Arun (Nav Sidhu), a Sri Lankan-born, British-raised Tamil returns to his home patch in Tooting having been away from friends and family for some time. Four years ago Arun ran with the Wolfpack, a group of Tamil gangsters, until he was taken under the wing of British intelligence agent Marcus Hadley-Smith (Oliver Cotton) as a police informant. Now Arun finds his old boss (San Shella) attempting to go straight as a property developer but his kid brother, Ruthi (Kabelan Verlkumar), is embroiled in a gang war sparked by the murder of Kaya (Anusha Nava), a prostitute and close friend. Arun sets out to stop the war whilst grappling with his feelings for English girlfriend, Kate (Elizabeth Henstridge), who is set to marry another man.
Gangs of Tooting Broadway opens with the sweeping statement: “Gang violence is common among Tamil youth.” Which should come as a surprise to the many young Tamil doctors, engineers, accountants and, er, writers here in Britain. Though it does explain why, prior to writing this review, I mugged an old lady and beat a blind man with his own cane. All in a day’s work for us crime-loving Tamils. Bwah-ha-hah, I’m so bad. All sarcasm aside, admittedly first-time director Devanand Shanmugam and screenwriter Tikiri Hullagalle are attempting to shine a spotlight on a neglected substrata of society. There is a tradition of exploitation movies offering strident sociopolitical commentary. Just look at those films Jack Hill and Larry Cohen contributed to the blaxploitation craze of the Seventies. However, whether by accident or design, Shanmugam and Hullagalle have gone the opposite route: using worthy subject matter to cloak a cliché-ridden crime thriller wallowing in puerile posturing laddishness all too typical of contemporary Brit crime flicks.
Hullagalle crafts a screenplay of ambitious intent that raises important themes: Anglo-Asian alienation, fallout from the war in Sri Lanka, racial tension between Afro-Caribbean and Asian street gangs. Opening on a scene satirising a group of black youth’s ignorance of Tamil culture, the film is well intentioned in parts yet strains credibility to a ludicrous degree with its assertions about the power and influence of the Anglo-Tamil underworld. Shanmugam’s direction is high on flash at the expense of narrative coherence. His sloppy storytelling means little of the tangled plot makes any sense. It remains a mystery what motivated vivacious medical student Kaya to move into prostitution or the precise nature of the real estate deal Shella’s high-reaching mob boss hopes will make him Tooting’s answer to Michael Corleone.
Overpopulated with characters shuffling in and out of the plot - including the guilt-ridden black youth behind the opening murder and Kaya’s vengeful lesbian pal who sets out to catch the killer - to underwhelming effect, the film is further afflicted by the sort of stumbling time-shifting tricks common among Quentin Tarantino wannabes fresh out of film school. Nav Sidhu is a solid screen presence while Elizabeth Henstridge grapples valiantly with an ill-defined character, but the rest of the cast prove less than adequate. There is a decent film to be made on this subject, but Gangs of Tooting Broadway falls into the usual Brit crime flick trap of growing hopelessly enamoured with its own strained attempts at seeming hip, edgy, confrontational and relevant that it fumbles the story.