S Hussain Zaidi has had long years of reporting and writing on real-life crime and gang-warfare in Mumbai. Many of his volumes have been adapted by Bollywood, notably Black Friday, which focussed on the run-up and tumultuous fall-out of the 1993 Bombay blasts, and was made by Anurag Kashyap into India’s best docu-feature.
This latest, Class of ‘83 goes back a decade, when Bombay was going through a huge churn. Cotton mills and their ‘mazdoors’ were being ground to the dust through a combination of political skulduggery and powerful real-estate sharks with an eye on the vast spaces, in the heart of the city, which housed the mills. There was illicit money to be made, an endless stream of it, through smuggling of gold, counterfeit currency, drugs, arms, and property. And fighting over the spoils were the various gangs of Bombay, whose only opposition came from an increasingly shrinking slice of the police force which still believed in law and order.
The film opens in 1982, when Vijay Singh (Deol) fetches up on a punishment posting at Nashik’s police training academy. Smarting from the double blow of a personal tragedy and a professional setback, the reluctant dean’s attention is caught by five ‘back-benchers’, Surve, Jadhav, Shukla, Varde and Aslam, with the requisite degree of smarts, loyalty, and a streak of independence.
This class of ’83, moving from being wet-behind-the-ears cadets to quick-on-the-uptake-cops on the ground in Bombay, swiftly earns fame as being honest and hard-hitting. As swiftly, they become thorns in the side of corrupt cops as well as greedy ‘netas’, especially CM Manohar Patkar (Soni), and begin themselves being buffeted by the allure of filthy lucre. Easy money and murk goes hand-in-hand, and even the most righteous cops are human. Though the film is fiction, its thinly-veiled allusions to real-life characters and events make it gritty and realistic, characteristic of Zaidi’s fiction, which is ably translated on screen by Sabharwal.
There’s mention of the escalating Punjab terrorism and the AK47s which were finding their way to Mumbai; there’s also mention of Datta Samant and the struggle of the millworkers and the unions. Alongside, we hear of the ‘Naik and the Kalsekar’ gang, and Dubai emerging as a favourite mob hotspot: this is the backdrop in which the class of ‘83 operates, and the treatment—carefully muted background music, smartly executed action, and unshowy acts—makes it hard to separate fact from fiction.