Film of the Week: Gangs of Wasseypur
Late in the five-hour-and-20-minute Indian crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur, the elderly politician and crime lord Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) asks his minions why they think he is still alive when so many of his contemporaries and their would-be successors have wound up dead. The reason, he explains: “Because I don’t watch Bollywood movies.” All his friends, he says, wanted to be the veteran screen actor Dilip Kumar, while later generations of men fancied themselves as stars Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, or Sanjay Dutt, and it led them to ruin. “Every fucker,” says Ramadhir—the film’s subtitles consistently provide gritty translations—“is trying to become the hero of his imaginary film . . . As long as there are movies in this country, people will continue to be fooled.”
It’s a well-known irony of crime cinema that its fictional gangsters often model themselves on other big-screen bad guys: take Jamaican rude boy Ivan in The Harder They Come, with his spaghetti Western idols; or the Neapolitan hoods in Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, who dream of living like Tony Montana in Scarface. It’s plausible to imagine contemporary Indian criminals emulating the characters in Anurag Kashyap’s relentlessly punchy, unashamedly glamorous Gangs of Wasseypur—and it’s a sweet irony that one of the film’s co-writers, Zeishan Quadri, who also plays the streetwise young tough Definite, modeled his performance on one of the actors on Ramadhir’s list, Salman Khan.
Kashyap’s two-part film caused a stir when shown in Cannes in Directors’ Fortnight in 2012, although not quite the stir it might have done, given that films this long are often overlooked in the festival, and Indian cinema—especially commercial titles—do not currently have priority must-see status for the Croisette curious. Still, Gangs of Wasseypur now belatedly arrives at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and it’s undoubtedly a force to be reckoned with.
Gangs comes on like… well, you’d want to say, like gangbusters, but there are no gangbusters here. The law-and-order presence in this story is ineffectual, corrupt, or in the final stretch, simply shows up too late to make any difference to the battles between rival crime dynasties. The film’s premise is summed up with ruthless neatness over the opening credits—after a bullet-laden setup sequence—by Nasir (Piyush Mishra), an uncle/consigliere figure who’s one of the few characters to make it alive to the coda. According to his juicy intro, there are “two kinds of people. Bastards. And dumb fucks. And they control the entire game . . . the twisted tale of Wasseypur. A seemingly innocent town full of insidious, rotten bastards . . . a dark and bloody jungle, where everyone thought he was the Lion King.”
Based on an actual history of rivalries in northeastern India, the film is set around the mining town of Wasseypur and follows the jockeying for dominance between three clans of Sunni Muslims. The story’s “heroes”—they’re as vicious as anyone else, but they’re more charismatic and we get to spend the most time with them—are the Khans. The film opens in 2004 with the enemies of local don Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) launching a gun assault on his palace—an extended Steadicam sequence that begins by pulling out from a TV screen and the breezy opening of a popular show, before the camera swerves away to follow a cadre of gunmen down the street. After the credits, the action jumps back to 1940s Bengal (regional and national boundary lines shift throughout the film) and shows the roots of a three-way battle between the Khans; the clan later spearheaded by hard man Sultan Qureishi (Pankaj Tripathy); and the Singhs, who have always maneuvered themselves into positions of political respectability.
The background is coal, with corrupt union activities and seven decades of industrial changes playing their part. But the real-world underpinning is confusing: one minute characters are involved in coal, the next shifting operations to scrap metal, or buying lakes to corner local fishing rights, and you’re lucky if you can keep up with the numerous left turns in Nasir’s intermittent voiceover exposition.
But the background matters less than a propulsively moving vendetta saga spiked with constant reversals of fortune, abrupt forgings and breakings of allegiance, and bursts of often startling violence. The characters are, almost without exception, the “dirty rotten bastards” that Nasir advertises, and even when there’s a classic melodrama motivation for their acts—someone seeks to avenge a slain father, or must take one last stand before going straight—they’re all so ruthless that bloodshed itself becomes above all a mode of self-expression. As in all classic gunfighter cinema, the style with which someone kills an enemy is the measure of their character.
The most stylish characters here are the Khans. Shahid’s son Sardar (Manoj Bajpayee) the son of Shahid, shaves his head and vows never to grow his hair until he has avenged his father. Needless to say, he dies bald. Sardar is an unashamed womanizer, and the resentment of his second wife, Durga (Reema Sen), is one of the few narrative elements to pay off in delayed-effect fashion. Sardar’s downfall, which ends Part 1, is one of the moments where Kashyap lets it all rip: ambushed in his car while stopping for gas (the moment at which Gangs most echoes The Godfather), Sardar takes a rain of bullets, then staggers forth in slo-mo and fills the screen, blood-soaked in front of a blazing sun. It’s a great Götterdämmerung moment, echoing the earlier images of Shahid as a titan figure identified with fire and earth.
Later generations of Khans aren’t quite so mythical, but beset by human imperfection. The last of the Khan boys, and the meanest of the lot—if we’re to believe Nasir, who’s somewhat prone to hyperbole—is Definite, a strutting cool cat and one of several characters with bizarre English names (there’s also a Perpendicular and a Tangent).
The nearest the film gets to a fully rounded character with believable human nuances is Faizal. He starts off as an ineffectual nice guy, with an accompanying line in demure Seventies shirts and knitwear; becomes a lazy doper and a pariah within his family; then becomes a feared don, still with a penchant for getting high but now also sharing a hearty sex life, and taste in Ray-Bans, with his movie-loving spouse Mohsina (the sparkily charismatic Huma Qureshi).
The one moment at which the film really touches on emotional or moral contradictions is somewhat generic but effective: Faizal, à la Michael Corleone, ruefully tells Mohsina that he wishes he hadn’t gone into Dad’s business, and that the whole bloody saga had ended generations ago. It’s one of the few moments at which Gangs takes a breather to allow for a swell of emotion, and it works so beautifully because Faizal and Mohsina are shot in mustard-yellow light against a royal blue night sky (throughout, DP Rajeev Ravi artfully alternates the muted hues of urban realism with the hotter tones of Bollywood artifice). But all this is just by way of setting us up for the apocalyptic bloodbath in which Faizal finally emerges as a stone cold, icy-eyed killer.
The violence is at times so flamboyant that you gasp: when Faizal dispatches a betrayer, the killing is seen in silhouette from behind, amid sprays of gore, accompanied by a soundtrack of hacking, slicing, and a final heart-stopping thunk, before Faizal lifts a severed head aloft. This is where gangster cinema shades into the amplified register of gods-and-demons myth, or Jacobean tragedy.
But there’s little psychological or emotional finesse, or narrative modulation. Characters, even those we come to know well, are essentially expendable: when they are suddenly dispatched, there’s no time for grieving, either by the viewer or their families, each death simply a spur to further action. And Nasir is constantly narrating new shifts of direction, new terms of criminal engagement (“a new era of change,” as he puts it, seems to come along every five minutes). And there’s not really a well-shaped story—the action just barrels on unstoppably, from episode to (often very short) episode, with Kashyap throwing away setups and locations with magnificent profligacy, despite the reportedly modest budget (he’ll lay on a crowded party, or a street parade, for the merest handful of shots). You often feel lost and buffeted about on this river of incident, but the thrill holds; the effect is like speed-reading a 19th-century serial.
Kashyap also ingeniously addresses the Bollywood convention of inserting musical numbers even in dramas where they might seem utterly incongruous. There are a lot of songs in Sneha Khanwalkar’s buoyant soundtrack, offering wry commentary on the action and characters, often to salty effect. The subtitles to one strutting number of gangster self-praise read, “All hail my Assholiness…”; elsewhere, women sing to a girl of the perils of flirting: “Don’t let him play with your buttons, it’s a trick / This innocent game will end on his prick.” Other songs are performed on camera, whether bizarrely (quasi-hippies on a train launch into a grating cod-reggae number) or poignantly, as in Mohsin’s a capella serenade to her husband through prison bars.
For viewers not familiar with Bollywood convention, or with the actors glimpsed in film clips, it’s hard to know exactly how Gangs fits the bigger picture of Indian cinema now—although Kashyap, who had a success with 2004’s Black Friday about the 1993 Mumbai bombings, has something of a maverick reputation. It’s also hard to know exactly what to make of all the characters being Muslim (presumably their real-life originals were), but there has been some debate in the Asian press about whether or not this is an anti-Muslim film (see <a href=”http://blogs.tribune.com.pk/story/12752/bollywood-please-stop-demonising-muslims/” target=”_blank”>this comment in Pakistan’s Express Tribune).
But what makes Gangs one of the rare recent Indian mainstream movies to achieve crossover exposure is the way that it intersects with and echoes other international variants on gangster themes. Apart from its American flavors, there are echoes of Brazilian favela drama City of Men (without quite the virtuoso flash), the Japanese yakuza genre (without the quasi-corporate protocol), and, in the unremitting glamorization of thoroughly irredeemable characters, Mexican narco movies. I’m not conversant enough in contemporary Indian cinema to know what Gangs of Wasseypur tells us about current changes in Bollywood, but I’m sure that it’s already a prime exhibit in film studies debates on guns, gangs, and globalization. That Gangs is also a blast—if ultimately a somewhat exhausting one—goes without saying.