An extraordinary ride through Bollywood’s spectacular, over-the-top filmmaking, Gangs of Wasseypur puts Tarantino in a corner with its cool command of cinematically-inspired and referenced violence, ironic characters and breathless pace. All of this bodes well for cross-over audiences in the West. Split into two parts, as it will be released in India, this epic gangster story spanning 70 years of history clocks in at more than five hours of smartly shot and edited footage, making it extremely difficult to release outside cult and midnight venues. Its bow in Cannes’ Directors Fortnight met with rousing consensus, but it’s still an exotic taste at a delirious length.
Tipping his hat to Scorsese, Sergio Leone and world cinema as well as paying homage to Bollywood, writer-director-producer Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday) fashions a kind of “Once Upon a Time in Bengal”, a piece of violent entertainment that never seems to run out of invention or bullets. Less successful is the screenwriters’ attempt to embed the tale in a historical and political context, which simply doesn’t have room to emerge amid all the mayhem. Though the testosterone level is pumped to the max, there’s still room for funny jokes, fooling around and vibrant film characters that spring to life with mythical deeds and single-minded passions. No moralizing or regrets trouble their consciences, nor are they likely to bother the young male demographic that will account for the lion’s share of the audience.
Vengeance, blind ambition and greed oil the wheels of a long-running blood feud between competing godfathers in the Bengal mining towns of Wasseypur and Dhanbad. The film opens with a teasing flash-forward to the end of the story, when a gang armed to the teeth with bombs and machine guns blast their way into the palace-fortress of the reigning don, Faizal Khan. The do enough damage to believe him dead, but the audience will be rightly suspicious that his body is not among the rubble.
In the first half of the film, the early history of Faizal’s family is told, beginning with the rise of his grandfather Shahid Khan in the days when coal mines represented wealth and power. An omniscient narrator, who survives throughout the film, explains how, from time immemorial, Muslims have fought other Muslims in the area, not for religious reasons, but out of pure evil. Back in 1941, the mythic robber Sultana Daku looted British trains; he is later imitated by the sadistic Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), who is eventually murdered by the young owner of the coal mines, Ramadhir Singh, setting off a power struggle between the two clans that lasts till the final reel.
Shahid’s hot-blooded son Sardar shaves his head, vowing not to grow his hair until he exacts revenge for his father’s death. His passion for two women who will become his wives gives him a human, even comic, side. There are only four female characters in this boys’ club, all beautiful firebrands whose bloodthirsty ambition for their offspring would put Ma Barker to shame. Nagma, Sardar’s first wife, bears him four sons including the gangsters Faizal, Danish and “Perpendicular” Khan, while his Hindi wife Durga belatedly contributes the fearsome “Definitive” Khan. Each murderous son stars in a section of the story highlighting his outrageous misdeeds and amorous pursuits.
If the first half of the film sets the background to the present day, Part 2 has moments of humor and is an easier, if certainly no less bloody, watch thanks to its many salutes to popular music and cinema. Sardar’s violence has made him the godfather, a role he keeps until betrayed at a gas station. His body, riddled with bullets, is carted away by his maddened son Danish, who goes on a rampage. But Danish isn’t smart enough to last long, and the family black sheep Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a hash smoking pothead, climbs the ladder to power after cutting off his best friend and betrayer’s head. Taking his cue from Michael Corleone, Faizal modernizes the family arsenal and buys some new-fangled pagers that have just come on the market to communicate with his gang. Cell phones will soon be added.
His courtship of Mohsina (Huma Qureshi) is one of the film’s non-violent high points. Addicted to romantic movies, the lovely Mohsina looks like a Brooklyn moll and wears the same Ray Bans as Faizal, by which they recognize they are soul mates. Their sexy dialogue is a hoot, though the most blatant vulgarities are left to the lyrics (duly translated in the subtitles) to Sneha Khanwalkar’s sparkling score, pumped up with drumbeats at the first sign of gunplay.
It is now 2002 and Sardar’s strangely named teenage sons Definitive and Perpendicular are ready start their own violent careers, both defined by the narrator as “more terrifying than Faizal.” Their wanton killing sprees pepper the final scenes with death. Faizal is talked into going into politics, alarming his perennial nemesis Ramadhir Singh, now a corrupt old government minister. Their final reckoning takes place on election day as Faizal and his handful of loyalists lay siege to a hospital.
Kashyap, whose reputation as a screenwriter and controversial director reach a culmination in this film, is the real behind-the-scenes godfather, never losing control over the story-telling or hundreds of actors, and allowing tongue-in-cheek diversions in the second half that confirm his command over the sprawling material. In the spirit of Bollywood, Rajiv Ravi’s lensing is fast on its feet, with a continually moving camera that always seems to be in the right spot to capture the action.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Directors Fortnight), May 21, 2012.
A Viacom 18 Motion Pictures presentation of an Anurag Kashyap Films/Jar Pictures production in association with Tipping Point Films, Akfpl, Elle Driver.
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Richa Chaddha, Reema Sen, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Jaideep Ahlawat, Piyush Mishra, Mukesh Chhabra, Jameel Khan, Harish Khanna, Aditya Kumar, Murari Kumar, Huma Quershi, Yashpal Sharma, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Raj Yadav, Raj Kumar Yadav
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Screenwriters: Anurag Kashyap, Zeishan Quadri, Akhilesh Jaiswal, Sachin Ladia
Producers: Anurag Kashyap, Sunil Bohra
Director of photography: Rajiv Ravi
Production Designer: Wasiq Khan
Costumes: Subodh Srivastava
Editor: Shweta Venkat
Music: Sneha Khanwalkar
Sales Agent: Elle Driver
No rating; 320 minutes