Views | The birth of the anti-epic

Gangs of Wasseypur is Indian cinema's most heroic act of utter nihilismglorifying no one, resolutely non-judgemental, utterly devoid of any message. Just confidently crafted cinema, no more, no less

Apparently, there are a few cinema halls where one can watch the whole Wasseypur saga—Gangs of Wasseypur Parts I and II—all 320 minutes of it, in one go. Whenever I think of that, I get this vision of men and women staggering out of the halls at the end of this mother of all bloodbaths, holding on to walls and staircase railings for support, dazed, disoriented, drained. Would they be in a state to drive back home safely? Would they head for the nearest bar and drink themselves silly? Would they lie in bed in the fetal position for hours, softly mewling for mama? I worry.

I am part of the lucky (or cowardly) majority which has taken Wasseypur in two 160-minute doses, separated by eight weeks. Obviously I have managed to reach home safe, sober and presumably sane. Though I do think, for a couple of hours, my smoking rate went up to match that of Faisal Khan, the central character of Part II. But that’s a small price to pay for having survived Indian cinema’s most heroic act of utter nihilism.

photoNihilism has always been a strong undercurrent in Anurag Kashyap’s films, even a film like Shaitaan which he produced, but did not direct. Kashyap’s characters go through their lives, driven either by monster egos or alienation that should be measured in light years, and in both cases, end up establishing the complete pointlessness of the universe. They all seem created out of the firm belief that Albert Camus was right when he said that the only sensible question in life was why one should not commit suicide. Except that Kashyap never makes his characters smart enough to ask that question, but sets them on delusional trajectories that can only end in violent deaths, which are essentially suicides, bar the technicality of who actually pulled the trigger.

In Dev D, Kashyap let the protagonist survive (though his troubles were hardly over) after debasing him to sub-human levels, but in Gulaal—which I still consider his most powerful film—he revealed the existential void in all its pitiless emptiness. But, however helpless and doomed his characters are, Kashyap’s stories are not Greek tragedies. The contempt of the gods would lend some meaning to human follies. Kashyap is unwilling to dangle even that sliver of solace before his audience.

Gangs of Wasseypur—a tale of vendetta, betrayal and butchery involving three criminal clans—satisfies most of the technical requirements of epic cinema—the sheer length, a storyline spanning seven decades, a vast cast of characters. But, fundamentally, it’s an anti-epic—it glorifies no one and nothing. In fact, almost every major character is shown at some point or the other as a bumbler or fool. Nobody ever introspects, all share a worldview of apathetic savagery (except for the narrator-character who remains an impotent spectator as all his loved ones rush to their dooms), and other than putative villain Ramadhir Singh and his son, don’t even seem to have the basic instinct of self-preservation. No one reveals any sign that he (the shes are either as feral as the men, or passive) feels trapped in a senseless cycle of violence (except one scene towards the end of Part II, where Faisal sniffles a bit on his wife’s shoulder). As in Gulaal, the only survivors at the end are people who possess enough brutal self-interest to casually betray all sides. (Is it just coincidence that in both films, one of the last men standing is an illegitimate child, his very existence defined by betrayal?)

Many reviewers have mentioned Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorcese while commenting on Gangs. But Kashyap has no time for Tarantino’s self-indulgent faux-Samurai codes of honour, and self-mocking heroic hi-jinks. In Wasseypur, blind moronic rage pretends to be honour, and reckless bloodlust stands in for valour. Unlike Tarantino, Kashyap seeks no poetry in violence. The tone of the slaughter sequences can only be described as stylishly neutral. And Gangs is devoid of the Catholic sub-conscious that colours many of Scorcese’s films—there is no concept of sin, guilt, redemption. And it’s scrupulously, doggedly free of any message.

In Gangs of Wasseypur, what you see is what you get. Deeper scrutiny reveals only more details, and that’s all they are—details. Its characters inhabit a world that is utterly meaningless, and it is absolutely appropriate that Gangs defiantly refuses to be anything more than just what it is. Which is, confidently crafted uncompromising cinema. Anything more would lessen its take-no-prisoners nihilism.