Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)
An explosive crime saga that runs for over five hours and looks quite stunning and sophisticated for an Indian commercial production
Directed by Anurag Kashyap. Written by Akhilesh Jaiswal, Anurag Kashyap, Sachin Ladia and Zeishan Quadri Akhilesh. Starring Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Jameel Khan, Piyush Mishra, Jaideep Ahlawat, Richa Chadda, Huma Qureshi, Zeishan Quadri, Vipin Sharma, Satya Anand, Aditya Kumar, Rajkummar Rao, Vineet Kumar Singh, Pankaj Tripathi, Reema Sen, Anurita Jha and Murari Kumar.
Gangs of Wasseypur is a five-hour crime family saga that bears many narrative similarities to The Godfather (1972), even mentioning that film at one point. But there is something that a filmmaker should never do when devising his own story: to remind the viewers of a classic that he is clearly trying to emulate and which is decidedly superior to the one he is making. For the fact is that Gangs of Wasseypur is practically a Bollywood version of Francis Ford Coppola’s film — something that becomes even more evident in its second part. That certainly doesn’t mean this movie isn’t good; on the contrary, it works so well and looks so stunning that it manages to convince us that it is fresh on its own terms.
Written by no less than eight hands, the movie is a Homeric epic in two parts that spans over six decades and follows three generations of a criminal family, with three men as protagonists and dozens of characters orbiting around them. At the center of the narrative is Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who loses his humanity like Michael Corleone when he steps into his father’s shoes in order to continue his illegal mafia business in a crime-ridden place. Wasseypur, a locality in the city of Dhanbad (now in the state of Jharkhand, India), is a hotbed of wars between gangs — or as narrator Nasir (Piyush Mishra) puts it, “a seemingly innocent-looking town full of insidious, rotten bastards.” The Qureishi Muslims, butchers by profession, terrorize the non-Qureishi Muslims, and the Khan family is not only in conflict with them but also with Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), a coal-mine industrialist who controls Dhanbad.
In short, this is a classic revenge story, based on real events and fictionalized for dramatic purposes. Combining Bollywood’s colorful spectacle (including numerous songs that underline the action and what the characters think or feel) with the graphic violence found in Martin Scorsese’s movies, Gangs of Wasseypur already shows in its first scene how sophisticated it is for a commercial production. There is a dazzling long take through the streets of Wasseypur, full of shooting, killing and brutality, with fast zooms that inject urgency and a sense of realism, as well as a yellow-greenish cinematography that makes it look like a modern crime fable. Then, when Nasir begins to tell us the story of the Khan family back from the early 1940s, we see a nice black-and-white sequence that shows the coal-mining by the British in Dhanbad (and there is a curious use of animation too).
As unusual as it may sound, it all looks pretty cool — a major production full of extras and long takes that intensify the suspense, and with an excellent sound design like in the gripping initial scene (which is shown again in Part 2). The gorgeous cinematography uses lights and filters that bathe the screen in yellow, green, blue or red, while the art direction and costumes emphasize strong colors. And director Anurag Kashyap knows well how to hold our attention and his narrative together throughout many years in the lives of so many characters, being helped by Shweta Venkat’s exquisite editing that makes everything feel fluid (she even often slides the frames out to the sides as scene transitions). Besides, the brutality fits in perfectly, like in a stylized murder sequence that is initially bathed in red, then yellow, and finally blue.
As a butcher says, “In Wasseypur, even a pigeon flies with only one wing because it needs the other one to cover its ass.” This is all pulp violence that leaves nothing to be desired when compared to Quentin Tarantino’s best works. In the beginning, we follow Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), a horse cart driver and thief who is our first protagonist. Then, the focus moves to his son Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpai), who seeks revenge. Later on, the main character is Faizal, the family’s ugly duckling, and this revenge saga reaches its climax. Since no Indian cinema would screen such a long film that runs for more than five hours, it was divided into two halves for the Indian market. What I love the most, though, is how the first part is so concise and well structured that it could work perfectly without a continuation.
But if I make it sound like the movie is too serious, this is far from true. It has a hilarious sense of humor and scenes that border on the surreal, like when Sardar proposes to his wife Nagma (Richa Chadda, the Indian Salma Hayek) that they live together with his second wife Durga (Reema Sen) but with separate kitchens for each woman. Durga is also quite funny in a scene when she says in tears that she doesn’t want to become a “child-vending machine” like Nagma, who already has four sons by Sardar. Other priceless moments include a fight with a knife in a brothel, guns that burst in the hands of gangsters and a hilarious discussion about Definite’s (Zeishan Quadri) name — and I love one particular scene when a certain character says that “even the biggest balls are subservient to the dick.”
What keeps Gangs of Wasseypur from being outstanding, however, is its second part, which is more irregular than the first and feels even repetitious. The plot becomes convoluted, with backstabbing everywhere and shifts in alliances that seem more like an easy attempt at offering surprises than being engaging. Another problem is that important characters are only introduced close to the end, which also contributes to that feeling. Even so, when it seems like Part 2 doesn’t have what it takes to match Part 1 in terms of narrative, there comes an explosive climax that not only is conducted with absolute perfection in its sheer brutality and dramatic power but also concludes the story on a note worthy of the best Greek tragedies.
Amusing in the way it shows the technological evolution throughout the decades (including pagers in the ’80s and later, cell phones), the movie also deserves credit for its genre-blending music, and we even hear the sounds of babies laughing in the instrumental theme that plays whenever the young and insolent Babu Khan AKA Perpendicular (Aditya Kumar) appears. On the other hand, it is hard to defend a scene in which Ramadhir Singh (and obviously the director) says that “as long as there are fucking movies in this country, people will continue to be fooled.” Apparently, Kashyap is not aware of how offensive this sounds, since he is talking about his own audience too. After all, this is popular escapism, not an experimental piece of political commentary.
At least, we leave Gangs of Wasseypur with the pleasant feel that we got to know a fantastic gallery of characters and went through heaven and hell with them. And I am glad to know that I will certainly remember Faizal’s bloodshot eyes full of hate for quite some time.
October 29, 2016