Gangs of Wasseypur is an explosive crime saga that runs for over five hours and looks stunning and sophisticated for an Indian commercial production

Gangs of Wasseypur

Gangs of Wasseypur (2012)

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 feel­ing 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.


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