Monsoon Shootout, which screened in competition at this year’s Sydney Film Festival, is the first feature film from Indian director Amit Kumar. A dark, introspective crime thriller, it takes as its subject the moral dilemma faced by a young policeman working in Mumbai’s slums, where gangland thugs face off against cops who don’t like doing paperwork.
Adi (Vijay Varma) starts the film as the archetypal rookie cop beginning his first day on the job, preparing for “field trials” under seasoned veteran Khan (Neeraj Kabi). Their district is being terrorised by a man nicknamed the Axe-Killer (guess what he does?), who is an enforcer for a local kingpin called the Slum Lord; together they are busy extracting money from property developers and politicians. There’s such a swirling vortex of corruption in the world of this film that it’s sometimes hard to keep track of who’s paying money to whom for what.
When Khan and his policemen catch a crew of small-time criminals, far down the pecking order from the Axe-Killer himself, Adi is shown how Khan’s unit keeps the streets clean: the lot of them are summarily executed, their jeep crashed, a self-defence scenario constructed for police headquarters. It’s an eye-opening beginning, and it sets the tone of the film immediately: we’re not going to be able to neatly divide the characters into heroes and villains, not on either side of the law.Late at night under a pouring monsoon, the squad are staking out a rumoured meeting between the Axe-Killer and another man. A shootout begins, and Adi finds himself pursuing a man he believes to be their target through rain-soaked backstreets. At a pivotal moment, he has to choose between shooting his quarry (who seems unarmed, and may not even be the man they’re after anyway) or letting him escape, possibly to never see him again.
From here the story develops, ratcheting through the chain of consequences that results from Adi’s decision. Eventually, as a conclusion looms, we stop… and return to that moment in the rain, where Adi confronts the running man with his gun raised.
Director Kumar shows us three variations on Adi’s story, like the use of alternative retellings in Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon or in Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run. Unlike Rashomon’s use of this device to contrast different witnesses’ accounts of a series of events, or Lola’s examination of determinism and chance, this film is interested in Adi’s moral choice: in each version, we see the set of consequences, good and bad, that flow from his actions in the shootout.
In the short Q&A session afterwards, Kumar said that the inspiration for the film came from his thoughts about the encounter killings (more information is here on Wikipedia) that were notorious in gangland policing in Mumbai in the ’80s and ’90s. Is it justifiable to circumvent due process and shoot suspected criminals if you know that they will be able to bribe their way out of trouble should their cases make it to court? It’s an oft-repeated dilemma in crime film and television, but one that becomes particularly compelling when you know that it has happened in real life, even often enough for “encounter specialists” like Khan in this film to arise.
If I have a bone to pick with the writing, it’s that there has been a bit of an injection of convenient chance into the storyline. There are good dramatic reasons for this — it certainly can makes things more unpredictable and interesting — but a little too much and it the causal link with Adi’s moral character starts to feel a bit tenuous. It’s a minor quibble, though, and a dry examination of cause-and-effect wouldn’t be much fun either.
Performances from the leads are good, with Vijay Varma and sometime Axe-Killer Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who played Faizal Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur) doing a fine job of presenting so many different variations on their shifting characters. Siddiqui is particularly fun to watch when he’s in hitman mode, stalking ruthlessly through the slums.
Monsoon Shootout is a detailed, thought-provoking film from outside the Indian mainstream cinema, and I look forward to seeing many more like it.