Dacoits & Their Bollywood Representation

Amjad_Khan as Gabbar Singh in Sholay

The lives of bandits implicate the ancient undercover practices of Thugees. Before modern transportation, people traveled from one place to another distant place by joining Karwaan. Thugs used to hide in the guise of fellow travellers of the Karwaan towards the same direction. On the way, they looted and killed the travellers in a lonely place and fled with their valuables. An early 19th-century thug, Ameer Ali confessed his life of crime in Philip Meadows Taylor's book Confession of a Thug.'The author described his appearance as a sepoy who used to ride horses.

Until the end of the 20th century, Dacoits, the descendants of ancient thugs (popularly known as Baaghi) were the source of consternation in the countryside of India. Clashes between police and dacoits were the real-life adventures of those days. Ravines and jungles were the likely places of their hide-outs (Ravines of Chambal was ill-famed).

Existing mainstream movies have dramatized the lives of dacoits on screen over the second half of the 20th century. Instead of showing the accuracy of the bandit's lives, movies tried to show how the contemporary mindset of that time wanted to see the existence of dreaded dacoits of their times. The classic creation of Gabbar Singh of the mid-seventies is a stylized cinematic version of existing fearsome dacoits, who rode a horse in an army uniform. The dacoits of that time did not ride horses, yet they could be seen in movies riding horses according to their fearsome appearance. [Writer Salim-Javed was greatly influenced by foreign movies like Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven, Once upon a time in the West, and Indian movies like Mera Gaon Mera Desh and Khotey Sikkay to create the plot of Sholay.]

 At present, gangs of notorious bandits are becoming the memories of the past, even in the ravines of Chambal. Hindi films of the 21st century like Paan Singh Tomar, Sonchiriya have been featuring their lives from the perspective of their existential crisis. There are no more stylized representations of a fearsome dacoit who rides a horse like their predecessor thugs of the early 19th century. Sonchiriya (2019) is set in the background of the mid-1970s, in the Chambal region. The movie delineates the lives of Dacoits at the time when Sholay was released. A scene of the movie mocking the movie representation of dacoits coming on horseback. A different perspective from mainstream movies of different periods signifies the changing attitude towards the existence of Indian dacoits. 

Author’s Biographical Note: Rohit Roy is a Ph.D. scholar at the Department of History, Visva Bharati, Santiniketan. For his thesis, he is working on "Crime in Indian Society and Indian Cinema". He recently joined Explore Screen.

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