative gets to Maya Dolas and his gang. These men are the 1990s bhais of Bombay who seem to need little characterization except that they are cold-blooded killers, splattering bullet shells all over the city with abandon. They threaten and kill people and, after every bout of blood and gore comes an item song (with Marathi women singing rap! Of course it goes unexplained if the officers were narrating the songs to Mr Bachchan). In an attempt to humanize these dangerous men to bring in an element of tragedy (perhaps?), Maya Dolas has an amma who cooks and cleans for the gang members, another guy has a bar dancer girlfriend, and there is Fattu who empties his pistol in a man but shakes at the sight of a gun. The constant tasteless banter amongst these men borrows its vocabulary from previous Bollywood gangster films.
We move to the climax after nerve-grating commentary between Amitabh Bachchan and the officers on trial, flashbacks to Maya’s antics and three item songs. And what is this final encounter between the gangsters and policemen like? Well, it is an extension of the advertising gimmick that has been used to promote the film - that there were 1755 rounds fired in 6 hours. So, several dozens of policemen stand outside, all target-practicing over a residential building. There is long, blind firing from both the sides. What about the drama of the last few hours in the lives of Maya and his gangster friends? It’s time now for the bhai log to repent. So they make a beeline for the phone, and talk to their parents and girlfriends: they are going to die now and are wholly repentant. For a moment it seems, the film can not decide where to go; who are more attractive, the criminals or the people who put an end to them. Men like Maya and his gang deserve to die, ATS chief tells the advocate and the argument carries a plain nod from the director.
In the end, thousands of empty shells carpet the building and five men are killed by dozens of policemen after six hours of firing. The scene is supposed to make you shudder. It doesn’t. The film does not engage; it begins erratically and doesn’t know where to go. What the film does seem to know, though, is that violence ends violence and to enforce law it is justified to break or manipulate it once in a while. A film like Shootout at Lokhandwala had the potential to clear the haze surrounding such encounters; instead it is a simplistic justification for the existence of the Anti Terrorist Squad.
I appreciated the way Amitabh Bachchan was found a place in the film – seen only in three locations but his presence spread through the film, I thought a wisely economical use was made of the superstar. Sanjay Dutt plays a police officer as he plays a criminal, with a hunk-walk and quiet passion. As for Suneil Shetty, I wondered what language he can comfortably speak. Arbaaz Khan’s character, on the other hand, is an expert in several languages (the point of which completely eluded me). Vivek Oberoi returns with a nervous joie de vivre that we haven’t seen in a long time. Tusshar Kapoor is utterly unconvincing playing the ace shooter of his time. Amrita Singh’s does her bit as the gutsy mother of Maya Dolas, while Diya Mirza’s role was lost on her too, it seems. But for logic’s sake, what was Rakhi Sawant’s ‘blink and you miss my cleavage’ scene all about?!
Oh, before I forget: for a film based on true rumours, how come an action sequence is taken straight out of American History X (1998)? And why did that exchange between Sanjay Dutt and Vivek Oberoi at the restaurant remind me so much of the Al Pacino - De Niro exchange in Heat (1995)?!