Much of the conversation around Anurag Kashyap’s multi-generational gangland epic Gangs of Wasseypur has centred on authenticity (or its absence). Some of the negative criticism has been based on pre-release publicity that appeared to flag GoW as a grittily realistic film with its roots firmly in the hinterland. I’ll avoid getting into that particular argument because I know nothing about the real Wasseypur, about its violent history and about when its young people first discovered the special pleasures of sunglasses – but also because “authenticity” and “realism” in cinema are always ambiguous things. I find it more useful to consider another level of reality – the one involving the creation of an internally consistent world. Given that GoW is a family epic involving layers of personal tragedy, I was perplexed by its wildly shifting tone, which made it difficult (for me at least) to feel strongly invested in its people.
In what is essentially a single five-and-a-half-hour film (released in two parts), it’s strange how little attempt there is at sustained character development. Partly, that’s because of the sheer size of the canvas – perhaps as big as any Hindi film has ever had. The narrative, with its panoply of characters, spans six decades, and the use of a voiceover (by Piyush Mishra’s sutradhaar Farhan) facilitates a speedy recording of events: courtships are hurriedly conducted, children are born, they grow up and we learn all the essential things about them in a few minutes (or seconds); vignettes flash by in the time it takes for a revolver to be cocked. Colourful characters (like an adolescent thug with a speech impediment and the nickname Perpendicular) hold the screen briefly and then exit, the main purpose of their existence being to amuse the viewer. Which in itself is fine (the totla Perpendicular’s mangling of cuss words - bhen tod - provides a superb laugh-out-loud moment), but it can become problematic if they divide the film’s running time among themselves in such a way that one doesn’t get to spend enough time with the principal characters.
Consequently Gangs of Wasseypur can be a confounding film to watch. There are so many brilliant things in it (and regardless of everything I say here, I look forward to watching Part I and Part II back to back on DVD at some point). There are the performances, notably by Manoj Bajpai, Richa Chadda, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and especially the film’s co-writer Zeishan Qadri in an (ahem) author-backed part as the imperturbable Definite. There is Sneha Khanwalkar’s versatile music score, ranging from the 1940s-style ballad “Ik Bagal” (written by the multitalented Mishra) to the reggae-hippie song “I am a Hunter” (which incorporates elements from Trinidadian music with what sounds – to my ears – like a hint of the classic children’s song “Nani teri morni”).
In Part II the music becomes noisily contrapuntal, and by this point the film in general is defined by constantly clashing tones. Many of the darkest scenes are treated with humour, occasionally to the point of inappropriateness (so that it’s common to find audience members laughing during moments of extreme violence, as they would during a Tom and Jerry cartoon). Admittedly, some of the little touches of levity are well done. When a sleeping (and probably ganja-addled) Faisal Khan is told that his father has been killed, he jumps off the charpoy and dashes down a stairway and out of the frame, looking very much the purposeful hero about to assume a responsibility – but a second later he scampers back awkwardly because he has forgotten to put on his shoes. It’s a nice touch – a pointer to the mundane things that can interfere with the playing out of the dramatic “scenes” in our lives, and the kind of shot one wouldn’t see in the Bachchan-starrer Trishul, which Faisal is so obsessed with. (More about that in this post.)
A notable thing about GoW is how its characters are influenced by cinema, and there is explicit commentary on this in one of the rare quiet scenes in Part II where the ancient Ramadhir Singh (looking increasingly like the old Don Ciccio, destined to be cleanly gutted by De Niro’s Vito Corleone near the end of The Godfather Part II) mulls that one reason he has stayed alive for so long is “kyonke main cinema nahin dekhta” – he has never been swayed by the flair and the heroics he sees onscreen, played out over the decades by generations of movie stars from Dilip Kumar through “Bachchan Amitabh” to Salman Khan. Elsewhere, there is much evidence of personalities and relationships shaped by celluloid dreams, such as when Mohsina (Huma Qureshi) sees that Faisal has come to her house to ask for her hand in marriage, and reacts by pirouetting dreamily in slow-motion the way Madhuri Dixit might have done in a less self-conscious film of an earlier age. These scenes are notable as meta-commentary about a people’s connection with their cinema, but it also means that most of the characters in Gangs of Wasseypur are about as fleshed out as movie-star posters.
The strongest emotional response I had to any killing in the film was when the imperial, dignified Shahid Khan is assassinated in Varanasi relatively early in Part I. And after watching Part II, just because of that “main cinema nahin dekhta” scene, I came away feeling like Ramadhir Singh was the character I knew best in the entire film. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that both these moments involve members of the old guard – people whose heyday takes place very early in this epic story. This could be tied to the idea that there was a certain intrinsic honour in the earlier generations, even a rationale for violence, and that the younger lot – culminating in the amoral Perpendicular and the opportunistic Definite – have lost that grounding; nihilism has set in.
Caught between these two worlds is the Faisal Khan character, who might be called GoW's protagonist. The role is well-performed and Faisal’s initial trajectory recalls Michael Corleone in The Godfather – the innocent sucked into a vortex of crime. Indeed he even has a scene late in the second part where he cries in his wife’s arms about how he didn’t want to have anything to do with this violent life. Yet there’s something random about this scene: it comes out of nowhere, feels psychologically improbable given how far gone Faisal is by this point (besides, if he was initially unwilling, it was probably because he was immersed in ganja, not because of any moral compulsions) and I thought it existed only to give us a reason to feel sorry for Faisal in light of what will happen later. In any case this pathos-filled moment is soon rendered meaningless: the grim bloodbath that Faisal engages in at the end doesn’t suggest someone who was ever a reluctant participant – this is killing for the fun of it, pure bloodlust combined with a boy’s fantasy of cornering his mortal enemy in a no-escape position and emptying round after round into his body.
The outlandish, cartoon violence of that final sequence – blood rendered shinily aesthetic, so that Ramadhir Singh’s ravaged corpse looks like it is studded with rubies – is a reminder that the film has stopped taking any of these killings seriously. Earlier, when the young widow Shama is shot dead in the Khan clan's house, the voiceover quickly tells us that this has come as a big shock to everyone because it’s the first time ever that a woman has been killed thus during the gang wars; cut to a very brief shot of Faisal sitting by himself, looking despondent, and then everyone gets back to the business of revenge and the business of business. A little while later, Faisal’s mother – a key character – is gunned down in the market, and this again is glossed over. And once you have heard faux-maudlin versions of Hindi-film songs like “Teri Meherbaniyan” being played alongside what are mean to be genuinely sad scenes (a family weeping over a young son’s body), it’s hard to take any of the emotions at face value. Gangs of Wasseypur encourages the viewer to chuckle at its violence and at the mourning that follows it, but also wants us to feel strongly enough about the main characters that there is a sense of genuine tragedy in the last act (and the last scene, which returns us to the plaintive “Ik Bagal”). Possibly this is my failing, but – much as I enjoyed many things about this epic film – I couldn’t muster both feelings at once.