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.
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.
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