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How Bunty Aur Babli Updated the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde

2005's “Bunty Aur Babli” (“aur” is Hindi for “and”), directed by Shaad Ali Sehgal, is a Hindi remake of a Western film that uses the original’s (“Bonnie and Clyde”) DNA, along with a healthy dash of “Catch Me If You Can,” to craft something wholly original. The film stars Abhishek Bachchan and Rani Mukerji, two of India’s biggest stars, who provide indelible performances. Both movies are just as fresh today as they did upon release. And both launched sartorial movements by taking bygone elements of fashion trends and making them new and appealing to modern audiences. But when “Bunty Aur Babli” opts to differ from “Bonnie and Clyde,” it transcends the labels of yet another rip-off to something that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Penn, Benton, and Newman’s historic achievement.

Upon its release in 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” was labeled many things: the most graphically violent film ever made; the first salvo in the war between New Hollywood, which took its cues from French New Wave cinema, and traditional filmmaking; the dawn of a new era of cinematic conventions, including more realistic violence, the usage of squibs, and jump cuts; a fashion movement inspired by the visionary work of costume designer Theadora Van Runkle, featuring fitted sweaters, scarves tied around the neck and draping oh so casually down to the chest, trench coats, double-breasted jackets. But most importantly of all, “Bonnie and Clyde” changed the public perception of crime and criminals. 

The pair who murdered almost a dozen law enforcement officials were no longer remembered as bored hicks from rural Texas and Missouri. They were Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, cool, chic, at ease, causing unease. Though the film’s first scene has no violence, it rings out like a gunshot. Bored by their prosaic existence—and, by extension, a depiction of the boredom of the filmmakers with the Hollywood establishment—the pair meet outside Bonnie’s home in the world’s sexiest criminals’ meet-cute. Bonnie is smoking, her nude body languid, draped over and almost out of the screened windows of her home when she spies a handsome young man preparing to steal her mother’s car. The attraction is immediate. They take off in stolen cars, holding up banks, scooping up cash, and killing cops. 

David Newman and Robert Benton’s screenplay has an almost supernatural relationship with Arthur Penn’s direction. Both are like tidal waves, rising and falling, a riot of motivations, characterization, and narrative. The slapstick gags—both visual and verbal, often courtesy of Estelle Parsons’ Oscar-winning turn as Clyde’s sister-in-law Blanche Barrow, aided perfectly by Gene Hackman as her husband Buck—are buffered by choppy conversations that begin, halt, end, and start again before you can blink. Penn frames the robbers in wide shots when they’re committing a crime or posing with captive cops, making sure to feature them as the center of this new madcap universe, but when Bonnie and Clyde are alone, he zooms in. They’re just two kids—navigating, for the first time, sex, desire, interpersonal conflict—and close-ups create a cramped vortex of hormones and anxiety. Jump cuts, then brand new in Hollywood, move the story along; the audience must fill in the blanks between each cut. 

“Bonnie and Clyde” romanticized the story of two murderers, but it added something no newspaper ever managed: by invoking the psyche of its leads, the film asked the audience to consider what, beyond boredom and money, drove Bonnie and Clyde. When he’s unable to have sex with Bonnie in the car, just after their first heist, Clyde ducks his head in angry shame, slamming the brakes on the car and their alliance. Angrily lighting a cigarette, Bonnie complains that Clyde’s “advertising” is terrific but fictional. It is Clyde who has to alter his pitch. Yes, he’s unable to have sex, nor is he interested in it, but he’s offering to change her life—isn’t that better? The storytelling establishes that the sex appeal of crime and murdering cops is just as satisfying as tumbling into bed afterward. The sexual impotence vanishes, however, when Bonnie Parker uses what lovers have employed for millennia to woo their beloved: she writes an infamous poem memorializing Clyde and their crimes. But this happy event does not last long because even though they—in a post-coital haze of joy and freedom—resolve to mend their ways and live in another state, Bonnie and Clyde are murdered in a hail of bullets shortly thereafter. It’s not an accident that American pop culture aimed at young people valorizes the young, the beautiful, who do things they shouldn’t have a few moments in the sun and die in quick succession.

At first, there is no one even named Bunty or Babli (pronounced “bub-lee”) in Shaad Ali Sehgal's film. Instead, we meet Rakesh (Bachchan), a young man no older than 22, stuck in a sleepy town where no one takes risks or chases dreams. The name of this town, Fursatganj, literally translates to “Leisure Town.” His mother and railway ticket collector father are at their wit’s end, constantly berating their son for his refusal to get a “real job” instead of concocting financial schemes. But Rakesh is adamant, and while a lesser actor could easily come off as entitled, Bachchan’s performance is imbued with equal parts cheek and sincerity. Ordered to report to the railway station the next day for a job interview or clear out of the family home, Rakesh opts for the latter. 

In a different, equally sleepy town called Pankinagar, a young woman named Vimmi Saluja (Mukerji) dreams of being a supermodel. Her ambition is not unfounded. She is indeed beautiful, and more relevantly, she has an innate eye for style and routinely critiques her pinup supermodel heroes (Cindy Crawford and Naomi Campbell, plus a few of Mukerji’s Hindi film colleagues). Alas, the literal call of the patriarchy marches into her room. Her parents have invited a potential suitor and his parents to lunch the next day. Vimmi’s father threatens physical violence if she does not comply. To mollify Vimmi, her mother says, “Don’t think about it too much. The more you think about it, the more pain you’ll feel.” Despondent, Vimmi, too, bolts in the night.

At first, Rakesh and Vimmi try to honorably pursue their dreams, but the world isn’t buying what they’re selling. In the first of the film’s many commentaries on class politics, Q. Q. Qureshi (Sanjay Mishra in a career-best comic performance), the stockbroker to whom Rakesh presents a legitimate and detailed investment strategy, plus a list of 500 investors from the towns and villages surrounding Fursatganj, not only scoffs at his idea but later steals it and presents it to his own boss, for a promotion and a substantial raise. Vimmi tries to enter the Miss India pageant but is dismissed for registering late and in the wrong town. She is then sexually propositioned by a pageant administrator. “We’ve seen what happens when we tell the truth,” Rakesh tells Vimmi, having befriended each other on a train platform. “Now we’ll tell people what they want to hear.” 

Like Bonnie and Clyde’s relatively meager bank robbery proceeds, the money from Rakesh and Vimmi’s first con—a near-flawless sequence during which they con the same stockbroker who stole Rakesh’s idea—isn’t enough to live on, especially if they want to pursue their original dreams in Bombay, a city they believe is receptive to the ambitious. They must con again, and for this, Rakesh introduces the concept of an alter ego named Bunty. As a child, Rakesh would protest innocence when he was caught misbehaving, saying that Bunty was to blame. Bunty’s female compatriot, Rakesh decides, ought to be named Babli. 

One of the film's highlights is Bachchan and Mukerji’s chemistry, which rivals Bogart and Bacall. The couple began dating in real life while paired together in Mani Ratnam’s “Yuva” and continued their onscreen partnership in “Laaga Chunari Mein Daag,” “Kabhi Alvida Na Kehna” and “Bas Itna Sa Khwaab Hai.” (However, Bachchan and Mukerji broke up in 2007 and have not worked together since.) Bunty and Babli squabble like a married couple long before they realize they’re in love, but their initial bond is one of comrades, equal in every way. This foundation of mutual respect allows their relationship to develop naturally. There is never a hint of impropriety on Rakesh’s part toward Vimmi, which makes this movie a downright fairy tale, given how men in India treat women. Both are also kind. Whenever they seek shelter in the homes of impoverished villagers, the couple leaves large amounts of cash for the families; this bonds the pair again to Bonnie and Clyde, who turned a bank foreclosure sign into target practice.

Like their American counterparts, Bunty and Babli scam and/or rob only the rich: hoteliers, car dealership owners, and wealthy tourists. The two best cons? Babli, who has long since learned to use her beauty as a weapon instead of having it used against her, dressed in the world’s shortest, tightest, and whitest skirt suit—plus a fruit punch-pink scarf knotted at her neck just above the V-neck plunge of her blouse—marches into a mall department store and demands to buy every single washing machine. For this, she pays the smitten manager cash in full. What the idiot manager doesn’t know is that Bunty, hidden elsewhere in the mall, packs into the washing machines watches, sunglasses, and small electronics. The machines are picked up by Babli and a semi-truck the next morning. Bunty’s exit strategy is right out of Gene Takavic’s playbook: he smuggles himself in a box with the other washing machines.

The second con is a multilayered commentary on modern India inviting Western investment in real estate and infrastructure. Harry Epstein (J. Brandon Hill), an American and the world’s 7th richest man, has promised his fianceé Kate (Tania Zaetta) that they can marry anywhere she wants in India. Her chosen venue is the Taj Mahal, which she insists Harry buy. This storyline could be inspired by the 2002-2003 Taj corridor case, in which the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh was charged with corruption for embezzling funds intended to improve the tourism resources around the Taj Mahal. The CM at the time, Mayawati, is parodied in “Bunty Aur Babli” as Minister Phoolsakhi (Pratima Kazmi), who gets in a few choice one-liners: “Listen, I’m in the office all day today. Whatever corruption you need done, do it today.” 

Bunty becomes Mr. Bunty, a civil servant, and Babli is the fake Phoolsakhi; she tells Harry he can’t buy but can lease the Taj Mahal for five years. Brimming with glee, Harry signs. When he and Kate, mounted on a bedecked elephant, turn up to the Taj Mahal in a grand wedding procession, they are informed by the monument’s caretakers, who are struggling to explain in between riotous peals of laughter, that they’ve been scammed. 

Another element absent in “Bonnie and Clyde” but present in “Bunty Aur Babli” is the grizzled cop trope. This would’ve been a dynamite role for anyone, but given that Deputy Commissioner of Police Dashrath Singh is played by Amitabh Bachchan—Abhishek’s dad—helps the film attain transcendence all too rare in Hindi cinema. Bachchan Sr., who achieved fame playing young men resorting to crime, once played a con man himself, in the 1979 smash hit “Mr. Natwarlal.” The titular hustler is based on a real man of the same name, whose Robin Hood-esque habits of robbing the rich and giving to the poor have immortalized him as a folk hero to this day. 

Dashrath, repudiating the kind of love the real-life Natwarlal received, is enraged that the pair are being valorized by young people on college campuses and celebrated in newspapers. There is very little Amitabh Bachchan cannot do, so his ability to defend the necessity of his mission to his boss is just as convincing as the montage of his (comic) madness, complete with a red yarn-festooned corkboard and liquor bottles smashed in frustration. Reflexive dialogue peppers the film once we meet Dashrath; he muses that his quarries are “starting to feel like my own children.” When Bunty and a pregnant Babli run into Dashrath at the hotel bar the couple has just purchased, neither party knows the other’s identity. Stressed out by impending fatherhood, Bunty orders a drink that has rum, vodka, gin, and whiskey as Dashrath watches:

Dashrath: “Are you heading to the moon?”

Bunty: “Are you selling tickets?”

Dashrath, gesturing to Bunty’s glass: “You’ve already bought the ticket.”

Babli stomps over and stamps beedis (pronounced bee-rhees; cheap cigarettes rolled and smoked by the working classes) out of both men’s mouths. “You look like you’re related to him,” she sternly tells Dashrath, “teach him something.” Once she leaves, father and son—er, cop and criminal—commiserate about the lack of love in the former’s life, and what unfolds is both actors establishing comic vulnerability so tender it could be a film by itself. Both are also believable as newfound drinking buddies, words slurring, shoulders slumping. Though they’ve acted in other (and far worse) films together, this was their first go-around, and Junior and Senior pulled off something magical.

These scenes would’ve been terrific on their own, but director Shaad Ali Sehgal ups the ante by adding a song to end all songs. A bar girl (i.e., dancer) calls out to the plastered Bachchans, explaining that she too, has had her heart broken, so why don’t they drink together? Dashrath is uninterested and waves her off, which angers the unnamed dancer. Thus begins the song “Kajra Re,” which has since become a cornerstone of Indian, not just Hindi, cinema. 

Like his lyrics for “Dil Se,” Gulzar’s use of the word “kajra” is wonderfully flexible. It’s a derivative of “kohl,” an eyeliner common in India, made from the soot of a clay lamp’s castor oil. The song’s title ostensibly means “kohl-like,” referring to the dancer’s eyes. Gulzar opts for a qawwali (a call and response) format for the song, which allows all three parties to express their points of view. His trademark marriage of Urdu, which adds poetry and longing, and Hindi, which adds humor and slang, enhances its appeal to audiences of all ages. Instead of assigning a Western melody, common in “item numbers”—a Hindi film term for songs, often racy or provocative, that may have no relation to the plot and tend to feature either an established actress or ingenue—composers Shankar, Ehsaan, and Loy sourced the tune from a folk song popular in the Braj region of India, where the dark eyes of Lord Krishna are considered holy. Vaibhavi Merchant’s brilliant choreography pulls from two schools of dance: the first, intentionally simple dance moves for the men, emphasizing the bawdiness of their attraction to the dancer, and the second, traditional kathak choreography for the dancers, inspired by India’s long history of courtesans. In the song’s narrative, once the dancer has convinced Dashrath and Bunty to hew to her allure, she mimics the men’s simpler dance moves.

As for who plays the unnamed dancer, Aishwarya Rai is a former runner-up to Miss India, widely considered the most beautiful Indian woman ever, and a highly underrated actress. The cherry on this sundae of a song is that she performs with the men who, just two years later, would become her husband (Bachchan Junior) and father-in-law (Bachchan Senior). Her appearance in the film was kept a secret, and the delight of her onscreen presence, especially as a woman trying to get an older man to be vulnerable while her future husband clowns around trying to get her attention, is cinematic gold. By dressing her only in lip gloss and eyeliner, makeup department head Mickey Contractor helps Rai avoid what I call Hired To Be Hot Syndrome, a pattern by Indian filmmakers to hire gorgeous women purely for their physical appearance rather than giving them meaty roles that utilize their talent. (Other victims of this phenomenon include Sushmita Sen and Dia Mirza.) With minimalist make-up and reciting loving poetry, Rai can inhabit a nameless character with more backstory and depth than many of her starring film roles.

The primary difference between the 1930s gangsters and the 2005 scammers is that the latter neither fire a single shot nor commit an act of violence. “Bunty Aur Babli” is a deeply moral film. Divorcing themselves from Rakesh and Vimmi allowed Bunty and Babli to be successful. They weren’t answerable to anyone but themselves, and the selves they adopted permitted them to steal in the first place. Once she gives birth, however, Babli tells her husband they’re answerable now to their own child, whom she refuses to endanger. Hindi movies, at least in 2005, were not yet comfortable with criminals who stay criminals. Redemption is important, having a child is sacred, you must sacrifice when you become parents, etc., which are important arcs in traditional Indian stories. Bonnie and Clyde never question what they’ve done nor express remorse, but Babli reproaches her husband for his heedless pursuit of one last con. Bunty protests, but she is firm: “We were wrong” to do what we did, even though it was fun. It’s at that very moment—when our guy and gal ditch Bunty and Babli for Rakesh and Vimmi—that they’re finally arrested by Dashrath. 

Equal to these films’ long-lasting cinematic achievements is their enduring impact on fashion. Both van Runkle and Aki Narula, the costume designer on “Bunty Aur Babli,” hew to what I have termed the Janie Bryant Principle: exemplary wardrobe design tells a story without words. Before a single syllable is spoken, what is the first thing we notice in a film when an actor enters the frame? The appearance of the actor, including their clothing or the absence thereof. In addition to both films’ analysis of their criminal duos’ psyches, “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Bunty Aur Babli” benefit enormously from inspired costume design. 

Before 1967, there existed a paradigm that successful costumes had to be elaborate. This was certainly borne out by the brilliant artistry of legends like Dorothy Jeakins and van Runkle’s mentor, Edith Head. The latter warned her protégé to “do everything in chiffon.” Rejecting this exhortation created yet another aspect of American culture irreversibly altered by “Bonnie and Clyde.” Miniskirts were tossed out in favor of maxi or calf-length skirts, similar to the ones van Runkle chose for Bonnie. Double-breasted jackets, worn by Clyde whether he’s robbing a bank or chatting with bankrupt farmers, were all the rage. French berets became the last word in cool. Their prevalence is visible even in Bryant’s designs for the adolescent Sally Draper (Kiernan Shipka) and her friends on “Mad Men.” Young women plundered their grandmothers’ attics and trunks; if they came up empty, they flocked to thrift shops. It’s an odd coincidence that van Runkle going against the film wardrobe grain actually strengthened the cyclical nature of fashion. This holds true today: the popularity of “Stranger Things” has likely contributed to Generation Z’s fondness for ‘80s and ‘90s fashion, especially high-waisted jeans and fanny packs. You don’t need a newly made dress or bag to be cool. The artistry lies in how something old is made cool for a new generation.

Aki Narula, the costume designer on “Bunty Aur Babli,” possessed a similarly fresh outlook on Bunty and Babli. Narula’s wardrobe is flexible for his male lead: good quality copies of luxury business casual suits during cons, jeans, and T-shirts—often visual callbacks to Amitabh Bachchan’s most famous costumes from his 1970s filmography—or button-down shirts while off the clock. All of these Narula purchased himself in Sarojini Nagar, a neighborhood of New Delhi that specializes in fakes. Given Babli’s penchant for style, it makes sense for her wardrobe to take center stage. And how. Potlis and jholas are bags, usually large and heavy, common throughout India among the working classes. Their uses are diverse: you can carry home fruits and vegetables from the market, sling them across your body as a giant purse, or put them on your back like a duffel bag. Narula bought brightly colored bags and had his crew embellish them with mirrorwork. As for Babli’s clothing, Narula rejected the Karan Johar School of Western Brands and instead opted for saris in every shade of the rainbow, Patiala salwars (loose draped trousers) in bold colors, paired with kurtis (loose collarless shirts, often tighter in the chest and looser in the torso) in equally bright hues, added giant earrings and wrists of light-catching bangles. 

This set off long-lasting trends on college campuses and among young women in the workplace. I myself was not immune to the craze. After watching “Bunty Aur Babli” at the movies, I procured similar outfits on a trip to India, and, while digging through my mother’s college trunk, secured large jangly earrings and several potlis of (hers/) my own that won compliments from classmates in America. (It didn’t matter that several bags had holes, and I occasionally lost a pen or eraser. Flaws added authenticity.) The moral core of “Bunty Aur Babli” is also reflected in its wardrobe design: Babli often, but not always, wears Western dress for her scams, but her true self—the small-town girl, the daughter-in-law and mother she becomes—wears only traditional Indian clothing. Even Bonnie’s clothing changes in quieter, softer scenes: after a severe car accident, when she and Clyde hole up with C.W. Moss’s father Ivan, Bonnie wears a simple light pinkish mauve dress as she nurses her injured arm in a sling. Her hair is simpler too, down in a low ponytail, rather than flipped at the edges in the chic bob Bonnie sports during robberies. She wears this dress just once more, the day she and Clyde finally have sex on a picnic blanket. Even the lighting of the dress changes to reflect the evolution of their relationship. They’re morose and in pain, so Bonnie’s dress looks drained, almost tan or light brown. But in the warm golden sunshine of outdoor sex and reconciliation, the dress, and Bonnie and Clyde’s relationship, regains its luminescence, shining brightly for audiences for decades to come.

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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