The Godfather story

The Godfather story

Francis Ford Coppola's underworld trilogy remains the biggest reference point for Hindi 'don-themed' movies


Khalid Mohamed

Published: Thu 1 Nov 2018, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Fri 9 Nov 2018, 8:32 AM

Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather trilogy continues to influence the Mumbai-produced output of movies themed around crime and punishment. Not surprisingly then, the handsomely-produced book The Godfather Family Album, with a lavish spread of behind-the-scenes vignettes photographed by Steve Schapiro, has become a fixture on coffee tables of leading lights of Mumbai's show business.
Needless to emphasise, scenes, costumes and set decor from Coppola's classic movie series, which kicked off in 1972, are replicated to this day and age in B-town's ceaseless number of action movies. Riffs of its haunting music score can be caught in the background soundtracks, without so much as an acknowledgement of the original source.

More than the ageing patriarch Don Vito Corleone, enacted by Marlon Brando, it is the character of his son, Michael Corleone, portrayed by Al Pacino, which has been reprised frequently over the decades in Bollywood. The reluctance of an upright son of an Italian-American crime syndicate's overlord to pursue the family's 'profession', so to speak, has been ideal material for script spin-offs bristling with high drama and tension-crammed conflicts within a powerful but dysfunctional family.

Inevitably, the myriad adaptations of the global bestseller The Godfather, authored by Mario Puzo, have contained add-ons of songs-and-dances to suit the Bollywood mainstream framework. Occasionally, elements have also been incorporated from the epic Sanskrit text, Mahabharata, to make the desi versions connect better with the Indian audience.

Incidentally, over a period of time, event management conglomerates have been attempting doggedly to invite Coppola to conduct a masterclass on the making of a masterpiece in a clutch of cities in India - in vain. Now, the news is that, courtesy an NRI based in Los Angeles, Al Pacino may just agree to visit India next year to participate in a workshop on his experience of incarnating Michael Corleone.

Indeed, on October 22-23, the 78-year-old legend wowed a packed house of his admirers at a show titled 'An Evening with Al Pacino' at the Théâtre de Paris. Whether this show will expand into a world tour remains to be seen. If the Oscar-winning actor does make it to similar events in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Kolkata, sold-out evenings are guaranteed, never mind the exorbitantly-priced entry tickets.
On an entirely different tack altogether, I often wonder how either Coppola or Pacino would react to the Indianised god-pitajis. In a fit of bravado, the once-prolific Ram Gopal Varma had shot off a letter to Coppola 'sir', requesting him to attend an exclusive screening of Sarkar Raj (2008), somewhere in California. Words of great praise were heaped on 'sir', but it turned out to be an offer Coppola could refuse. A polite letter was received by Varma, wishing him luck. Just as well perhaps.

Around the 1990s, copyright laws weren't being strictly enforced. Blatantly recognisable copies were as common as air pollution, explaining why the Indian film archives and DVD libraries openly store several indigenised replays of the Coppola film, which was co-scripted by Mario Puzo.

The early lot of Indian godfathers was an awkward bunch. Among the prominent ones there was Dilip Shankar's Aatank Hi Aatank (1995), which paired Aamir Khan and Rajinikanth, no less, as temperamentally unalike brothers raising mayhem in the underworld. It turned out to be one of Aamir Khan's least-cherished works and has been long forgotten and dusted.

As for Bharat Rangachary's Zulm Ki Hukumat (1992), toplining Dharmendra and Govinda, and Jagdish A. Sharma's Sapoot (1996), featuring Akshay Kumar and Suniel Shetty - these jejune attempts were laughably expendable.

By comparison, actor-director Feroz Khan's Dharmatma (1975) can boast of flamboyance, a terrific music score by Kalyanji-Anandji and fancy flights into fantasy. Filmed in Afghanistan and at home, the slickly-crafted thriller is still watchable. Khan's second jab, Dayavan (1988), at the godpapa narrative - an official remake of Mani Ratnam's Tamil Nayakan (1987) - was a letdown though, recallable essentially for its romantic scenes featuring Vinod Khanna and Madhuri Dixit.

Ram Gopal Varma's startup Sarkar (2005) replaced Don Vito Corleone with a character quite overtly 'inspired' by the late political leader Bal Thackeray. To be fair, the outcome was engrossing, besides being enhanced by an inspired performance by Amitabh Bachchan. Its sequel Sarkar Raj, alas, just wasn't in the same league. Unfazed, Varma went on to fashion the tedious Sarkar 3 (2017), and gratifyingly put an end to his Coppola obsession there.

Indeed, the two most accomplished takes on the Puzo tale have been Prakash Jha's Raajneeti (2010) and Anurag Kashyap's two-parter Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). The former was especially remarkable for the intensity invested by Ranbir Kapoor in a part clearly fashioned after Michael Corleone. And Kashyap opted for a raw and gritty approach, set in the primeval coal mines of Bihar, which didn't seek to copy The Godfather, but used it as a reference point.

It's no secret that Francis Ford Coppola's magisterial directorial style - combining emotional drama with spurts of no-holds-barred action - has influenced generations of filmmakers in India. And something tells me, The Godfather will always remain Bollywood's prime go-to touchstone.

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