The story of a young man dreaming of making it big, and in the course of his rags to riches journey losing his soul in the process, is as old as the hills. Yet it grabs us every time: when the story is well told -- as it is in Gafla -- the heady mix of ambition and hubris, of Icarus and the Fall, of the titillation inherent in every morality play, proves irresistible.
But where Hindi cinema is concerned, Gafla is a rarer animal than the above might suggest. For amidst the conventional arc of its story lies the vivid representation of a cultural moment and milieu: Dalaal Street on the eve of India's 1991-92 economic liberalization.
Subodh Mehta (the very competent Vinod Sharawat) is the quintessential young man in a hurry, haste that leads him to the Bombay stock market. The old boy's network proves hard to crack, but with the help of Hari bhai (Brijendra Kala, in a marvelous cameo where Kala steals every scene he is in) Subodh secures the sponsorship of an established player -- the only way to gain entry to the market as a broker. Dalaal Street isn't ready for Subodh's newfangled ways opposed to the interests of the cabal manipulating the market, and before long Subodh is wiped out and booted out of the stock exchange. Undeterred, Subodh re-invents himself as a prophet of the bull market, a messiah bringing the light of the stock market to the common investor. He is in the right place at the right time, with an awakening Indian middle class ready to buy whatever Subodh is selling. The result is magic, and before long Subodh is the toast of the nation -- until he is made the scapegoat when the cabal, angered that Subodh's bullish tendencies threaten the bear strategy that keeps the old boys' network in control of the stock market, leaks to the media that Subodh has been playing the stock market by (illegally) using the funds of government banks. The scam is new, but no better or worse than others hallowed by long use. Subodh, in short, is merely the tip of the iceberg, and Gafla makes no bones about its sympathy for Subodh, its conviction that Subodh represented a kind of hope for Indian capitalism, a hope stifled by a diseased system dominated by
The movie's clean chit to Subodh is eyebrow-raising (even his abandonment of his long-time journalistic lover in favor of the daughter of a tycoon who can help him is presented as sentimental tragedy rather than rank opportunism), but writer-director Sameer Hanchate is surely right in treating Subodh as the product of a certain sort of system, a symptom rather than the disease itself. There's an implicit rebuke to the audience here too: Subodh is clearly modeled on real-life "Big Bull" Harshad Mehta, first lionized and ultimately crucified by a sensationalist press and media. Hanchate clearly has little patience for the mindset that needs a single identifiable "villain", and recognizes that the Ravana of public opinion is merely the sacrifice that enables everything to continue as before. Paradoxically, Hanchate's film lapses into the very dialectic it critiques when it posits a small group of men as "behind it all" and as running the market for their own personal ends. While Gafla's point about the susceptibility of the Mumbai stock exchange to market manipulation (and about its greater vulnerability to such manipulation as a direct consequence of over-regulation) is well-taken, the appearance of old-school slimeballs in suits seems to jar. Not that the proceedings aren't fun to watch when they show up: they are, but one can't help but feel the suits have wandered into the wrong film.
In its bracing cynicism, its eschewing of sentimentality, its feel for the bourse floor, Gafla is edgier than Mani Rathnam's Guru, although it simultaneously manages to be less subtle, less symbolic, less ambiguous, and in the final analysis less resonant than Rathnam's examination of one relentless optimist's capitalist ethic. What the two films share is a political problematic that uncritically ties the stock market to a sort of popular emancipation (thwarted in Gafla, realized in Guru): Rathnam's film ends with the near-apotheosis of Gurukant Desai, and Gafla leaves us with Subodh the disappointed prophet. And in both films, the stark conclusion seems somewhat at odds with the sort of greyness suggested earlier (the medium in both films is by way of an upstanding journalist left with no role to play as the film draws to a close).
All in all, Gafla is well worth a watch, primarily for an engaging script that represents a capitalistic milieu far more naturalistically than the likes of Madhur Bhandarkar managed in the awful Corporate, and for capturing the pulse of the bourse with care and immediacy. Overall, the film is visually somewhat functional, although that lack might well be attributable in part to Hanchate's inexperience and lack of substantial filmmaking resources, but certainly in part to a prosaic imagination more attuned to industrial strength rhythms rather than the beat of a new economy drummer. But Hanchate has done enough here to make me wish he gets to do another film -- he has certainly earned his stripes with Gafla.