I was revisiting Sriram Raghavan’s Johnny Gaddaar a while ago. The film tells the story of five men who run a gambling house and get involved in a drug deal hoping to make a huge profit. Each of them contributes a fifth of the required sum to make the purchase. However, the money goes missing as one of the members Vikram (Neil Nitin Mukesh) decides to keep it all for himself. It is a great film with a lot of details and references to catch apart from the story. Early in the film, there is an interesting scene that shows five fish lined up together in the kitchen with the words ‘The Gang‘ written over them. In the next moment, a man puts and spreads red sauce on the fish. In a way, the film already gave a sign about the fate of its protagonists. They are all going to end up dead. The five fish are the five gang members and the red sauce represents blood.
The fish took me to another fantastic thriller Navdeep Singh’s Manorama Six Feet Under that also uses the metaphor in a different way. An engineer in a government job Satyaveer (Abhay Deol) is approached by a woman named Manorama (Sarika) to investigate her politician husband P.P. Rathore (Kulbhushan Kharbhanda), whom she suspects of having an affair. However, as it often happens, things are not really what they appear to be as Satyaveer uncovers more intriguing layers in a society where everyone seems to be morally corrupt. The film is set in the desert town of Lakhot but it uses fish—an organism that is never found in a desert—as a leitmotif throughout the narrative. Satyaveer has an aquarium in his house and a lot of his scenes are shot near it, pensively looking at the fish in it. Other characters, such as P.P. Rathore, also are seen near fish. Sheetal (Raima Sen), Manorama’s roommate, has a goldfish and calls it Shakuntala.
While too many fish scenes in the film seem like an overindulgence, but they also represent the varying power dynamics and hierarchy between the characters. At one stage, Satyaveer’s brother-in-law and the city’s police inspector Brijmohan (Vinay Pathak) talks about fish. He warns Satyaveer to stay away from getting messed up in the lives of big-shot people. He says, “Yeh hum jaise chhoti machhliyon ke bas ka rog nahi hai. Yeh neta log bahut badi machhli hain. Aur tanne toh pata hi hai badi machhliyon ko kya khana pasand hai?” To this, Satyaveer adds, “Chhoti machhli.” Small fish like them are not equipped to get entangled in the games of the corrupt overlords. The politicians are the big fish who like to prey upon people like them who are the small fish. Towards the end, Satyaveer meets Rathore at his house. There is an aquarium at his place as well which has some large-sized fish as compared to the ones in Satyaveer’s house. It also has a sea horse which in the scene looks a bit creepy and menacing. When Rathore comes, he feeds the fish and calls Satyaveer a small and petty man, and then says that the world is divided into two parts—the strong and the weak. He further talks about the law of nature where the hunter catches the prey, reiterating the essence of the small fish-big fish comparison of Brijmohan.
Manorama Six Feet Under adapts its story from Roman Polanski’s iconic film Chinatown which had a similar storyline. A private detective Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) is hired by a woman Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) to investigate the affair of her husband Hollis Mulwray (Darrell Zwerling) who is, later, found dead. Jake’s investigation uncovers a trail of corruption, deceit, and sinister family secrets. There is the recurring metaphor of fish in Chinatown as well, which is also the reason that it shows up in Manorama Six Feet Under. 
The first appearance of a fish in Chinatown is when Gittes follows Hollis Mulwray towards the beachside and sees him pick up a starfish. Later, Jake meets Mulwray’s deputy Ross Yelburton (John Hillerman) and is ushered into his office. The cabin has a giant fish, a blue marlin, along with many other plaques and photographs of Yelburton in fishing gear. There is a glass-framed photograph of a fish with initials A.C. written at the side. In a superbly-filmed scene, Jake turns to the fish and we see the reflection of his face next to it. He does not seem to register anything suspicious in that image but this detail gave the clue right at the beginning which becomes a crucial piece in fitting the jigsaws of the mystery puzzle in the end.
Later in the film, Claude Mulvihill (Roy Jenson) and another man (Roman Polanski) attack Jake when he was snooping around the dam area. The other man warns Jake to stop nosing around and literally cuts off his nose with a knife. He adds, “Next time you lose the whole thing, kitty cat. I’ll cut it off and feed it to my goldfish, understand?” This is also the scene that is playing on the television when Satyaveer is watching Chinatown in Manorama Six Feet Under where the film pays homage to its original material. As this goldfish scene plays on the screen, Satyaveer gets a call from Sheetal who talks about losing her goldfish. While Chinatown only fleetingly mentions a goldfish, Manorama Six Feet Under makes it a minor character of its own and calls it Shakuntala.
At a later stage in Chinatown, Jake is invited by Hollis Mulwray’s father-in-law Noah Cross (John Huston) to help him find the girl with whom Mulwray was having an affair. Cross and Jake have lunch together and yet again a fish makes an appearance. Jake is served fish with its eye and head which is a bit uncomfortable to watch. Cross then adds, “I believe they should be served with the head.” It harks back to the time when the police find Mulwray’s body with his eyes open and fished it out of the water.
Later, Jake and Evelyn visit an old-age home and see a group of women stitching a fish on a flag. Jake asks a woman as to how she got material for it. The woman replies that they get everything from the Albacore Club and adds, “The albacore. It’s a fish. My grandson’s a member (of the club), and they take very nice care of us.” It all starts to make sense to Jake. Cross and his corrupt associates at the Albacore Club, an exclusive group of the wealthy dedicated to fishing, were engineering a drought in the city. These rich patrons were buying land at throwaway prices from farmers in the name of the residents of the old-age home. Once the proposed dam is built by the government, the land would become fertile and they can earn millions by reselling it. The flag with the initials A.C. that was seen at Yelburton’s office was nothing but a reference to the Albacore Club that proved that the government officers were in bed with Cross. Chinatown uses fish as a subtle pointer throughout to give clues on the real game being played by Cross. The website Hartzog adds more color to the use of albacore in the film, “The albacore has a long history of being the premier sports fishing prize in Southern California. In the thirties and forties in Balboa and Newport Beach and Catalina, the albacore was king. Albacore flags were ubiquitous. Sports fishing boats flew albacore flags to indicate they had had a successful catch. The filmmaker’s choice of albacore to develop into a major symbol was, therefore, no accident. The film plays on the allusion to this famous fish.” As we saw that in Chinatown, the albacore fish is used as a symbol of power, Manorama Six Feet Under also uses fish to depict the power structures but adapts it to its context.
Rohan Sippy also uses fish to depict the hierarchy of mankind in his caper-ish comedy Bluffmaster!. His film is about a conman Roy (Abhishek Bachchan) who is diagnosed with brain cancer. He teems up with a small-time conman Dittu (Riteish Deshmukh) to teach him the tricks of the trade. They hatch a plan to con Chandru (Nana Patekar) who had duped Dittu’s father of all his life savings. Early in the film, Roy calls the world an ocean and compares his targets for conning to different fish. At the bottom are the maandli or the anchovies which are the small ones. They taste great with a drink but one needs to eat many of them to feel full. Likewise, a conman needs to target at least fifteen or twenty of them to fill his pockets. Then comes the goldfish who are flashy on the outside but, in reality, do not have anything in terms of wealth. Above them are the bangda or the mackerels, the most popular ones in Mumbai. These are part of the professional working class, such as sales and marketing executives. Then comes the pomfrets which include people, such as television stars, doctors, lawyers, and owners of small companies. A conman can catch a big one and chill out the rest of the month. And, finally, at the top are the whales comprising the uber-rich people, such as the big industrialists, stockbrokers, and their ilk. They rule the world like whales rule the ocean.
Like in other films, the fish references keep popping up all through Bluffmaster! as well. Characters talk about baiting fish. Roy robs a couple and calls them pan-fried. At another point, Roy tells Dittu that he is not a fish; he is a crocodile. Later, Roy calls Chandru a shark, who is fast, intelligent, and dangerous when they conspire a plan to con him. The film’s final bluff is eventually revealed and it turns out that it was Roy who was being conned all along. He was the whale who was targeted by his girlfriend Simmi (Priyanka Chopra) to teach him a lesson to make him realize the value of people. The poster of Bluffmaster! also uses different fish to represent the actors and has ‘Come Fishing‘ written as its tagline. The film has a track with the same title—Come Fishing (Bluffmaster! Theme)Bluffmaster! has a cool and classy vibe to it and does not feel much dated even now.
Films using animal references are not new. There have been many in the past that have done it before. But what was interesting to me is that three different (sort of) thriller films—Johnny GaddaarManorama Six Feet Under, and Bluffmaster!—use the metaphor of fish to depict people and power. Whatever the biology, power is held by a minority. And, when someone tries to usurp this position, the powerful will do anything to stop it. The events of the last few days involving GameStop and Robinhood reiterate the same. As Noam Chomsky said, “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.”
[Read more of the author’s work on his blog here]