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Criminal or hero? Revisiting Mahesh Manjrekar's Vaastav

Looking back in time at Mahesh Manjrekar's entry into Hindi films with Vaastav on this day (7 October) 17 years ago.

Sonal Pandya

Writer-director Mahesh Manjrekar's Vaastav was his first venture into Hindi cinema. He started his career with the Marathi film Aai (1995) and since then has had a second calling as an actor across different language films like Kaante (2002), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Me Shivajiraje Bhosale Boltoy (2009). But Manjrekar first received both mainstream and critical recognition in this gangster tale roughly based on one of Mumbai's notorious underworld dons, Chhota Rajan.

Vaastav followed Raghunath, played by Sanjay Dutt, as the purposeless older son in the Shivalkar family. Thankfully, younger brother Vijay, played by Mohnish Bahl, is more ambitious, but Raghu is still a worry for his parents Namdev (Shivaji Satam) and Shanta (Reema Lagoo). Along with his friend and sidekick Dedh Footiya (Sanjay Narvekar), Raghu opens a food stall to make ends meet.

However, one night they get caught up in a fight and unintentionally kill Fracture Bandya's brother. Thereon, both Raghu and Dedh Footiya are caught up in the quagmire of the underworld as they become hitmen for a competing gangster, Vitthal Kaanya (Ashish Vidyarthi) and later henchmen of the conniving politician Babban Rao (Mohan Joshi).

As Raghu's reputation grows, there is tremendous pressure to reign him in. Meanwhile, he goes on a downward journey of alcohol and drugs even though he now has a small son at home. Raghu, who has now started having hallucinations, knows that his family has become entangled in between the police and his rivals, all who want him dead. Eventually, he comes home to his mother when he knows all his options have been exhausted and asks her to save him.

Echoing Mother India (1957), Lagoo's character Shanta is faced with the devastating decision of having to put down her own child. The film's finale is still remembered today for its powerful scene between Lagoo and Dutt. Lagoo's majority of screen roles have her playing the wholesome mother; here she got a chance to show more range as an actor. She received a Filmfare nomination for Best Supporting Actress.

Dutt and Lagoo in a still from the film

Dutt turned out one of the best performances of his career and won his first and only Filmfare Award for Best Actor that year. He had gone through a phase of playing the angry young man who has no choice but embrace a life of crime in films like Naam (1986) and Aatish (1994). Of course, in 2003, he would go on to play another gangster, Munna bhai, but his intentions were always in the right place.

The film's star factor usually has a hand in why the gangster in Hindi cinema is usually seen as a hero onscreen. Perhaps another reason why Dutt was chosen for this particular gangster also had to do with his own involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts for possessing illegal weapons. Dutt was recently released after serving out the remainder of his five year jail term at Pune's Yerwada prison.

Vaastav was successful at the box-office, both at home and abroad. It was second only to Sanjay Leela Bhansali's love triangle, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam. It was followed up by a sequel Hathyar (2002) also written and directed by Manjrekar and starring Dutt as Raghu's son Rohit. However, as it recreated many elements from Vaastav, it fell short of audience expectations.

Vaastav was a high point in Dutt's career, even though he had the occasional flop here and there, he had proved with this film that he could act. Manjrekar continued to direct films, both in Hindi and Marathi and often collaborated with Dutt, most recently as actors in last year's Ungli.