From its opening moments, Beeba Boys grabs your attention. With the bright red turbans, and equally eye-catching blue and yellow jackets, the gangster film has never looked so cheerful. It’s a look that would usually be out of place in a crime thriller, but here, the Bollywood-style colour pallet highlights that this is not a film about your stereotypical Italian or Russian mobs. Based on the Indo-Canadian gangs of Vancouver, Beeba Boys represents a completely different world than we are used to associating with violent gang culture. It is a film that has the fingerprints of Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta all over it, even though it appears at first glance to be miles away from her usual work.
With Beeba Boys, Mehta takes on a story that women are so rarely allowed to tell: one that is almost entirely male. The result is a completely different take on gang culture, helped not only by the unique subject matter, but also by the female presence behind the camera. Where male-directed gangster films play up the mythos and the legend of the gangster, focusing on the testosterone-fueled spectacle of violence, Mehta is more interested in the culture and history that is ingrained in the Indo-Canadian gang culture. She doesn’t feel a need to glorify the horrible things the Beeba Boys do, instead she shows how their gang life bleeds into the rest of their life.
As with all her films, Mehta is interested in the intersection of culture and the individual. She’s interested in why we are drawn to these people who commit monstrous acts with a smile on their face. However, unlike her male counterparts, Mehta never dwells on the violent aspects of the Beeba Boys’ lives; to her, they are flashes of lighting that create fear and disrupt the calm around them. Her cast, lead by Randeep Hooda as Jeet (who might be one of the most electric actors currently working), is pitch perfect. Jeet is smart, charming, charismatic and sexy as hell, even going so far as to flirt his way out of a murder conviction. There’s nothing overtly sexualized in his portrayal, but the female eye behind the camera makes Jeet particularly friendly to the female gaze.
More important than Mehta’s treatment of the male lead is how she treats the women in this male=dominated world. Unlike we are so used to seeing in these types of films, the women, who are definitely no more than supporting characters here, are allowed to have an identity and agency even when they are on the periphery. Through Jeet’s mother (played by Balinder Johal) and his girlfriend Katya (Sarah Allen) we are allowed to see how the actions of the Beeba Boys trickle down to those they are connected with. These women are not stupid bystanders. Mummyji, tells Jeet as much when she asks him to leave his life of crime. She has friends, is devoted to her family, and takes a water aerobics class at the local gym once a week. She loves her son, but does not support him.
Katya is the the sole white character of any consequence and as a result, acts as more than simply Jeet’s arm candy. She acts as commentary on how women of colour are so often treated in action films. In the Indo-Canadian world of the Beeba Boys, it is Indian culture, which is so often painted as strange and other in the west, that becomes dominant. Katya, with her Polish background, pale skin and blonde hair, is the exotic other. However, Katya fares much better than her non-white counterparts as she is allowed her own identity. She gets a life which includes a family and a job, and fights her grooming to be the perfect trophy.
Even Jeet’s estranged wife, who never makes an appearance, is allowed to be more than the horrible mother who left her child. She refused to support his lifestyle and and took charge by leaving Jeet behind.
Beeba Boys might be a little light on the gory details and the moments of violence do lack the emotional wallop they’d pack in the hands of a more experienced action director such as Kathryn Bigelow, but the voice she brings to the genre is completely unique. The mundane moments of the Beeba Boys hanging out, joking, going to parties are what seem to interest Mehta most, which is something so rarely seen.
The moments of rupture, where the gangster life breaks through into Jeet’s home life, are a little too subtle to land with the impact they should, but that in part is because Mehta’s work has a different rhythm than you usually find in the action genre. While this can be slightly off putting for those of us raised on the Hollywood flash and dash, this is what has made Mehta’s work standout on the international stage and what makes Beeba Boys so interesting.
It might be uneven, and it is far from her best work, but there is something in a female filmmaker taking on a testosterone-fueled story that creates a fascinating dynamic. Mehta takes the boys on her own terms, never trying to conform to what the mass audience expects from an action. That in itself means that Beeba Boys is worth seeing, if only to get you out of your comfort zone.