This 2-part, 320 minute gangster epic is notable for many reasons. It’s a well-crafted film telling a universal story of two extended families engaged in a long-running feud and it’s enjoyable and provocative at the same time. For film scholars what is most interesting is that it uses all of the elements of Indian popular cinema developed over at least the last forty years and yet it isn’t a ‘Bollywood’ film in the normal sense – in other words the popular Indian film audience knows that the film is ‘different’.
Produced, co-written and directed by Anurag Kashyap for his own company with backing from Viacom 18 and its ‘Tipping Point’ brand, Gangs of Wasseypur is based on true stories about gang warfare in the North Eastern state of Jharkhand (previously part of Bengal and then Bihar). It begins in the early 1940s when Shahid Khan, a Pathan in a Muslim village decides to improve his family’s chances by robbing goods trains in the guise of the local gangleader from the dominant Qureshi family in the village. The Qureshis are not amused and a feud begins, quickly to be complicated by the intervention of a third party, a Sikh businessman/politician who runs the local coal mine and who becomes a powerful figure when control of the mining industry passes into Indian hands after the end of the British Raj. Over the next seventy years or so, this three-cornered fight continues sporadically and we get to know more about the principal characters.
I’d argue that the two main ‘differences’ about the film as popular Hindi cinema are firstly in its ‘realist’ representation of a very specific region – quite unlike the idealised India of much of mainstream Hindi cinema – and secondly the refusal of a conventional narrative drive with clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. The story is linear, except that it is told mainly in flashback from 2004 – from when it will eventually move forward to 2009. There is an ending, but it isn’t a complete resolution as the possibility of some kind of continuation is left with the audience. This in itself is not that unusual. Having noted both these points, the same elements could be discerned in Kashyap’s first work for Hindi cinema, the script he co-wrote for Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya in 1998. The focus on families and the ruthless rise of specific male characters in settings like this is there in much of Varma’s work and in Tamil cinema in the form of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Thalapathi (1991). As far as I can see (i.e. I haven’t seen enough), Varma remains largely within a Bollywood context whereas Ratnam has a much wider range and includes more gritty and locally-defined backgrounds – but both Varma and Ratnam use major stars in their gangster stories. The link for all three directors inevitably seems to be Coppola’s Godfather in terms of characters, relationships and story elements.
Kashyap recognises the Godfather influences but he himself refers to Goodfellas, possibly because of the basis in documented gangland activities – and also the use of narration, which in Gangs comes from Nasir, the last survivor of the extended Khan family from the 1940s. This character is rather like the Robert Duvall character in The Godfather – accepting his place in the clan and looking out for the family as a whole. It’s not unusual to see these kinds of nods towards Hollywood in popular Indian films, but I wonder if Kashyap has seen Gomorra (Italy 2008)? Or the films of Johnnie To and John Woo? I would expect so and it would be good to place Gangs of Wasseypur alongside those films (plus City of God) as an example of international crime cinema. So Gangs is ‘global’ and ‘local’ – it is very much an Indian film and its street scenes are the most ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ that I have ever seen in an Indian film. The locations include the cities actually mentioned in the text: Dahnbad, Wasseypur, Varanasi and also Kolkata, Ranchi, Allahabad etc.
The long film works because of the strong characters, played mainly by a group of ‘character actors’ in Hindi cinema or by relative newcomers. Part 1 is dominated by the standout performance of Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan, the son of Shahid Khan. Bajpayee is actually from Bihar and he is completely believable. The character is interestingly vulnerable in terms of his sexual weakness (“led by his dick” as his wife tells him) as well as ruthless as a gang leader. Part 2 is dominated by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faizal Khan, Sardar’s second son. Siddiqui appears to be on the cusp of star status in Hindi cinema – he’d already had thirty film and TV appearances by 2012, some in parallel cinema. The actor at the centre of both parts of the film is Tigmanshu Dhulia as Ramadhir Singh, the politician businessman. A well-known producer/writer and director, Dhulia had barely acted before and his performance is excellent. He is the most affected by the very long ‘story time’ of the film since he has to play a character from his early 20s until his mid 80s. It’s impossible of course but Kashyap manages to keep the audience hooked on action long enough not to worry about this.
Gangster films like this tend to push the female characters to the edge of the frame but at least in Gangs there are strong performances for the three principal female roles. Sardar Khan’s sexual appetite means that despite marrying Nagma, he also sets up a home with Durga, a Bengali Hindu woman. Richa Chadda and Reema Sen are both very good as the strong women the script demands. In a very different role (I suppose it’s the Diane Keaton role in The Godfather) Huma Qureshi is equally good as Mohsina, wife of Faisal Khan. The long running time of the film means that we get to see courtship, seduction and weddings as well as marital discord. These three actors are each either relatively inexperienced or in Sen’s case coming from mainly Bengali and Southern Indian cinema productions.
For me, one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is the music. There is a great range of songs across the five hours plus from folk songs and a reggae mix (or is this ‘chutney’?) through atmospheric scoring from Sneha Khanwalkar to frequent use of Hindi filmi songs, especially from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these are performed live by a singer who turns up at weddings, political rallies etc., others are heard on the radio or in one of several visits to cinemas. There are five or more ‘song sequences’ but these are not much like traditional choreographed dance sequences, involving instead people working or celebrations (like weddings) with a performer. The ‘presence’ of Bollywood as a popular film institution is everywhere, especially in Part 2 with posters on walls and constant references in dialogue. Most pointedly, Ramadhir Singh claims that his longevity (survival) is because his head is not filled with film heroes who might cloud his judgement. At the crucial moment in 2004 (when the film narrative begins in flashback and when we return to it later on) the Khan family are watching a TV soap opera.
One aspect of the film that has infuriated some Indian critics are the narrative digressions. One critic picks out Sardar’s seduction of Durga – which I thought was one of the highlights of the film since it is important in establishing a sub-plot – and because it strengthens the representation of both characters. More understandable and, I assume, deliberately provocative is a ‘Tarantinoesque’ discussion over mobile phones about buying different kinds of vegetables when three gang members are stalking their prey through the market. One of the scriptwriters, Zeishan Quadri, actually appears in this scene as ‘Definite’, Durga’s son. I have to conclude that there is a real sense of play here. But perhaps there is also a real point in the scene where Faisal is puzzled by the name Definite for his step-brother. What does it mean he keeps asking (his own younger brothers are ‘Perpendicular’ and ‘Tangent’, but these are just nicknames. Definite is Definite! The point here is that unlike Bollywood, the characters in Gangs don’t speak English. At least not until the post 2002 period when the formation of Jharkhand as a new mineral rich state draws in ‘chancers’ from further afield. These references to politics and economics enrich the film for me and it is the gradual accretion of elements like this that takes Gangs of Wasseypur away from mainstream Hindi popular cinema and help to create whatever it is we wish to call it – Indian independent cinema, ‘New Bollywood’ etc. or as one actor described it in an interview “a blurring of the boundaries”.
Gangs of Wasseypur is very bloody and full of subplots with a huge cast of characters. It’s also 320 mins long, but I think it’s worth the effort. I’m not sure about the distribution policy of Mara Pictures in the UK – a couple dates here and there – but there are still showings up to late April/early May and you can check them out on the Mara Pictures website.
Trailer (no English subs, but it gives the flavour of the film and its music):
And as an example of the music track, here’s the reggae-inspired ‘Hunters’: