Starring: Manoj Bajpai, Jaideep Ahlawat, Nawazuddin Siddique, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Richa Chadda, Reemma Sen
Directed by Anurag Kashyap
The title in the poster is in cowboy western fonts and the name itself is a nod to Scorsese and Tarantino. There are Godardian voice-overs and expansive yet stark, choking shots of featureless countryside—like in, say, a Sergio Leone or even the Coen Brothers. There’s almost a direct lift of a Godfather set-piece, Sonny Corleone’s killing, complete with a treacherous phone call and a car being bullet-ridden at a midway point. But as a bloodied Manoj Bajpai falls in slow motion, there’s the quirky, rumbustious Jiya ho Bihar ke lala to go with it. Whatever influences director Anurag Kashyap may have had, this touch of the earthy as element of surprise is all his own, scattered through all the bends and turns of this sweeping tale of bloody gang wars in the coal mafia-ruled Dhanbad.
Life is cheap in Wasseypur, so its citizens seem to have a cavalier attitude towards it. Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat, brilliant) waylays trains posing as the dreaded Sultana Daaku. He engages in easy banter with the engine drivers before the loot. After a bloodbath, he escapes to become a lowly collier, then a henchman in the dark coalmines of Ramadhir Singh (filmmaker Tigmanshu Dhulia’s acting debut, impressive). He’s soon double-crossed and shot point blank. Shahid’s son, Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpai, just on the safer side of going OTT) swears to avenge his father’s killing. Soon, India wins freedom (Did they have Beijing-Olympics style fireworks in Dhanbad in 1947? Also, do Sunni localities really celebrate Muharram so fervently?).
Sardar quickly becomes Wasseypur’s high-testosterone alpha-hood, thrusting his knife into the guts of whoever comes in his way and making love to his wife (Richa Chadda, foul-mouthing her way through) and mistress (Reemma Sen, she of minimalist blouses and smoky eyes) with the same savagery. The years fly by. His pot-smoking, film-crazy son Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddique, excellent) seems set to take on the reins.
And so it goes on in Wasseypur, but always with a touch of lightness. There is music (Piyush Mishra, Sneha Khanwalkar, fantastic) and laughter. The dialogues (“I will put a thread through your mouth, take it out of your arse, and fly a kite with it.”) are spot on. But the film just doesn’t stand still. Panoramic shots of sooty coalmines, glimpses of foggy, wintry mornings, a character’s thoughts playing on the face, are cut off much too quickly. There are countless strands, some ending abruptly, others seemingly going on forever. Before you get to know one person, he or she is yanked off and another one propped up.
The larger picture is not so chaotic, it is in fact quite a feat how it holds itself together. It’s certainly Kashyap’s most ambitious and accomplished work. But if you were to paratroop into Wasseypur and meet its people, you may be left with a curious emotion—of being overwhelmed and yet untouched.