“Gangs of Wasseypur”… Text appeal

The screen, at the beginning of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur, is filled with the titles sequence from Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, and then the camera begins to pull back. The gaudy, brightly lit world of the popular soap is slowly swallowed up by the dimness of an undistinguished room. The screen of the television set keeps getting smaller, the real world larger. And then, the spatter of gunfire. And a shout, instructing these TV viewers to down their shutters. This, we realise, is no home, but a business establishment of some sort – a small shop in a row of small shops. More gunfire pierces the darkness. People are felled by bullets. A haveli is surrounded, and bursts of fire from automatics illuminate the night. Who are these people with these guns? Who are those cowering in the haveli, around the man whose phone explodes with the ring tone of Nayak nahin… khalnayak hoon main? The only certainties are that we are in a violent neighbourhood, that this stretch is set post 1993, the year of Subhash Ghai’s antihero blockbuster, and that the director is not going to slow down for exposition and explanation.

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In a pre-titles credit, Kashyap expresses his gratitude to the “Madurai triumvirate” of Bala, Ameer Sultan and M Sasikumar, for inspiring him to get back to his roots, but he just as well could have thanked Cervantes and Dickens. Gangs of Wasseypur is a sprawling, picaresque saga set in and around the mining community in Dhanbad (formerly of Bihar; now belonging to Jharkhand), and its raffish protagonist is a man named Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpai). But where films revolving around a hero (or an antihero, a khalnayak) usually become fixated with their every movement to the extent that this hero (or antihero) shows up in every scene, Kashyap tells the story of Sardar Khan through the people around him, the people who came before him, and those who come after him. In other words, the story of Sardar Khan is the story of his father, the story of his wife, the story of his neighbours, the story of his children.

We begin in the years just preceding Independence, where we learn who Sardar Khan’s father was, how he lived, how he died, and how the young Sardar Khan, subsequently, swore to avenge his death. We meet this story’s villain, Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), and we steel ourselves for his showdowns with Sardar Khan, and for him to meet a most well-deserved end. This is how films have trained us. But novels, on the other hand, aren’t as bound to plot and protagonist. They can, on a whim, linger on descriptions of scenery, or on the misfortunes of a secondary character – they aren’t time-bound. There’s no pressure that they wind up in two-and-a-half hours, and that’s the philosophy that informs Gangs of Wasseypur.

On a formal level, this is easily Kashyap’s most fascinating outing (and a gratifying return to form after the underwhelming That Girl In Yellow Boots). The film unfolds as a series of voiceovers, a flurry of dates and names, a cavalcade of memorable scenes – Sardar Khan canvassing for votes as a sidekick channels Mithun Chakraborty from Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki; Yashpal Sharma breaking into a falsetto rendition of Salaam-e-ishq meri jaan (one of the many throwbacks to the Amitabh Bachchan era); a smitten Sardar Khan wooing Durga (Reema Sen) as she washes clothes by a hand pump; Sardar Khan’s elder son being hit by a bullet and later tended to in a hospital in the midst of a power cut; the younger son putting the moves on a girl he likes, as a goat, behind him, nibbles on leaves from a tree, oblivious to the unfolding of all this human drama.

Gangs of Wasseypur is a diffuse epic, content to coast around the revenge plot instead of making it the thrust of its narrative – and what the film loses in terms of dramatic power, it gains in texture. (Besides, do we really want Anurag Kashyap to take on a conventional revenge story?) Several scenes touch upon the hero-villain dynamic that drove a lot of the cinema of the eras this film is set in (acknowledged through delightful nods to tropes like the “prison song,” providing the background for a jailbreak), such as the one where Ranadhir Singh attempts to poison the minds of Sardar Khan’s sons, pointing out that their father now lives with Durga, or the other one where the younger son is informed that he cannot go to school anymore because his father has stopped sending money home. Seething at this unfairness, he hurls a brick at Durga’s door, and you think (again, because of how films have trained us) that he will grow up to be like Bachchan in Shakti or Trishul (which is excerpted here), who regarded his father as the villain – but Kashyap is not interested in going there.

He isn’t even interested in showcasing Sardar Khan as a towering figure, someone capable of anchoring all this churn of activity. The man comes off, frankly, as a bit of a clown, a fool who cannot get his fill of women. He’s also unheroically selfish, chasing Durga as his first wife Naghma is harassed by cops. Bajpai is wonderful and the rest of the cast is equally fine, but it’s Richa Chaddha, as Naghma, who walks away with the movie. She has what book critics like to term an author-backed part, and she teeters exquisitely between comedy and drama. She straddles both in a superb scene where she’s about to deliver her first child, just after she has caught her husband in the house of a prostitute. The pain of delivery alternates with her rage at this man who has now crawled back home – we don’t know whether to laugh or cry. Later, she decides it’s better he strays – at least he’ll leave her alone. But she makes sure to feed him well, so he has his strength. “Baahar jaake beizzati mat karaana,” she tells him, like a strict mother instructing a son to perform well in his exams.

For a film that spans decades, there are no flashy signposts. But for the pattern of a sweater on a scrawny kid, a film song, a movie poster, or Naghma’s graduation from broom to vacuum cleaner, we could be in the same time period. The people stay the same, as does the place, which may be the sole bit of social commentary from Kashyap here – but Gangs of Wasseypur is far too entertaining to be ghettoized as a movie about an issue. It goes after anything and everything in its quest to sweep us through its story, even tongue-in-cheek film references – there’s an homage to Sonny’s horrifically bloody assassination at the toll booth in The Godfather (right down to the giant billboard on the way), and this film’s title probably harks back to Martin Scorsese’s gangland epic set in a long-ago New York. The only major mistake is the end, which looks towards a sequel. I’ll be the first to admit that I may not have the stamina for a five-and-a-half hour film (which is what Wiki tells me), but not knowing how it all ends is almost as frustrating. But perhaps this is only in keeping with the film’s novelistic ambitions. Just as we’d tire of a doorstop of a book and set it aside for later, Kashyap has made us dog-ear his movie.

Copyright ©2012 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

41 thoughts on ““Gangs of Wasseypur”… Text appeal

  1. Knowing that AK had an epic movie coming up was a mouthwatering prospect already. You review makes it all the more a must watch!

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  2. Reading your wonderful take on GoW on friday morning on my way to wage slavery makes my day :)

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  3. I think five-and-a-half hours is combined duration of the two part movie. As I gathered from the Cannes reports.

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  4. BR, fine review, and yes, for a change, quite early..! while you are talking about the references, one that struck me was the reference of the movie and the song chosen for manoj’s character to seek the people thru that loud-speaker (and no, he was not canvassing for votes, he was canvassing for the ‘persons’). the lyrics of the song is actually the message from sardar to ramadhir!

    another reference to the old throw-back as well as the ‘poetic justice’ was the character of the gun-dealer in benares, and his character arc.

    the film is full of small nuggets of filmy-brilliance, and eyes to detailing is worth-mentioning (note the stamp of East India Co. (E.I.Co.) on the food-grains gunny-bags looted by rashid khan).

    there is so much to observe, and yet we miss so much while watching it; its all coming back while writing this comment. length of the film was a downer though… people started getting fidgety towards the end…

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  5. GoW is long, meandering and pointless. Not watchable unless one completes a 3 month certificate course in Bihari. AK could not make up his mind whether he wanted to tell the story or showcase the histrionic brilliance of his actors through episodes. The violence and swearing is excessive. It felt like watching a series of promos. And the promos on TV were better. Also I wonder if the Consumer Protection Act can be invoked here. You cannot show the end in the beginning and then leave the story halfway. Either you go linear and stop halfway or show me the whole film. What was the point in showing me the end and then going into flashback and then in the end saying ‘picture abhi baaqi hai’. Disappointed.

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  6. @Baradwaj : ennapa, review posted on a friday afternoon ? I thought it had been leaked or posted by mistake or something :D

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  7. ///In a pre-titles credit, Kashyap expresses his gratitude to the “Madurai triumvirate” of Bala, Ameer Sultan and M Sasikumar, for inspiring him to get back to his roots///
    Interesting.

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  8. Bala/Zico Ghosh: Just happened to catch this one at an early screening, hence the early review. Don’t expect this too soon again :-)

    Karthi: You know, as I saw this I kept thinking how much more powerful our adult-audience films would be if the censors didn’t keep meddling so much. And I also kept thinking how awesome it would be if Rajeev Ravi came down and shot a Tamil film :-) All technicians from here and Kerala learn the craft here and then do staggering work in Bollywood. I’m trying to recall the last time a Tamil film had so much downplayed texture in the cinematography. Even Bala’s films are overlit — the bright and glossy kind of photography that our stars seem to favour.

    Paresh: No, I didn’t. Missed that session.

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  9. “The only major mistake is the end, which looks towards a sequel.” In fact, whole movie seems to be an introduction. Making most of the events trivial. We don’t have any character to root for, to sympathize with, to hate, to whatever. Ofcourse this is better than the most today, but still. Anurag Kashyap underwhelms again.

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  10. Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter: Awesome high concept, Dogged execution ….succeeds…..I’m feeling generous .

    I’ll watch an anurag Kashyap film right after I watch a gautam menon movie.

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  11. “I breathe because of Tamil Cinema” : Anurag Kashyap –

    http://articles.timesofindia.indiatimes.com/2011-12-26/news-interviews/30558322_1_yellow-boots-anurag-kashyap-film

    “Then there are nods to the Tamil crime dramas set in rural Tamil Nadu. Wasseypur is closest to M. Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram in its occasional mock-serious tone and references to mass movie culture—not to mention the use of slow motion during key romantic interludes. Subramaniapuram’s Kangal Irandal and Wasseypur’s O Womaniya are soul sisters who speak in different languages” – nandini ramnath in livemint.

    dr.rangan,
    am just surprised that (apart from the mention of Kashyap’s gratitude to the cinemadurai gang) you have not elaborated on this aspect further ?

    btw, S.R.Kathir’s cinematography in Subramaniapuram was as delightful and apt as Rajeev Ravi’s work in GOW (espcially considering the huge budget and hence time available on the respective projects) – don’t you think ?

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  12. Saar. This is unfair. So you are saying it is okay to do a mish-mash of scenes reminiscent of the typical Bollywood movie as long as you are willing to put in an unbollywood-esque sequence. If you are going to shoot so many of these typical scenes, might as well give us something we are used to. This is neither a middle-finger to bollywood masala nor a proper homage to it. Like the end of this movie, it is in the middle of nowhere.

    For all you know, the second part of the movie could be an out and out revenge flick, where everyone shoots down everyone (Godfather part 2?) and you could be left wondering what all this fuss about not following a typical – A kills B, B kills C, C fathers D, D ‘mothers’ A format, was.

    And by the time the movie ended, I was left wondering if he could he had done full justice to that tribute to the Madurai Triumvarate (some Nadaswaram vidwan/Mumoorthigal level name?) . Give me Subramaniapuram,Paruthiveeran and Pithamagan anyday!

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  13. I thought the music, which was so wonderfully interwoven deserved a line or two from you. And GOW might do to Sneha Khanwalkar what Dev D did to Amit Trivedi.

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  14. “It goes after anything and everything in its quest to sweep us through its story” – I had the opportunity to talk to Anurag Kashyap couple of weeks back. He had said that he wanted to make GoW like a visual novel, which would help telling the story. Since, he felt this is a world we are not too familiar with.

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  15. Pointless, Boring and the biggest disappointment for me after GINYB…lacking a gud story, pointless scene detailing, though some shots were brilliant..ordinary dialogs, people of Bihar and UP use more crispy dialogs in their daily life…Narration killed the movie, some dialogs were repeated, may be director thought they are too goog to be used once…slow..sometimes boring…its like u are watching a tv serial’s “story so far”…too many actors and directors urge to showing everyone talent shatters my dream :( People who doesnt know bihar jharkhand and UP may like it…actors did a brilliant job…songs were awesome…timing of bihar ke lala gives u goosebumps, but now I think Anurag kashyap is deviating from his own set path…Vishal Bhardwaj is till agreat story teller than Anurag kashyap…perfect technicalities don’t make a great movie…great screenplay does :|

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  16. yes .the censor thing now you mentioned i m beginning to think might have influenced more than we thought . and i m too impressed with kathir visuals in katrathu tamil,subramaniapuram etc. for rajeev ravi’s i have to see that to tell. Cine madurai is past by the way !

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  17. A brilliant review. Have captured the big picture: the novelistic structure and all that as well as taken the trouble to point out little details, quoted gems of dialogues like ‘Baahar jaake beizzati mat karaana’ and articulated why each of the performance is so good. Speaking for myself that is the kind of review I find rewarding, where a reviewer’s most subjective opinion is backed by articulated reasoning and giving a feel of the film for those who are yet to seeit with quotes and snippets from the film.

    I found the film insanely brilliant and thought everything that was wrong about Shanghai was right about GOW.

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  18. Pingback: Offbeat Sunday Reads:June 24, 2012 | Alpha Ideas

  19. Pingback: Gangs of Wasseypur – review | Edit Room

  20. Vashist Das/Karthi: Oh I’m not saying Subramaniapuram (see review here) wasn’t shot well. But those films are few and far between. Can you remember any recent film that used cinematography to “tell” a story instead of just canning shots? I’m trying to make a list in my head…

    rameshram: “I’ll watch an anurag Kashyap film right after I watch a gautam menon movie.” So you’re basically saying never? :-)

    Kutty: I don’t think he was trying to do a “tribute” to the “Madurai triumvirate”. He was just saying they inspired him to get back to his roots, i.e. make a rooted movie. The storytelling and stuff here owed nothing to those films, even if on a “plot level” there may be similarities. I think Kashyap’s tributes are more superficial, like referencing films here the way “Murattukaalai” was in Subramaniapuram. I like both…

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  21. I think cinematography was really bad. How much is the fault of cameraman here, I wont know. May be its the fault of screenplay. Tons of footage was wasted on rain, landscape and rather pointless. The scene when a guy goes to call Manoj Bajpai’s father (who is working in a mine) as the child is stuck. A tragic scene such as this and all the camera shows us is rain, rain and even more rain. It neither set the mood for me nor did it help in coming to the point. In fact, the very idea of such storytelling was to deviate from the point (the way Tarantino does) but Kashyap really doesn’t know his limits. Due to scenes like this, I could neither appreciate his deviation nor the main story.

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  22. I was waiting for a cheap matinee show on a weekday :)
    Enjoyed watching the movie, and since some previous comments kept mentioning the songs – I found this not-so-flattering sentence from elsewhere – which seemed quite apt to me –
    “The music is typical, take folk / rustic tunes, remix them well, put in electro bass synth grooves and some sort of bhojpuri english chutney words like womaniya, and yes, you have music! ”

    I wonder if our folk songs will ever fit in with any movie unless they are garnished as above?

    Also another comment says – Bihari is the language – though there are multiple languages under the Bihari group.

    And BR, you write “I may not have the stamina for a five-and-a-half hour film”. Does that mean you do not watch back to back movies in a day at film festivals? Do you just see one a day? :-)

    I remember one fated? twist from the movie – the grandson shoots the pistol supplier without even knowing that the fellow killed his grandfather. Correct?

    And for those who might want to take a look – there is a family tree of both clans posted online. Like a UML diagram haha

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  23. vishal yogi: You got me there. There are lots of times I’ve watched four films a day, but somehow the thought of a single five-hour-plus film is a little intimidating.

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  24. BR: Cant a long film be likened to reading a thick tome? (I assume you read fiction). If either of them (visual or printed) holds my interest, length doesnt matter and time fades into oblivion for me. Its tempting to ask you to verbalize your reasons, but you can decide if you want to write.

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  25. Hi BR, the review is great as usual. Befitting the film.You have hit it that this movie is like a novel. It lingers on in side-plots and is not much of a revenge drama. So maybe it is mischievous to market it as revenge drama. Problem is that those who have acquired a taste for AK’s movies may watch the movie and indulge his craving to make an epic. But if someone is watching an AK movie for the first time then they can get bored. On a different note, don’t you think Reema Sen has found her metier? I always found her obscenely voluptuous. Only flaw with the movie is that characters don’t seem to age much. Must be something in the water in Wasseypur.

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  26. vishal yogi: yes, of course. and once you’re into the film/book, you don’t notice. it’s just while picking it up that you feel a little intimidated, because of the time commitment and so forth.

    Prasanna: My hunch is the audience used to a traditional plot-based kind of storytelling (whether from Hollywood or Bollywood or wherever) is definitely going to get bored. It’s like how some people read fiction for plot and to know what happens next, while others read to savour the journey, the detours, with only a marginal investment in plot. You can’t force the former kind of reader to like the latter just by marketing.

    About the characters looking the same age, it struck me as jarring for a while, then I didn’t notice it. I’d rather suspend disbelief here than be distracted by badly done prosthetic makeup, which really takes you out of a film (like Priyanka’s makeup in “7 Khoon Maaf”).

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  27. Got to see this movie just last night. Agreed it has stamp of a master film maker. Still, longed for a few changes:
    1. Was a constant commentary was really neaded ? To me it belittled our sensibilities.
    2. Sometimes it felt like a newsreel/documentary form being used to move forward the story. There could have been other celluloid forms to nerrate.
    3. Sardar khans acts were mostly one way with little challenge coming from his rivals, unusual in such circumstances.

    By the way, it was not canvassing for votes vy Sardar but a direct threat to Ramadhir for recovery of the absonded girl.By the way, it was no

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  28. Movie is not yet release in US on big screen so finally was forced to watch online, part1. Here are the things that worked/didn’t work for me:
    * Manoj Bajpai: Even though almost every single character is well developed (except Ramadhir’s or Reema Sen’s character) it is Sardar Khan who rises above the rest like Gabbar Singh in Sholey. Take Sardar Khan, who is practically in every frame (in part1), out and you would have no GoW. Is his acting ‘realistic’? I don’t think people in real life maro such dialogues. It is out and out masala and highly stylized product which masks as “rooted”
    * The story and family of Sardar is fleshed out very well though in the process of taking revenge (declaration in title scene), we seen S.K obsessed with everything other than revenge or hatred. He even quits his goonda-gardi and tries to go into ‘honest’ profession of fishing and the whole marraige with opponent is hurriedly covered. The revenge aspect comes back in the last (death) scene which is very-very bollywoodish
    * The songs, the songs, the songs and rather authentic dances: As another commentator pointed out, if you review GoW and don’t mention the songs….sacrilegious….I should have said take S.K and the songs out, and you would have no GoW-effect
    * The ‘villain’: If the hero is villain what about the villain who the hero considers villain? Ramadhir: We know nothing about him. There is no back story or sex life depiction of this character.
    *The narration: This was the weakest point of the movie. Though I understand why he did it but they should have spent more time working on this aspect; I almost felt I was watching documentary on Coal mines made by a college grad!
    In the end, it still is very bollywoodian fare in the garb of rooted cinema. It is a step towards good cinema….a small step/movie for a film maker but a giant leap forward for hindi cinema!

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  29. I thought Anurag Kashyap got too excited with the delicious subject matter in his hands and shouted the ‘M’ word (Masterpiece) a little prematurely. This could have well been a pulsating single-film like City of God. Instead, it has to be content being an art-house drama, that is good nevertheless

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  30. You remain an outstanding critic ,just as Kashyap continues to consolidate his cutting-edge status as an outstanding director. am not laying it on, just saying what shows. your acuity of perspective right from the first paragraph is invigorating to read, though the review is shorter than expected. It is shameful that a prolifically imaginative work like this,complete with right kind of audience-titillating knacks, crawls past the coffers while trash crashes past the 100 crore mark…tc http://www.mouthshut.com/review/Gangs-Of-Wasseypur-review-lrpuotsulr

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  31. The character arc of Sardar’s wife was fascinating , considering she herself does end up cheating on her husband. With respect to the soundtrack, though the songs were absolutely brilliant, I still felt Amit Trivedi would have worked magic on the background score.. A 20 something budding Tamil composer doing the background score for a period movie set in Jharkand would most likely end up ruining it…..

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  32. About Richa Chadda – she is a Punjabi girl from Delhi and a St. Stephen’s college alumni. Given that background, that she could so perfectly essay the role of a fiery Biharan says a lot about her potential. She may well become India’s Meryl Streep, her favourite actor. I don’t think an actor even of Manoj’s calibre can convincingly act a Punjabi’s sole as authentically as Richa hase managed a Biharan’s.

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  33. One of the best Bollywood movies i watched lately. Maybe this is sign of new quality movies coming from Bollywood, although they do copy stuff from other gangster movies.

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