A still from the film
A still from the film

Film Review | Gangs of Wasseypur

The first part of the film has robust storytelling, crackling performances and thick textures

An explosive treat

In a rarefied space where sensuality and terror coexist, and often tenderness too, melodrama is not easily perceptible or imaginable. In Gangs of Wasseypur, it is a triumphant possibility.

In characterization, and in the immediate human story of revenge and bloodbath, the first part of Anurag Kashyap’s film is thickly textured. A ganglord is devious, comical and idiotic. A woman is servile and wily. A seemingly harmless pothead cold-kills with precision. The drama of these characters colliding is the throbbing heart of the film, and indeed the only reason to watch it.

In the way it is narrated and acted, Kashyap intends to explain what coal mining has done to generations of the labour class—how organized crime is often an obscene extension of free enterprise and government policy. The central conflict is between people separated socially, but joined in crime and bribery (in one of the film’s telling details, a Muslim butcher sits in the drawing room of a Hindu politician, joining hands against the film’s hero, while in the background the Hindu housewife discreetly lays the table for dinner with caution, possibly separating the utensils for the Muslim).

The 50-year period which the story of the first part spans (1941-90s) is an ambitious timeline to work with, and Kashyap spends enough time contextualizing the story. The first half-hour is almost a quasi-documentary, where the broad strands of the beginnings of India’s coal-mining mafia and its connections to Wasseypur, a real place in Dhanbad, are enunciated.

In the 1950s, we are told how little things had changed for the labourer from colonial times to when “Birla-Tata" became the masters. The film’s hero, Sardar Khan, played by Manoj Bajpayee, is an heir of the mining labourer’s rage, and his revenge is the revenge of the exploited against a greedy political establishment. After the hefty factual exposition, however, the story’s macro canvas recedes and references to the nexus between industry and politics become perfunctory.

The writers, Akhilesh Jaiswal, Syed Zeeshan Qadri, Sachin K. Ladia and Kashyap, casually abandon the larger realities defining the story for the intimate drama surrounding Sardar Khan, who is now a flamboyant ganglord. A ripe, riveting sense of evil takes over the narrative, which Kashyap executes uncompromisingly.

The director is at his pinnacle. Although much of the passage of years is unexplained and the middle slacks somewhat, Kashyap designs the film with such tenacious intelligence that we keep taking it all in. There aren’t many close-ups in the film, a tool usually used to hide the lack of thoughtful visualization. Every visual pulsates with the details of surroundings. So even without the obvious context, we plunge headlong. In routine action films, I often just switch off, and miss nothing. I couldn’t take my eyes off the sequences here, breathlessly following each scene.

The story has the arc of a classical, two-generational saga. Sardar Khan and his two henchmen, played by Piyush Mishra and Jameel Khan, are thugs and murderers, armed with bombs and guns. They steal cash, kill and openly challenge their opposition. Their fiefdom spans Wasseypur and Dhanbad and their goal is to topple the butcher community, and kill the local politician played by Tigmanshu Dhulia, who controls the money and labour, and who had killed Sardar’s father.

Sardar is married to Nagma, played by Richa Chadda, a woman without much choice in life but full of irascible energy, and later to Durga, a bewitching Bengali woman. Sardar’s sons from Nagma, Danish and Faizal, are disgruntled adolescents who grow up to join Sardar’s mafia. The younger generation is seemingly a changed lot.

Faizal, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an obsessive fan of the ruling matinee idol of the times, Amitabh Bachchan, has the echoes and shades of a don in the making, unpredictable in an armour of quiet—the Michael Corleone, who likely takes centre stage in the second part.

Kashyap’s template is largely Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese, and even Quentin Tarantino, in the way music and visuals are combined in some scenes. The Godfather parallels are unmistakable. But the impassioned language is his own. The canvas erupts with blood, hacking, maiming and sexual lust—none of it without humour. The local tongue is deliciously written. Nothing in the film —characters, situations or conflicts—is understated. Like the Bollywood films of the 1970s and 1980s that punctuate the story in the film’s second half, Gangs of Wasseypur has blistering dialogues, written by Kashyap. Its ability to entertain intelligence surpasses some of the film’s other merits.

The production quality of Gangs of Wasseypur is top-notch. Besides the ubiquitous cinematic kitsch in the middle, the period details are visible when you look for them—from the rupee notes to the particular model of television and refrigerator, the passing of time is in the details, without looking like they are planted. The cinematography by Rajeev Ravi is inextricable from the film’s narrative and tone. Bursts of colour and mayhem in Wasseypur’s alleys, grey clouds erupting from the earth against stark landscapes, the crummy interiors of homes of petty gang members—the visual scheme is varied and evocative. Even sequences in sunlight have some deep, contrasting tones.

The music by Sneha Khanwalkar, although often hammered in, muffling dialogues and details, is similarly attuned to the narrative and the milieu—not there just for our listening or for creating a mood according to the situation; but because they are of the characters’.

Part of this absinthine cocktail is the lead performance of Bajpayee. He has the instinct and physical audacity of a great actor, who shifts from ruthless to idiotic. He has devoured Sardar’s bravado and follies and oozed them out of him with relish. Nawazuddin Siddiqui is the actor of promise in the second part. His role is written with nuances—a man who sobs watching Bachchan and daydreams, can also lie to the police straight-faced and then kill. In the short span that he exists, the development is visible in almost every scene he is in. Siddiqui is restrained, as required, and talks with every part of his deep face.

The women of Wasseypur never pose any real danger, but they are not easily manipulated. Chadda is a stunningly controlled actor who makes high-pitched histrionics seem perfectly natural. There are some brilliant strokes of casting in the film. Pankaj Tripathi as Sultan the butcher, Piyush Mishra, Jameel Khan, and Dhulia as the politician, among others, play their roles with smooth conviction.

Gangs of Wasseypur is relentless in its ability to entertain, and that’s possible purely because of highly accomplished film-making. A new template for the Indian blockbuster.

Gangs of Wasseypur released in theatres on Friday.

This story has been republished due to a technical problem.

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