Ferocious yet stylish Jeet Johar, dressed to kill in flashy suits, strides Vancouver like a colossus when not being driven in sleek cars with his Beeba – or good – Boys. The Indo-Canadian twentysomething gangsters are at war with elderly mobster Robbie Grewal, who considers them cocky punks. But the Beeba Boys cannot see any scenario in which they do not render Mr. Grewal obsolete. It's just a matter of time.
Others might consume the drugs that are part of Mr. Johar's dangerous trade, but Vancouver's celebrity crime kingpin, who has an oddly striking affection for the eloquent power of environmentalist David Suzuki, is addicted to something more alluring. "It's not about turf. It's about what that turf gets you," he explains. "And that is respect."
The tragedy and terror of the Vancouver region's gang wars have had their share of actual Jeet Johars, but this particular gangster exists only in the first major dramatic feature film ever made about the criminal conflict that has claimed many lives in the region.
To be clear, Beeba Boys, written and directed by Oscar-nominated Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta is not a talking-heads documentary, but a polished, dramatic feature film shot in Vancouver (with interiors in Toronto) last year on a budget Ms. Mehta has pegged at $7-million and starring Bollywood star Randeep Hooda as brooding, dangerous and charismatic Jeet Johar.
The movie, which opens to the public next month, had its world premier at the recent Toronto International Film Festival. Its appearance at Vancouver's film festival is sure to open a conversation about how much is fact-based fiction and how much is simply fantasy.
Beeba Boys has its fans. Former B.C. premier Ujjal Dosanjh gets on-screen thanks for offering advice to Ms. Mehta, whom he has known for some time.
He considers the film an effective drama about the reality that gang wars have cost the lives of 150 young Indo-Canadian men since the 1990s. "It's a very brutally honest depiction of a brutal disease that afflicts B.C., and some of it is in the Indo-Canadian community," he said. "Honesty offends. It hurts. It provides insights and provides hurts. It did all of that for me."
But some Lower Mainland police agencies gave the film a thumbs down.
The Globe and Mail invited representatives of some policing agencies to the media screening for Beeba Boys earlier this week in Vancouver. (The Vancouver Police Department deferred to the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit B.C., an integrated police anti-gang agency. A VPD spokesperson wrote that "unfortunately we would not be in a position to act as a film critic for The Globe.")
Three officers from the CFSEU came with a long-retired gang member, once an associate of famed Vancouver gangster Bindy Johal, who was shot dead at a nightclub in 1998. The former gang member, now in his settled 40s, dismissed the movie as a "glorified rap video."
He later said the film glamorizes the corrosive gang lifestyle. Although Jeet learns, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather 3 and Tony Montana of 1983's Scarface, that crime does not pay, the former gang member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said that will not matter to impressionable, young minds. "When you're young and dumb, you look at the glamor and the flash. [Ms. Mehta] may have been wanting to send a positive message, but the message that is still being sent out is that it's a powerful lifestyle to live. It was so exaggerated how much power this guy had – guys treating him like he was Don Corleone. That just doesn't happen in Vancouver."
Staff-Sergeant Lindsey Houghton, speaking for the CFSEU, said Beeba Boys has long been on the unit's radar because the production team sought information on the B.C. gang situation. He did not have an opportunity to read the script or visit the set during production.
Staff Sgt. Houghton said he was "disappointed" with the film, adding that it will complicate efforts to argue against gang life in community outreach, especially with young people. "I don't think the movie, at all, connects with the reality of gangs. I don't think it shows any reality, quite frankly, associated to gangs," he said.
He said Beeba Boys shows nice cars, expensive fashion and other perks of gang life without the fleeting nature of such pleasures. Nor does it show the paranoia of gang life, in which such criminals are on edge about police, their enemies and even their friends.
"The challenge we have as the police is to overcome these constant pop-culture messages that are somewhat ubiquitous, I would argue, in our culture that being a gangster is cool, that you will have money, that you will have good-looking women on your arm all the time, that you will have all of these things in life."
The CFSEU spokesman also said he was alarmed the only gangsters in the film are Indo-Canadian Sikhs with no real suggestion of the reality that B.C. gangs are ethnically diverse – a point he said he conveyed to the production's researchers. "In all of my conversations with her research team, I – and I know other people who have been consulted – have made it very clear that this is not purely an Indo-Canadian issue.
"In fact, contemporary gangs are not ethnically pure. If we're telling the truth here, it would be a disservice to try and portray it that way."
But Ms. Mehta, whose career has included Bollywood/Hollywood, the Elements trilogy Fire, Earth and Water and her 2003 adaptation of Carol Shields' novel The Republic of Love, said her film is not a documentary. Instead, it's an an exploration of themes that have been consistent in her works. "The reason I wanted to make it was not just because I wanted to make a kick-ass gangster film, though I joke about that, but because it has themes that I have always been intrigued by," she said.
"Identity, assimilation. Is crime a step towards assimilation? How do we present ourselves to a dominant culture. Those are all my concerns."
She said she was particularly inspired by the films of Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki, which have often dealt with Japanese gangs and impressed Ms. Mehta for their emphasis on drama, with gangster life secondary. She prefers the label a "dramatic film about gangsters" to "gangster film."
Ms. Mehta said her focus on Indo-Canadians was inevitable, recalling she once asked Martin Scorcese why his gangster films are always about Italians. "He looked at me as if I had come from outer space," said Indian-born Ms. Mehta, who came to Canada after university. "That's exactly how I feel. It's a culture that's my culture. It's a community. I know it."
Staff Sgt. Houghton said he has been told by police officers and Indo-Canadian youth he has spoken to in his outreach work that there is a waiting audience for the film based on its lively trailer. He said he expects to be talking about Beeba Boys for some time. "I will want to know who has seen it and I will get feedback from them and use that feedback to talk about the actual reality of gangs," he said.
Constable Ian MacDonald, spokesman for the Abbotsford Police Force who also attended the screening, suggested the film seemed devoid of positive South Asian role models.
Abbotsford is grappling with a gang conflict that took a tragic turn last month when a 74-year-old man was hit and killed by a stray bullet fired in a targeted shooting beside his house.
Constable MacDonald noted in an e-mail after the film that, as a police officer, he cannot view it in a vacuum. He said the drama seemed devoid of community disapproval of the Beeba Boys.
"At clubs and so forth, the crowd and bystanders appeared to be giving these guys the status that they believe they deserve," he wrote. "In the film, it seems the entire South-Asian community is complicit in either being part of the gangster world, being complicit or tacitly letting it thrive in all aspects of their lives."
He also noted one of his colleagues took issue with a scene in which Mr. Johar uses a kirpan, a ceremonial knife carried by baptized Sikhs, to kill a criminal rival after explaining the cultural significance of kirpans. "The death by kirpan was inappropriate bordering on offensive.'
But Ms. Mehta said the violent use of the kirpan was based on incidents she found in her research.
"It's not a good thing to do, but he's not a priest. He's a gangster. He does bad things."
Ms. Mehta said she was prepared for a lively debate about Beeba Boys, which will be screened at the Vancouver International Film Festival on Sept. 27 and Sept. 29.
But she has also moved on, focusing on her next film, which is based on Kathleen Winter's novel Annabel, about a Newfoundland hermaphrodite.
"It gets tiring, and you end up trying to justify your own film," she said.
"I happen to like my work. I own it. It is what it is. If you don't like it, as Jeet says, 'Kiss my chittars.'"
She is laughing as she makes the last point.
An overview on the life and career of acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Deepa Mehta, who wrote and directed the new film Beeba Boys, about Vancouver gangsters.
Born in Amritsar, Punjab, in India in 1950. Received a degree in philosophy from the University of New Delhi before immigrating to Canada in 1973. She began her career making documentaries in India.
Feature Films and TV work include:
- 1991- Sam and Me, starring Om Puri
- 1992-1994 - Two episodes of The Young Indiana Jones, produced by George Lucas for ABC
- 1994 - Camilla, starring Jessica Tandy, Bridget Fonda and Hume Cronyn
- 1996 - Fire, starring Shabana Azmi
- 1998 - Earth - Aamir Khan
- 2002 - Bollywood/Hollywood, starring Rahul Khanna and Lisa Ray
- 2003 - The Republic of Love, starring Bruce Greenwood, Emilia Fox and Jackie Burroughs
- 2005 - Water, starring Sarala Karyawasam and Lisa Ray. Nominated for best foreign-language Oscar
- 2006 - Let’s Talk About It, a documentary on domestic violence in Toronto’s immigrant families
- 2008 - Heaven On Earth - starring Preity Zinta
- 2012 - Midnight’s Children, starring Satya Bhabha
- 2014 - Beeba Boys, with Randeep Hooda and Ali Momen