Nawazuddin Siddiqui has made a career out of being the quintessential anti-hero. His roles tend to be egotistical, flawed and tragic men who lack a moral compass, and who almost always find recourse in bloodshed.
Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (Babu the Gunslinger) is no different. In this film by Kushan Nandy, Siddiqui excels as a small-time mercenary who operates in the satellite towns of Bihar, arguably one of India's most lawless states.
Siddiqui has essayed similar roles in other memorable films, including the Gangs of Wasseypur franchise and the more recent Haraamkhor, each one more disturbing and thought-provoking, than the last.
But the 43-year-old actor has never commanded the kind of adulation that Shah Rukh Khan or Akshay Kumar enjoy. He is not in the mould of the handsome, flawlessly coiffed actors that Bollywood props up as its poster boys; and to his credit, the hasn't tried to imitate them.
Gritty and intense, with a penchant for alternative cinema that is distant to the superficial masala confections of Bollywood, Siddiqui sits comfortably among such Indian actors as his contemporary, Irrfan Khan (Life of Pi, The Amazing Spider-Man), and distinctly reminds one of that league of yesteryear thespians such as the late Om Puri – the kind who didn't rely on looks, but on prodigious talent.
Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is a film of two distinct parts, sliced in half by the annoying requisite interval that plagues Bollywood (on account of the movies being interminably long). The first hour is an enjoyable black comedy, which is a testament to Siddiqui's astonishing flair for humour.
His lines are sharp and crisply delivered, whether he is gently ridiculing a terrified young man who wets himself after witnessing one of Babu's crude, point-blank executions, or attempting to woo, through a deliberately broken shoe, a surly female cobbler (Bidita Bag as the ever-so-slightly demented Phulwa).
Siddiqui also has great chemistry with the capable Jatin Goswami, who portrays Bihari, a young, wannabe gun-for-hire who adopts Babu as his guru. Goswami's Bihari is an earnest, self-styled (and double-crossing) apprentice, whose bubbly enthusiasm for his job more than makes up for any lack of experience or professionalism.
With Siddiqui, Goswami and Bag forming a three-point axis of unrepentant evil, the first hour speeds by quite nicely, neatly wrapping up all the contract killing with the Babu-Phulwa romance subplot. Until after the break, when the story suddenly descends into a blood-soaked vendetta saga. All traces of the earlier light-heartedness and jocularity suddenly disappear, as Babu takes up arms to right a perceived wrong.
What saves the day are appearances by a stolid bunch of supporting actors. Bhagwan Tiwari is hilarious, and slightly woeful, as a corrupt policeman, who is clearly out of his depth as the officer assigned to protect a politician on whom Babu has trained his trusty gun.
Tiwari's character is properly fleshed out, and he shines bright, especially in the droll interludes that show him as a harassed householder juggling his yet-again-pregnant wife and posse of young children – all rambunctious boys. Divya Dutta is riveting as an unsmiling crime boss with lofty ambitions, a collection of gorgeous silk saris and zero empathy, who is in league with the long-haired Dubey (Anil George), an oily politician who dabbles in physical and sexual violence with equanimity.
Babumoshai Bandookbaaz is Siddiqui's movie through and through. It is he who manages to link its severed halves. Even when the plot gets too thick to stir anymore, and people keep dropping dead from flying bullets, he carries the film to the finish line, unperturbed by the holes in the plot or its descent into depravity. Afterwards, as the end credits roll, Siddiqui is all that you will remember of the film.
Snide yet warm, merciless yet loyal, misled but true to his instinct, Babu makes you root for him, even as he remains the sole cause of all the destruction swirling around him.