How Bunty Aur Babli Updated the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde | Features

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.