Article American Hindi

15 years of Kaante: Why Sanjay Gupta's Reservoir Dogs version impressed Tarantino

With Kaante, which was released on 20 December 2002, Gupta announced the arrival of a new stylized Hindi cinema influenced by Hollywood masterpieces.

Shriram Iyengar

In 2007, at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, Quentin Tarantino was asked a question about the rip-offs his Reservoir Dogs (1992) had inspired. A rapid-talking, violent heist film, Reservoir Dogs marked the rise of Tarantino as the maverick genius who would change Hollywood's narrative and visual style.

Tarantino replied, "I think it was fabulous. Of the many rip-offs [of Reservoir Dogs] I loved Hong Kong's Too Many Ways To Be No 1 and this one, Kaante. The best part is, you have Indian guys coming to the US and looting a US bank. How cool is that! I was truly honoured. And these guys are played by the legends of 'Bollywood'!"

The film Tarantino was referring to was Sanjay Gupta's Kaante (2002). Blatantly copied from Tarantino's neo-noir thriller, it brought together the raw machismo of Amitabh Bachchan, Sanjay Dutt and Suniel Shetty to create a stylized film that has since developed a cult following. 

On the 15th anniversary of the film's release (20 December 2002), we look at the scenes that make Sanjay Gupta's film proof that rip-offs can sometimes be just as entertaining as the originals.

Introduction sequence

This remains one of the most iconic elements of a Tarantino film. The introduction is about as random a mise-en-scène as any film can get, with the protagonists sitting in a diner having a normal conversation like friends. The scene serves to depict these hardened criminals as ordinary people outside of work. They are professionals shooting the breeze before they clock in for work. Like every Tarantino scene, it is filled with rambling dialogues, trivia, and pop culture that make it all the more interesting.

In contrast, Sanjay Gupta's Kaante opens with a seemingly ordinary introduction of its characters and their nature. The scene differs in two key respects from the original — the conversation and the camera movement. Gupta eschews the staccato conversation for a voiceover introduction of each character by Lucky Ali, while the camera focuses intensely on their expressions. In that way, it is reminiscent of Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's 11 (2001), where the snapshots add to the dramatic tension of a scene.

But it is this element that impressed Tarantino. At the Los Angeles event, the director mentioned that he liked to build detailed backdrops for his characters, which would always end up being cut on the editing table. Gupta's Hindi cinema audience allowed him the leeway of stitching these backdrops and information into the scenes, transforming it into a deeper story than Tarantino's film.

'Little Green Bag'

The scene immediately follows the introduction, but sets the tone for the stylized coolness of Tarantino's film. 'The walk', as it became famous, is set to the tune of another nerdy pop classic, 'Little Green Bag' by George Baker. As someone who worked in a video parlour, Tarantino also borrows from the Hong Kong gangster classic, City On Fire (1987), starring Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee.

With Sanjay Dutt, Amitabh Bachchan, and the urbane suavity of Kumar Gaurav, Gupta's film does not lack panache either. However, true to the essence of Hindi cinema, Gupta delays the montage till the plan for the heist is set into motion. With Sanjay Dutt providing the opening vocals for 'Rama Re', the song builds an exciting introduction to the key moment. The uber-stylized tint and all-black ensemble add to the song's impact and it went on to become a chartbuster, turning Dutt into a singer much before the use of auto-tune.

The Split

The cult status of Tarantino's film is down to its witty and catchy writing. A fan of Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, Tarantino garnished his film with one-liners that have gone on to become iconic in their own right. One particular moment arrives immediately after the botched heist. As the group returns to the hideout, Mr White (Harvey Keitel) turns with suspicion on everybody else in the group. Enter the ruthlessly cool Mr Blonde (Michael Madsen), who challenges him in his quiet, confident way, saying, 'Are you gonna bark all day, little doggie? Or are you gonna bite?'

The line relaunched Madsen's dying career and the actor repaid his debt to Tarantino by being part of the director's Kill Bill series (2003) and The Hateful Eight (2015).

Considering that he was paying tribute to Tarantino's film, Gupta takes the same trajectory with some differences. In Kaante, it is Balli (Mahesh Manjrekar) and Major (Amitabh Bachchan) who return to the hideout. Just when Major decides he has had enough of Balli's craziness, Ajju (Sanjay Dutt) enters. Unlike in the original, the conversation here is light and drifting towards the crazy, taking a turn for the serious when Ajju decides to take on Major. In fact, Gupta keeps the line intact by translating it into Hindi — 'Saara din tu bhaunkega, ya kaatega bhi?'

While the scene does not have the same tension as in Tarantino's script, it brings its very own desi element of stars showing off their attitude and machismo. While Sanjay Dutt matches Madsen's coolness, Bachchan fails to capture the anger and frustration of Keitel's performance. But fans could not have cared less.

On a related note, Sanjay Dutt has become Madsen to Gupta's Tarantino and been part of many of the filmmaker's projects since.

The fugitive scene

Both films had sufficient violence to shock squeamish viewers into attention. Tarantino started a trend by creating violent cinematic images that only increased in intensity with every film he made. In Reservoir Dogs, the most iconic sequence was Michael Madsen's brutal butchering of the cop he abducts during the heist as the 1972 rock classic, 'Stuck In The Middle With You', plays in the background.

The scene earned the wrath of critics for unnecessary violence. But at the reunion of the cast for the 25th anniversary of the film in New York, Tarantino called it "the best fucking scene in the film". Madsen improvised the sequence, and said, "In the script it said, ‘Mr Blonde maniacally dances around’, and I kept thinking, ‘What the fuck does that mean? I remember thinking about this weird little thing that Jimmy Cagney did in a movie that I saw. He did his crazy little dance thing and it just popped into my head at the last second and that’s where the dance came from."

Gupta's film, understandably, does not contain as much violence. The maniacal intensity, though, exists. It comes from the entire team as they gather round the victim, threatening him to reveal the rat. But it is Mahesh Manjrekar's Balli who, true to his crazy nature, tortures and strings up the cop. It leads to the nail-biting finale.

The Mexican standoff

A thriller, the finale of Reservoir Dogs was one of its key elements. With a Mexican standoff, the surviving 'dogs', played by Harvey Keitel, Chris Penn and Lawrence Tierney, shoot one another down. The only surviving member, Mr Pink (Steve Buscemi), leaves with the diamonds. While the film is filled with touches of music, this particular sequence remains devoid of it. This only adds to the feeling of dread and violence. 

It is here that the very desi element of music in Kaante overtakes everything else. While Tarantino built the tension in his climax with silence, Gupta uses a subtle background score to great effect. As the shootout ends with all five protagonists dead, the scene segues into the track, 'Maut', with a montage of the camaraderie between the group before suspicion tore them apart.

Kaante was the film that set the tone for Sanjay Gupta's ouevre. The filmmaker went on to direct movies like Musafir (2004), Zinda (2006) and, recently, Kaabil (2017). One element that has remained common through his career is his penchant of 'paying tribute' to other directors. Zinda, for instance, was an unauthorized remake of the violent South Korean film Oldboy (2003). After Kaante, Gupta also produced Plan (2004) which was 'inspired' by Suicide Kings (1997).

Over the years, Gupta's films have acquired a stylized nature that has become the director's trademark. With action, one-liners, and macho leading men, he has created a template for his films that he has in some ways become a prisoner of. But few films have matched the style, flair and panache that impressed even the original Tarantino.