Bandits, Indian Style

When the film Deewar was released, one of the many millions of people impressed by Amitabh Bachchan’s gun-toting performance in it was a 25-year-old man from Chitrakoot in Madhya Pradesh. The film opened on 24th January 1975, ie two days before Republic Day. Later that year, Mrs Gandhi brought in a state of Emergency, and the young man witnessed how fear could be used against people who opposed you. Later still, Independence Day saw the opening of Sholay, featuring Amjad Khan in the role of a bandit. By this time the young moviegoer’s mind was sold. He too would use fear, become a gun-toting outlaw, in fact a dacoit. He did so, joining an organised-crime gang in that very year. His name was Shiv Kumar Patel, but that name has no romance in it. So, as is common with gangsters, he gave himself a pet-name: Dadua. That was short and sweet. His work itself was going to be neither.

Three years later in 1978, as Amitabh Bachchan appeared in Don, Dadua committed a murder, the first of many. By the time he was shot dead in a police encounter, ie in 2007, Dadua and his gang had marauded hundreds of homes, wreaking unspeakable atrocities on numberless people. Swathes of tracts and ravines where he left his footprints came to be called Daduland.

Dacoity was not a new concept when Dadua got into it. It had been going on for centuries, in one form or another. The word itself is endemic to our region, coming as it does from the Hindustani word daaku, meaning armed bandit. Thuggee is older and also Indian: it refers to armed bandits who ravaged their victims, mostly in travelling caravans, between the 13th and 19th centuries.

Since classical definitions of dacoity treat it essentially as robbery, many people wonder what the difference between the two is. Unarmed robbers may act alone or in gangs of any number of people. If they are armed, the maximum number is four. If there are five or more people in an armed gang, it becomes dacoity. In both, murders, rapes and kidnappings sometimes become an extension of the crime. It must be said though that in recent decades, such crimes replace looting as the central purpose in a dacoit’s raid.

Also, the punishment is harsher for dacoits, with each member of the gang punished equally, unlike in robberies, where for instance the one who enters someone’s home and robs is punished more, while the one keeping vigil outside faces a softer sentence. Horses don’t have to be part of the dacoit story, though in the popular psyche, every dacoit rides a horse.

You will quite likely recall many famous dacoits in India. “Bandit Queen” Phoolan Devi, Paan Singh Tomar, Daku Maan Singh, Nirbhay Singh Gurjar, Ram Babu Gadariya, and the biggest of them, called Veerappan. The Chambal valley—about 250 square kilometres between Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh—is particularly where their action has always thrived. It was a Gandhian, social activist Vinoba Bhave who appealed to the dacoits to surrender their arms that led filmmaker Raj Kapoor to produce Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960), a story of dacoits in that region. Thanks to another Gandhian, Jai Prakash Narain, Madho Singh and 166 other dacoits surrendered to the police 12 years later.

Our films have treated the idea so often too. Dilip Kumar was shown as a dacoit in Ganga Jamuna (1961). Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1963), featured Pran as a dacoit. Mujhe Jeene Do (1963) saw Sunil Dutt in the role. It wasn’t about men only; a few films showed women as dacoits too, such as Jaimala in the title role in Putlibai (1972) and Sapna in the eponymous role in Munnibai (1999).

Do you recall these songs from movies that engaged with the idea? The main dacoit is mentioned for each film.

  • Bade Sarkar (1957/Kishore Sahu): Jahaan jahaan khayaal jaata hai/Rafi, Geeta
  • Jis Desh Mein Ganga Behti Hai (1960/Pran): Hai aag hamaare seene mein/Manna Dey, Mukesh, Mahendra Kapoor, Geeta, Lata
  • Ganga Jamuna (1961/Dilip Kumar): Nain lad jai hein to manwa ma kasak hoibe kari/Rafi
  • Mujhe Jeene Do (1963/Sunil Dutt): Raat bhi hai kuchh bheegi bheegi/Lata
  • Daku Mangal Singh (1966/Dara Singh): Ek to ye bahaar uspe tera mera pyaar/Lata
  • Mera Saaya (1966/Prem Chopra): Jhumka gira re/Asha
  • Mera Gaon Mera Desh (1971/Vinod Khanna): Maar diya jaaye ke chhod diya jaaye/Lata
  • Putlibai (1972/Jaimala): Mere ghunghru ke bol anmol rasiya/Asha
  • Sultana Daku (1972/Dara Singh): Aake apni suratiya dikha jaaya karo/Asha
  • Kachche Dhaage (1973/ Vinod Khanna and Kabir Bedi): Kachche dhaage ke saath jise baandh liya jaaye/Lata
  • Khote Sikkay (1974/Ajit): Jeevan mein tu darna naheen/Kishore
  • Patthar Aur Payal (1974/ Dharmendra): Tohe lene aayi main aayi saanwariya/Lata
  • Pran Jaaye Par Vachan Na Jaaye (1974/Sunil Dutt): Aa ke dard jawaan hai/Asha
  • Sholay (1975/Amjad Khan): Mehbooba mehbooba/RD Burman
  • Ranga Khush (1975/Joginder): Aankh mila ke lat bikhra ke/Asha
  • Kabeela (1976/Imtiaz Khan): Teri meri ho gayi yaari/Asha
  • Ganga Ki Saugandh (1978/Amitabh Bachchan): Aankh ladi humse jo aankh ladi to/Kishore, Asha
  • Daaku Aur Jawan (1978/Sunil Dutt): Dharti gaaye re, aaye re khushi ke din aaye re/Rafi, Mukesh, Anuradha Paudwal
  • Chambal Ki Kasam (1980/Raaj Kumar): Marta hai koi to mar jaaye/Lata
  • Ramkali (1985/Hema Malini): Nazren jhukaaye baitthe ho/Asha
  • Jeeva (1986/Sanjay Dutt): Roz roz aankhon tale/Asha, Amit Kumar
  • Dacait (1987/Sunny Deol): Wo teri duniya nahin/Lata
  • Loha (1987/Amrish Puri): Saat taalon mein rakh saat pardon mein rakh/Kavita Krishnamurti, Anuradha Paudwal
  • Daku Haseena (1987/Zeenat Aman): Nagar nagar hai taaza khabar/Asha
  • Sherni (1988/Sridevi): Mushkil hai mushkil bachna mera/Asha
  • Daata (1989/Mithun Chakrabarty): Rona dhona chhod, chhod de/Kishore, Alka Yagnik
  • Bandit Queen (1994/Seema Biswas): Akhiyaan noon chain na aave/Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan
  • Paan Singh Tomar (2012/ Irrfan Khan): Seene mein chubhte hain ujaale/Abhishek Ray, Kailash Kher

There have been many other films such as Daku Ki Ladki (1933 and 1954), Daku Mansoor (1934 and 1961), Daaku (1955), Jagga Daaku (1959), and Daaku Bhupat (1960), but these films aren’t around for us to determine whether their stories were based on dacoity or the word was used loosely, as it sometimes is.

Films based on dacoits have reduced in output now, but have dacoits disappeared? No! They are around, very much so. They may not necessarily tote guns or wear those costumes we are so familiar with in films. Nor may they be astride horses or laugh like maniacs. Just as there have been pirates in the oceans or highwaymen attacking caravans between towns and villages, there exist gangs of thieves in governments, banks and boardrooms. They run airlines and diamond empires. Far more than in the ravines conventional bandits are known to live in, such people thrive in the complex ravines architectured by politicians. Our gullibility and support are their weapons. The rules of their game are different.

Fortunately, dacoits do not exist in great numbers, we have good people too. In support of that point, poet Ameer Qazabash asks us to look at the upside:

Sirf raahzan hi se kyoon Ameer shikwa ho?

Manzilon ki raahon mein raahbar bhi shaamil hai

(Why think only of the bandit? In life’s journey, we find the guide too). That couplet is found rendered by Begum Akhtar in this ghazal:


Originally published in DNA Jaipur on 10th June 2018, page 9,

Featured image: Sunil Dutt in Mujhe Jeene Do



15 Replies to “Bandits, Indian Style”

  1. Sirji! Moving away from serpents to dacoits, is like jumping from the fire to the frying pan on a Sunday morning. But kya kare, I have replaced my Sunday breakfasts with your crispy pieces. Thanks for this one.

    Your mind-boggling coverage of dacoits, in real life as well as on screen, makes me feel that you would have taken a brief retreat to Chambal Valley to write this article.

    I have’nt seen too many ‘daku’ movies, but as a kid, my first vague memory of a screen-daku was perhaps the poster of ‘Mujhe Jeene Do’. Perhaps I was too small to notice ‘Gunga Jamuna’’s poster when it was released. I remember that of ‘JDGBH’, but somehow Pran’s moustached face got overshadowed in my memory by Raj Kapoor & Padmini extending an arm with a ‘dholak’ supported by other at the back.

    That time, what I understood about ‘daku’s was that they will wear a black kurta and white dhoti and will have a formidable moustache, a long tilak on fore-head and wear a turban at times. I think Gabbar Singh was the first one to break this dress-code, but he also rode on a horseback and carried a rifle like any other decent dacoit. Salim-Javed chose to give him an old worn-out military outfit, but post-Sholay, the other film makers who wanted to make even more ‘bhadakte sholay’ than ‘Sholay’ somehow chose to enforce back the same dress-code to their dacoit characters.

    Talking of actors who played dacoits, Sunil Dutt Saab is the first one who always comes to mind. I think what Iftekhar was to Police Officers, Sunil Dutt was to dacoits. (You must write sometime a separate piece on actors in stereo-typed roles). ‘Mother India’, ‘Mujhe Jeene Do’, ‘Reshma Aur Shera’, ‘Heera’, ‘Pran Jaaye par Vachan Na Jaaye’, ‘Daku Aur Jawan’ … Now I can’t count with my fingers while I am typing, but I think Sunil Dutt had played the maximum no. of dacoit characters. (If there have been more films titled ‘Daku Aur Kisan’ or ‘Daku Aur Bhagwan’ etc., then they had escaped my attention.). Sunil Dutt would typically walk in with a swagger into his den in a typical dacoit-drama, and would find one of his Assistant Dakus (Ranjeet or somebody) trying to molest a kidnapped ‘gaon ki gori’ (Reena Roy or somebody), and bellow showing his blood-shot eyes, ‘Shera!! Ladki ko chod do!’, and make a point that some dacoits do honour women. Hey, Wait a minute, Was’nt this scene from ‘Samadhi’? Sorry, it was’nt a Sunil Dutt movie. By mistake, it had gone to Dharmendra, who did’nt have in his blood to act as a dacoit. He was better off threatening with his flared nostrils, to drink blood off a dacoit (‘Khoon pee jaoonga’). Neither do I appreciate Amitabh Bachhan for accepting a dacoit-role from Sultan Ahmed in ‘Ganga Ki Saugandh”, while Dutt Saab was still around. Dacoit ho to Dutt Saab jaisa, I mean filmo-mein.

    Let’s not forget Premnath who also wanted to be ‘daku-er than thou’ after ‘Sholay’, and acted in a film called ‘Chattan Singh’ which went off without a trace of dust. I did’nt see the film but wonder what dialogues he would have mouthed. He could’nt have abused his henchmen like ‘Bloody Bushtaard’, as he used to do while playing ‘Rai Bahadur Saab’ characters, but I am sure he would have settled for ‘(Kuch na kuch) … ke bachhe!!’.

    ‘Chattan Singh’ reminds me of the fancy exotic names that story-writers started christening their dacoit-characters with. Names like ‘Mangal Singh’, ‘Bhavani Singh’ etc seem to be too holy and staid for a menacing daku worth his salt. Raj Khosla started it all with ‘Mera Gaon Mera Desh’ by naming Vinod Khanna as ‘Babbar Singh’. Then came Gabbar Singh. I am sure some would have thought of ‘Rubber Singh’ as well, then wondered whether a rubber is hard or soft. So post-Sholay, we had thunderingly bombastic names for dacoits like ‘Toofan Singh’, ‘Sangram Singh’, ‘Zalzala Singh’ etc. (Don’t ask me which films, I would’nt remember). Now why every dacoit has to be a ‘Singh’? Being a Southie, I will put up a claim to name all future daku characters with names ending with ‘appan’, as a mark of honour to the best, sorry worst dacoit of ‘em all, Thiru. Veerappan. At least in Tamil, they can name dacoits as ‘Puyalappan’ (Toofan ka baap), ‘Erimalaiappan’ (Volcano ka baap) etc. Btw, do they have names like these in real life? I mean, what if somebody walks up to you in a party, and introduce himself as, ‘My name is Toofan Singh … and I am not a dacoit’.

    Khair, Last but not least, a mention about those moustaches that dacoits sported on screen. I have been always associating long twirling moustaches with dacoits, so much so that as a kid when I once spotted from my double-decker window seat, a ‘darwan’ sporting a spectacular one, and standing outside a big shop (if I remember right, a Saree Shop in Dadar West), I was fully convinced that he has come to loot the shop, without his horse, and I just stopped short of raising a false alarm in the bus. But much later, I got fairly enlightened by Madan Puri when he says to a freshly-turned goon Shatrughan Sinha complete with a freshly-grown beard, moustache etc. in ‘Vishwanath’, “Barkhurdaar, Sirf dhadi-mooch badhane se koi daaku nahin ban jaata … mujhe dekh, main kaise bahut dinon se bagair dhadi-mooch logon ko loot raha hoon!”. I can’t agree with you more when you say, ‘there exist gangs of thieves in governments, banks and boardrooms. They run airlines and diamond empires’. Some of them are even clean-shaven, and they shave clean others off their money.

    I think I have come riding a long way and so let me hold my horses at this point. Also, I have run out of my bullets now. (Arre O Sambha, Kitni goli bhara tha re mere Pistol mein?!)

    1. Nathan, wow! That is some response _()_ 🙂
      “I have replaced my Sunday brunch with your crispy pieces. ” makes me go high!…”makes me feel that you would have taken a brief retreat to Chambal Valley to write this article.” 🙂 🙂 “(You must write sometime a separate piece on actors in stereo-typed roles) ” Sure nice…but with your knowledge and language, you yourself will do a swell job of it, I am 100%. “He (Dharmendra) was better off threatening with his flared nostrils, to drink blood off a dacoit (‘Khoon pee jaoonga’). ” 🙂 🙂 And “Rubber Singh”? Oh man i am in splits 🙂 You are so funny! Great, great observations boss 🙂

  2. Why think only of the bandit? In life’s journey, we find the guide too!! Absolutely loved those lines. As I loved the entire article too ?
    Bandits and Hindi films have been quite in tune with each other to say the least ? and a lovely idea for an article. Most of the famous dialogues are a result of these movies too. For me, Sunil Dutt was the most handsome dacoit. Talking about handsome dacoits, Vinod Khanna made a handsome Jabbar Singh in Mera Gaon Mera Desh!!
    Thank you for another interesting article and another enjoyable Sunday morning ?

    1. Thanks Deepa! Do share your essays to here. I may overlook them sometimes, so inform me whenever _()_ And I am still laughing at Nathan’s Rubber Singh above, after Gabbar Singh and Babbar Singh and Jabbar Singh ha ha ha 🙂 Do you want to write some kind of parody on this, on your site?

  3. Wow. What a theme and Sunil dutt’s photo to caption it – noblest of all and how dreaded he was in role of Jarnail Singh.

    Three movies released in gap of three years were the best. Jis Desh mein Ganga behti Hai , Gunga Jamuna and Mujhe Jeene do. Dilip kumar the good man became dacoit circumstantially, Sunil dutt’s transformation , Raj Kapoor acting as catalyst to change the mindset of daaku samaaj. And the three musketeers -SSS – Sahir, Shailendra and Shakeel in operation produced memorable songs.
    I think those three movies were the highpoint of Hindi cinema as far as dacoit based movies were concerned. The movie centered around the lead actors.
    Sholay had the Gabbar Singh factor and his role undoubtedly will always be remembered as one of the most dreaded dacoits in movies but there were other elements too in the movie.

    And I loved your take on modern dacoits.
    Sir a personal question, if given a choice to pick each song from three movies – JDMGBH, Gunga Jamuna and Mujhe Jeene do, which will be those three songs ?

    1. Gaurav, thoughtful, valuable comments from you, as expected 🙂 I agree about the dacoits and think the one that revolted me most was Gabbar Singh. Pran was the least. I mean imagine a dacoit playing the dholak and singing Hai aag hamaare seene mein, he can’t be that evil 🙂 As for your one song per film, of those 3 great dacoit films, you have put me in a total fix. How does one choose from such marvellous albums? omg 🙂 But gun to head? Here is what I feel: In Ganga Jamuna, Insaaf ki dagar pe. I know this may be most people’s worst pick, but the poetry humbles, humbles. Shakeel excelled himself here. And we know that Naushad wasn’t overly fond of Hemant Kumar, right? But still, the maestro knew Hemantda would do justice to such words with his baritone. Jis Desh Mein is only a bit better, coz the contest is between 3 or 4 songs. I think Aa ab laut chalen, for its amazing orchestration, the agitated violins, the sense of drama created by S-J…and the visuals. It is easily a high point in Indian cinema. Mujhe Jeene Do is populated by great songs, but for me, Ab koi gulshan na ujde…I mean Rafi and Sahir, were they real? What an extraordinary ghazal, sending a patriotic message and an inclusive one too…Mandiron mein shankh baaje masjidon mein ho azaan…oh my goodness! Jaidev too, with that tune, the chorus…masterpiece! Btw, would love to hear your best from these, and also why 🙂

      1. A new subject, and so much to learn once again! So many films on dacoits, I had no idea! Was Do Aankhen Baara Haath also about imprisoned daakus or were they simply murderers? One of them was Sapru I think, definitely looked like a daaku! Hats off Manek, how do u choose a new subject to stun us with every week?

        1. Lata _()_ Gracias 🙂

          Yes I get the feeling there were dacoits in Do Aankhen…will need to rewatch it, thanks 🙂

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