August 05, 2021
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Too Good To Just Be A Grudge Match

Yes, Gangs of Wasseypur is clearly the best film of the year so far, despite its second half that evades genuine boldness and manages to disappoint after the promise of the fantastic first

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Too Good To Just Be A Grudge Match
Too Good To Just Be A Grudge Match

Gangs of Wasseypur opens with two of my pet peeves: a voiceover, and an explanation of where we are and how we got there (it’s cinema, people, show me, don’t tell me!). But—and I’m not sure how he does this—director Anurag Kashyap uses these clunky props to pull off some of his best filmmaking yet, in a fantastic hour that situates us in Dhanbad, in Bihar’s (now Jharkhand’s) coal belt, the casual and systematic brutality of its mining industry, and the complicity of the state (both pre- and post-colonial) in all manner of oppression. Marking incident, place and time is Piyush Mishra’s gravelly voice, informing us that our special Purgatory is Wasseypur in the 1940s, south of Dhanbad, a Muslim-village locked in permanent struggle between the Qureshis (butchers by trade) and every other kind of Muslim. Shahid Khan (a Pathan; that is to say, emphatically not a Qureshi) won’t content himself with his position in the food chain below the Qureshis, and is exiled from Wasseypur to the coal fields of Dhanbad. Needless to say, things aren’t any better here. Kashyap showcases misery almost casually, with neither melodrama nor glee, almost as if he were a scientist showing us the many ways in which the strong might abuse the weak. The dramatic isn’t absent—the visual clichés of rain and mud are much used, but nevertheless manage to seem fresh—but it is drama as Mani Ratnam might see it, subdued, and seen from far away.

It all adds up to a fine balance between the narrative– Shahid is murdered by his master Ramadhir, and Shahid’s son, the boy Sardar, swears revenge—and the far more interesting backdrop of the savagery legitimated by the state, and how it intersects with older antagonisms. Kashyap’s film does not take the easy way out: there is no contrast here between the colonial state and its post-independence successor; nor is there any sense of an Eden sullied by contemporary “criminalization of politics”. Rather, Kashyap shows us a world where the imperatives of capital and resource extraction have always been inseparable from criminality and violence. Moreover, Wasseypur’s age-old antagonisms show that while criminality and violence are hardly the sole prerogative of the state, they are imbued with new vigour by the greater opportunities—political, financial, and in terms of armaments—on offer courtesy modern industrialization and the business of politics. Perhaps Kashyap will never top Black Friday or the ugly vigour of Gulaal’s first half, but the same density, the same weakness for process that we see in the former (and that would have made a good noir director of Kashyap) enrich the first few reels of Gangs of Wasseypur. It’s the sort of procedural patience—chopped in vignettes to make for better cinema, the lesson all post-Iruvar Indian directors need to learn—I wish Kashyap’s one-time mentor Ram Gopal Verma had displayed in Company. It’s the sort of thing that could have made for a superb season-long TV series. Unfortunately, Indian television has nothing to equal HBO; and the large canvas docu-drama is a difficult format to pull off on the big screen, even where the filmmaker is clear about what (s)he is trying to achieve.

Kashyap isn’t: at some point prior to the intermission, Sardar Khan, all grown up, takes centre stage. That obviously had to happen, but that also marks the point at which the film’s scope contracts, from representing a world to chronicling incidents. The latter are interesting enough—this film is never less than engaging—but are a far cry from the epic sweep promised by the film’s opening scenes, and by Piyush Mishra’s evocation early on of the Mahabharata.

Kashyap’s film is well-served by a strong cast, three among which are notable for elevating their roles beyond the script. Jaideep Ahlawat (who plays Shahid Khan) is the first of these, and anchors the film’s first hour, suggesting misery, dignity, and sheer cussedness with an impressive economy. I missed him when he was gone, largely because his son Sardar, as played by Manoj Bajpai, is not his equal. Bajpai is certainly in reliably fine form, but those familiar with his Hindi film work will not find him much tested here; as such, he is content to give us minor variations of what we’ve already seen him do on more than one occasion. That’s a good thing, but not as fresh an achievement as I’d thought Bajpai capable of. The second is Tigmanshu Dhulia, the Bollywood director making his acting debut as Ramadhir: in the character's first few scenes (played by a different actor), I feared Ramadhir might end up a stock villain, but something more wonderful lay in store for me. As the narrative flashes several years forward (and as his character moves several notches up the food chain, ending up a MLA), Ramadhir has mellowed, his fleshy roundness hovering between passivity and anger. Yet even the latter is tinged with weariness, finding violent expression against his own son: Ramadhir expects his enemies to try and thwart him; only the incompetence of those who serve him seems genuinely painful.

The third is Nawazuddin Siddiqui, playing Sardar’s second son Faizal. This isn’t the first time I’ve encountered his work—he was very good (albeit inconsistently so) in Kahaani—but I wasn’t expecting him to be one of the best things about the film, and much of the reason for anticipating Gangs of Wasseypur Part II in a few months’ time. Siddiqui is clearly from Irfan Khan’s school of acting, but minimalism is here married to a kind of impish persona that leavens Faizal’s seediness. The writers should have given Siddiqui more to work with (although, given the blandness that is the lot of Faizal’s elder brother Danish, perhaps he should be grateful), but even so, he is the best thing about the last third of the movie, as it wanders away from Sardar’s focus on Ramadhir and back to the tussle with the Qureshi’s that had initially exiled Shahid Khan from Wasseypur. Siddiqui has wonderful eyes: even if the boy Faizal hadn’t seen all that he’s seen, I would well believe that he sees something other than what’s there, right in front of his eyes. Perhaps not surprisingly, he is the only male character in the film to love cinema, channelling some of Amitabh Bachchan’s more wounded personae: never is cinema more simultaneously about what we can see, and what we cannot see (because it points to something off-screen), than in the figure of the star, especially one transcendent as Bachchan. There is something else out there, or perhaps under the surface—Faizal seems to know this in his best moments (as neither his father nor grandfather did), and whether that something else is the sordidness he caught a glimpse of when still a child; or whether it is the kind of pose Bachchan embodies; or whether it combines the two (the film he’s watching in the theatre is, after all, Trishul, another film featuring an abandoned mother and dreams of revenge; although Trishul is far more Freudian, in its claim that it is precisely the mother who is to be avenged, precisely one’s kin that must be defeated)—who can tell?

There are others: Piyush Mishra is woefully under-utilized here, but his voice-over is itself a character, and a far more memorable one than the embodied one periodically wandering across our screens. Richa Chaddha curses her way through Naghma Khatoon with aplomb, and is wonderfully natural; it isn’t her fault that, Mahie Gill in Dev D notwithstanding, Kashyap has never been a good director of women. Reemma Sen (the extra “m” is not a typo) seemed new-born to those of us familiar with her roles in Malamaal Weekly and Dhool: there isn’t much acting she’s called upon to do, but the film imbues her with real presence, by way of a gaze that lingers upon her alabaster skin, but doesn’t know what else to do with her. On the other hand, Pankaj Tripathi is a disappointment as Sultan, Sardar’s Qureshi bête noire—the character comes across as almost comically inept, surely not an effect Kashyap could have intended.

Despite its abandonment of a sustained representation of a “system” shortly before the film’s half-way mark, Gangs of Wasseypur might nevertheless have made much of the more traditional pleasures of character and personality (the now-legendary American cable TV series The Wire managed both, and not simply because its serial format afforded more time; it was simply better written). That is where Scorsese’s Gangs of New York ended up: intellectually slight, but held together by Daniel Day-Lewis’ terrific Bill “The Butcher,” a tour de force that doesn’t address any critiques, but makes them seem beside the point. Kashyap’s film falls short. More specifically, while the screenplay’s avoidance of a narrative centred on a Bigtime Star like Daniel Day-Lewis is intellectually the right choice, in theory opening up the film to a host of characters (inherently a more plausible state of affairs if one is creating a world: no-one imagines himself in a character role in the film of his life), this doesn’t work so well in this script.

Most of the characters in Gangs of Wasseypur are under-written (writing credits are shared by Akhilesh Jaiswal, Anurag Kashyap, Sachin K. Ladia, and Syed Zeeshan Qadri), and not much more than the sum of their verbal tics. That meant that I found myself missing the charisma of an overweening Bill “The Butcher” in the ranks of the Qureshi qasaai, yet not having for consolation the wealth of more accessible personalities each character’s introduction had promised. In the absence of the requisite level of interiority, each character is thrown back onto the sort of lines designed to elicit titters from the audience. One housewife calls her husband a “randibaaz” (whore-monger); later on she gives him permission to pursue other women if he really needs to, but slops meat on his plate lest anyone cast aspersions on the sexual prowess of the family’s men—“baahar jaake beizzati mat karaana.” Cackling was much in evidence at my theatre at this and many other dialogues, and no-one, not even the greyer heads in the audience, seemed shocked by anything—if the potty mouth of Kashyap’s films was ever intended to jolt bourgeois complacency, that time is long past (the one exception: the silence in my theatre in the wake of Ramadhir’s wife’s instruction to her servant to use different dishes for the visiting Qureshis, presumably to avoid caste-pollution). Today, “bhosdee ke,” coded as it is by the social gulf that separates the characters on-screen from the audiences in the cinema halls, reinforces bourgeois complacency, which gets to be titillated and pat itself on the back for being edgy. The attempted rape of Salma Agha’s character in Kasam Paida Karne Waale Ki (watch Gangs of Wasseypur, you’ll see what I mean) never managed both of those.

It’s no defence to argue, as the film’s promoters tiresomely have, that the sort of earthy language used is authentic to the milieu represented in Gangs of Wasseypur. That defence certainly deflects criticism on the grounds that the dialogues are “too” dirty, vulgar, what-have-you—were anyone in the media making such a criticism. The defence sets up a straw man, in a context where the film and its modes of representation are being lionized in the media. Anurag Kashyap has, in short, won the day, and needs to stop pretending that he is still waging lonely struggles against legal censorship as well as bourgeois tyranny. I don’t mean to suggest that the dialogues are ineffective. Far from it: they are piquant, earthy, and go a long way toward etching a plausible world, one that is different from the worlds inhabited by the film’s viewers, and yet familiar enough to spark recognition. The problem is a different one, namely that this familiarity is forged by a kind of anthropological cliché: no character ever surprises us, none ever says anything we wouldn’t expect “them” to (several dialogues mouthed by women certainly are of the kind we wouldn’t expect “our women” to be uttering). In short, the dialogue here, used as it is as a marker of authenticity, can only function as such by underscoring the distinction between “us” and “them,” by diminishing any claims the film’s characters might have on our empathy. The theatrical otherness of the bhaiyyas on display here, in permanent hyper-violent pantomime, might be authentic to Dhanbad and Wasseypur, but it places those locales under an eclipse: these people may be laughed or marvelled at; the violence of the region may be decried (although, Bihar’s place in the contemporary urban Indian imagination, as the villainous foil to the modernity the metropolitans among us are busily forging, ensures that any head-shaking is just a wee bit too comfortable); but they cannot be loved, admired, or befriended. The dialogues function in much the same way as the dialogues assigned the stock South Indian characters in the masala movies of decades past: as glue, to ensure the types represented by these characters don’t move from their places in our imagination.

Much of the above isn’t an issue only where Gangs of Wasseypur is concerned, and I do believe some of these representational issues can be mitigated by deeper thought, and sustained labour, on the interiority of the characters. That work has not been done: we do not know how Sardar’s first wife Naghma feels, nor what makes his second wife Durga tick, nor even Ramadhir; we only hear their (more-or-less) salty tongues. Most unpardonable is Sardar Khan, denied any interiority beyond his desire for revenge against Ramadhir—as to the rest, he does and says things, seemingly devoid of any motivation: we can speculate that he helps rescue a young woman because he wants to stick it to the Qureshis, or that he agrees to Danish's marriage with a Qureshi girl because his son has prevailed on him, but nothing in the film either shows us these are likely motivations, or makes it an interesting line of inquiry. Sardar even goes years without ever seeing his eldest sons, and that just seems odd given how filial he otherwise is. One could go on and on.

Sneha Khanwalkar’s music belongs to the film, and the album works a lot better than I had initially given it credit for— “I am a hunter, she want to see my gun” features Kashyap at his funniest, as he inverts the conventions of Bollywood double entendre by setting this song’s low lyrics to a backdrop of… gun-running. No song-and-dance routines for Kashyap, but “Womaniya” effectively punctuates more than one look of longing in this film. But my favourite is the insanely cheerful, almost perverse, “Teri Keh Ke Loonga,” suitable ditty indeed for Sardar Khan, the sort of man you can see coming a mile away. Satyamshot commenter Arturo Belano had once made the point that Kashyap’s male protagonists, “weaned on grand mythic narratives … try and “will” their lives “to be like those narratives….” That is, “it has become standard for Kashyap to have these ironic constructions in his movies where he has these protagonists who are given these unoriginal macho energies to release on screen but the movie gradually shows up the gap between their self-images and the reality of the kind of effect their behaviour is having on those around [them].” The point is a shrewd one, even if Kashyap doesn’t always seem sensitive to the ironies (witness Sardar’s death scene in the film; although heavily refracted through Sergio Leone’s work, it is about as straight as any masala film from the 1980s might have been)—either way, the charm of “Teri Keh Ke Loonga” means, he doesn’t have to be in the know.

Rajeev Ravi’s lens is one of the heroes of this film, and if the interiors of mofussil residences in Hindi films have by now become generic, he may be forgiven: his shots of the coalfields recall grand Westerns and Kaala Pathar, and are nevertheless very much his own. The film has little scope for crowds, but my favourite is a shot contrasting those of Varanasi with the desolate external corridor that serves as the shot’s—and the shady arms dealer Yadav’s—vantage point. Ravi’s camera is generally indifferent to men, with the exception of Nawazuddin Siddiqui: that contrast between Varanasi’s crush and the languorous heat of the corridor is Siddiqui’s too, as the camera repeatedly finds him at once still and restless. And then there’s skin, or rather, Reemma Sen’s skin: her Durga seems clothed in moonlight.

The trace of masala is not incidental: Gangs of Wasseypur is unthinkable without the legacy of several Hindi films, most obviously Kaala Pathar (1979) (following on the heels of a mining disaster in Dhanbad in the 1970s); Trishul (1978); and Deewar (1975) (specifically, the betrayal of organized labor at the film’s outset), but, more subtly, of a whole universe of signification that makes sense only the context of masala. Kashyap is too knowing to try and dredge up the mythical heroes of years past, a mode that many in his urban audiences now sneer at, except in the context of tongue-in-cheek cinema; but doesn’t seem to have any other mode worked out. That which we care about the most in Gangs of Wasseypur—this character’s death; that one’s suffering; these people sold down the river—comes to us from the masala film (toned down for sure, more Ratnam’s Thalapathi than J.P. Dutta’s Ghulami), and Kashyap gives it to us un-ironically. The result is significant unevenness of tone, as Kashyap uses the post-ironic techniques and incongruous comedy of Sergio Leone and Tarantino while resorting to masala cues to draw the audience in. Those filmmakers recognized that the gesturality of the past had run its course, but since any alternative trope would itself be provisional, the director ought to double down on cinema that is about gesturality itself—the question of what Kashyap recognizes is not answered by this film, leading to the uncomfortable realization that the film isn’t really “about” anything (or, not about anything beyond the evocation of a milieu the writer has known well, a place that is one’s own).

If this is harsh, my defence is, Kashyap made me do it: the way the film begins, the well-written dialogues, the wealth of acting talent on display, mean that this is too good a film, has tackled too weighty a canvas, to be about nothing more than a grudge match. The film’s writers knew it too, which explains why the script starts out as it does. And although I’ll watch it again, I can’t help but feel they ought to have persisted.

Umair Ahmed Muhajir is a lawyer who blogs at where this review first appeared

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