The small town of Wasseypur is in northeastern India and has been absorbed in many ways by the larger city of Dhanbad. Wasseypur was for many decades an incredibly dangerous, largely lawless enclave, like one of the towns controlled by Mexican narco-syndicates or whatever it is racist small-town American sheriffs are getting up to these days. It was a coal company town. Its lawlessness derived from when the British packed up and called it a day, and India was once again a sovereign nation. The coal mines, which had been British-owned, were turned over to India but were basically dumped into the laps of a lot of people who may have been skilled laborers and assistant managers but had no experience with how to run an industry. The result was that Wasseypur’s coal mines quickly began to resemble those of West Virginia in the 1920s. Bosses emerged and adopted the time-honored tradition of exploiting the miners, working them long hours in dangerous conditions for meager pay and calling in the heavies to bust some heads and burn down some houses when the employees started to get ideas about organizing or demanding more humane treatment.
It is with a semi-fictional version of one of these bosses (Ramadhir Singh, played by director Tigmanshu Dhulia) and one of his heavies (Shahid Khan, played by Jaideep Ahlawat) that Gangs of Wasseypur begins. Most of the events depicted in the movie are true, and most of the people were real, though the names have been changed (not to protect the guilty, but to avoid lawsuits and trouble with the censors) and sometimes the chronology of events and experiences have been rearranged. The violence kicks off in 2004, with a gang of armed men gunning down members of a rival gang in the street and shooting up a house, only later to get caught in a shoot-out at a police checkpoint. The film then abruptly leaves those events up in the air and, after a narrated history lesson on just how Wasseypur came to be a lawless gangster playground, we pick up events in the 1940s.
Shahid Khan is in the midst of launching a promising career as a highwayman, robbing trains and selling stolen food under the guise of another famous but mysterious bandit. When that bandit resurfaces and takes umbrage to his name being used by the upstart robber, Shahid Khan is forced to leave the village and take work as a miner. When the company boss won’t let Khan leave to see the birth of his son — a birth during which Khan’s wife dies — Khan repays the overseer by beating him to death. Although this would seem to be the sort of thing that would result in an uncomfortable visit to the HR department, at the very least, Khan’s bloody revenge is swept up amid the tumult of Indian independence and of Wasseypur beginning its long history of belonging to one province and then another. Ramadhir Singh maneuvers himself into ownership of some mines, and he employs Khan as his number one skull-cracker.
It turns out that Shahid Khan is a very effective goon squad leader, so much so that Ramadhir Singh is threatened by the man’s ambition and ruthlessness. He orchestrates Khan’s murder, leaving Khan’s son Sardar orphaned and in the charge of Khan’s right-hand man, Nasir (Piyush Mishra). The young boy swears to exact revenge against Ramadhir Singh. Once he grows up to become Manoj Bajpayee, he starts to make good on his vow by putting together his own gang and waging a decades-long war with Singh, who by the time Sardar has become a man, has parlayed his position as a coal mine owner into a political career. Between Sardar and Ramadhir, the two control the Wasseypur underworld and a substantial part of its legitimate industry, which they parlayed into tearing each other apart whenever the chance arises. The film continues through subsequent generations of the Khan and Singh dynasties, all of whom seem unable or unwilling to extract themselves from this punishing cycle of violence.
Director Anurag Kashyap’s relationship with Bollywood was, at the time of Gangs of Wasseypur, a contentious one, and his “outsider on the inside” approach to the industry is one of the primary reasons he is so often compared to Quentin Tarantino despite there being no particular stylistic or philosophical similarity between their films. However, both men are independent filmmakers who operate within the mainstream, making non-mainstream movies. It’s an odd jumble of contradictions. The primary difference is that Tarantino’s films are often shocking, controversial, and wildly successful while Gangs of Wasseypur is shocking, controversial, and didn’t do very well in the domestic Indian market. For me, Kashyap’s style is less akin to Tarantino’s and more in line with Johnnie To or Martin Scorsese, though the fact that Gangs of Wasseypur covers decades and four generations means the single film it is most often compared to is The Godfather (well, technically, The Godfather parts one and two), which is a fair comparison, though Kashyap (who names Coppola as one of his favorite directors—but for Apocalypse Now and The Conversation) employs a lot of technique (especially the use of music) that still makes me think more of films like To’s Election and Election 2 or modern Korean gangster epics such as Nameless Gangster.
Another reason Kashyap is often compared to Tarantino is that the history of film is crucial to the style of film they make, though they go about it in very different ways. Tarantino takes pieces of films and genres he loves and reassembles them into something familiar but different, though always at the core is affection for the original material. Bollywood plays a significant role in the lives of many Indians, and so it plays a significant role in Gangs of Wasseypur. Characters go to the movies, sometimes obsessively. Popular Bollywood songs appear as ringtones. Movie posters are strewn about the city. However, where Tarantino’s films are love letters to the films he adores, Kashyap goes at the Bollywood mainstream and the role of Bollywood films in everyday life with a certain viciousness. The central character of the second half of Gangs of Wasseypur, the sullen, brooding Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) models himself after similarly dark and brooding Bollywood matinee idols (specifically, Amitabh Bachchan and Mithun Chakraborty). When he gets his hands on his first gun, he poses in the mirror with it. When he has the opportunity to help his criminal kingpin father out by handing an arms deal, he stage-manages the entire meeting to look as much like a scene from a masala film as he can — only his experience ends with a pointedly unheroic, awkward arrest.
His younger brother, the improbably named Perpendicular (Aditya Kumar)—so named because he’s obsessed with using a razor blade as a weapon and knows the best way to cut someone—not only bears an uncanny resemblance to Shahrukh Khan but also idolizes the next generation of Bollywood stars. His obsession with movies and being a movie-style gangster leads to some bad business. Faizal’s eventual wife, Mohsina (Huma Qureshi) is also obsessed with Bollywood and Indian tele-dramas. His half-brother, Definite (Zeishan Quadri), so named because he is sure of his destiny as a killer (of his own father), idolizes not the heroes of Indian action cinema but the villains, so much so that he casually dismisses a lover by quoting the villain from a film. When she points out that he’s using villain dialogue, he is particularly pleased with himself.
The one character in the movie who lives the longest, makes the most money, and garners the most power is Ramadhir Singh, and he attributes his survival to the fact that he doesn’t watch Bollywood movies. “Every fucker’s got his own movie playing inside his head,” he explains. “Every fucker is trying to become the hero of his own imaginary film. As long as there are fucking movies in this country, people will continue to be fooled.” And if Definite quotes villain dialogue, then so too does director Anurag Kashyap, who in interviews implicated the Bollywood dream factory in keeping a huge swathe of Indians content to live in impoverished, uneducated squalor.
Upon its limited exposure to cult film fans outside of India, Gangs of Wasseypur garnered a lot of attention. Several writers tagged Gangs of Wasseypur as the next big Bollywood cross-over hit (this was in the years before RRR), they perhaps misunderstood the facts around the film. Gangs of Wasseypur wasn’t a hit in India. It made a profit only because the budget was tiny (US$3 million; in contrast, the budget for slick, shiny Bollywood action blockbuster Dhoom 3 was US$25 million, at least $10 million of which went to buying derbies for Aamir Khan’s Sahir), but it wasn’t loved by audiences, who — perhaps by design — found it too dark, too depressing, too violent, and too willing to show filth and misery instead of dazzling them with aspirational scenes of wealth.
The star of Gangs of Wasseypur are not members of an acting dynasty. There are no Bachchans, no Kapoors. The action does not take place in a sizzling high-tech haven like Dubai or Singapore or a meticulously scrubbed and polished Mumbai. It takes place in an ugly, polluted industrial enclave that reminded me of the first part of the Korean film Yellow Sea, which is set in Yanji, a bleak industrial town tucked into the border of China, Russia, and North Korea and populated by a large population of ethnic Koreans (in much the same way Wasseypur is populated by a large group of Pashtun Muslims). Even Ramadhir Singh, Gangs of Wasseypur’s most powerful character, lives in a villa that would be considered, by Bollywood blockbuster standards, depressing and run-down. Gangs of Wasseypur dwells in the spaces Bollywood does not want to visit. The mines, the scrap yards, the slums, and perhaps most fittingly an abattoir streaked with grime and blood and offal (not all of it from slaughtered animals). Rather than being a slick fantasy world, Wasseypur takes place in a world that screams, “No one gets out of here alive.”
Kashyap wasn’t raised as part of a filmi family. He was a zoologist from Varanasi who became interested in film and involved himself in the small but talented Indian independent cinema scene. It was there that he first encountered Ram Gopal Varma, himself a former maverick who bucked every Bollywood tradition he could while still working within the studio structure — sort of like Seijun Suzuki, who while working at Nikkatsu Studios in Japan would get saddled with very mundane, formulaic yakuza movie scripts and turn them into works of art purely by staging them in such bizarre fashion. Varma hired Kashyap to write the script for his gritty 1998 crime drama Satya. In 2002, Varma would make an even more striking, not to mention controversial, gangster film called Company, which dispensed with musical numbers and took a much more realistic approach to the crime film than was common in Bollywood.
Kashyap’s first feature as director, Paanch, was completed in 2000 but not released. Its frank depiction of sex, drug use, and violence amongst a group of rockers was way too much for Indian censorship boards. He pulled a John Milius, working as a very in-demand screenwriter and occasional director of critically acclaimed films that nevertheless met with all sorts of obstacles. When Varma sort of lapsed into mundanity and gave up the fight, Kashyap became the most important figure in Indian indie (how many “in’s” is that) cinema. While he plies his trade technically in the Bollywood machine, it seems a tangential relationship (he overcame the minuscule budget for Gangs of Wasseypur partly by using familiar street locations, including his own house, instead of sets). Most of the actors in Gangs of Wasseypur are experienced, but they are not glamorous. A few are relative rookies but don’t seem like it. The film purposely tweaks its nose at Bollywood conventions, sometimes to the detriment of its own box office take. Kashyap takes that Bollywood experience and parlays it into the independent film scene, financing and mentoring hungry young filmmakers the same way Ram Gopal Varma cultivated him in the late 1990s.
Then there’s the music. Any time an Indian film doesn’t have musical numbers, writers feel the need to point it out, which is fair given how rare it is. Gangs of Wasseypur may not have musical numbers, but just as in Goodfellas, music is extremely important to the film. The original songs are a mix of traditional Indian music and modern electronic beats. Some of them are unspeakably beautiful. “Keh Ke Lunga,” performed by Amit Trivedi and musical director Sneha Khanwalkar, became one of my favorite songs. So much of the music is just sumptuous, haunting, gorgeous — and then you really listen to them and realize that, in almost every case, the lyrics are horrifying. Rather than extolling virtues or love or flirtation, they reflect on the brutishness of life, the stupidity and cruelty and black-heartedness of the film’s characters, and the corruption of the human soul. They can be downright harrowing.
The two most effective uses of music are the song “Kaala Rey,” again sung by Sneha Khanwalker, that compares the blackness of her lover’s heart to the blackness of the dirty coal that built Wasseypur and birthed its criminal underworld; and a song sung during a wedding celebration when the women of the Khan clan have gathered together. Brightly attired in saris and dancing happily, it seems a joyous occasion until the song, being sung by Nagma, becomes a reflection on self-destruction and violence, during which she breaks down briefly even as the other, younger women are determined to continue celebrating, if somewhat more awkwardly, like some absurd moment from an Alejandro Jodorowsky film—and though he isn’t brought up the same way Tarantino or Scorsese are, there are a lot of moments in Gangs of Wasseypur that remind me of Jodorowsky, who similarly shot films with a lyrical, epic scope on what was barely a television budget.
It may seem at odds with his career as a filmmaker for Kashyap to be so antagonistic toward movies, but he is really taking aim at only a specific type of movie. Without a doubt, Bollywood produces the occasional film that challenges its own conventions — Dil Se, Bombay, The Terrorist, even the early “angry young man” films of Amitabh Bachchan were daring and risky and upsetting to people — but the bulk of Bollywood’s output (like the bulk of Hollywood output), is pretty predictable. A machine has been established, a very profitable and effective machine, so why mess with the formula? Kashyap sees it as the producer of false happiness that keeps Indians reactionary and lethargic about improving their country and their own lives. There is plenty of space for escapist entertainment, and everyone needs it from time to time. Kashyap’s argument is that Bollywood offers nothing but escapism.
Gangs of Wasseypur doesn’t just take aim at Bollywood action heroes. The women in the movie — most notably Richa Chaddha’s Nagma (Sardar Khan’s wife and Faizal’s mother) and Huma Qureshi’s Mohsina — are both assaults on the roles of women in Bollywood films. In the case of Nagma, she is the antithesis of every self-sacrificing righteous mother that has littered the Bollywood landscape, where mothers are almost always the inspirational symbol for a love of tradition and India. Nagma is only Mother India if “Mother India” had a steely-eyed gaze and expected her sons to slit the throats of their enemies. Like her son Faizal, she seems initially to take awkwardly to the criminal lifestyle, but she soon emerges as the smarter and often stronger partner in the long gangster history of the Khan family. Not a cartoon villain spewing endless hate and proclamations, mind you, but a very realistic, complex matron of a criminal family not willing to tolerate insult or defer to authority, whether it be from the police, her husband, or any of the other men in the family who were raised to think women have a subservient place in the house.
Mohsina represents the growing tide of women’s liberation, but not in some fantasy way in which she becomes a kungfu-powered super-heroine Zeenat Aman. Gangs of Wasseypur grounds itself in reality, after all, and that sort of high-flying ass-kicking heroine just didn’t exist — though Mohsina, with her obsession with film, certainly yearns to be such a character. Her feminism is expressed in more modest, more realistic terms. A wry attitude, a fondness for sunglasses (and man, can she ever rock a pair of Aviators), the insistence that Faizal treat her with respect and ask her permission for things rather than assuming the right to take liberties with her. To conjure the spirit of Mad Men, she is sort of the movie’s Megan Draper, a smart, hip, and sweet individual who does not deserve to be dragged down into the hopeless world of these self-destructive lunatics. She is substantially more than her husband, both in terms of her mental strength as well as physical presence.
Contrary to the continuously swelling muscle physiques of many action stars like Salman Khan (seriously, have you seen Dabangg? He looks like he squeezed himself into a child’s police costume), Faizal Khan is a scrawny, diminutive (and frequently stoned) man who is dwarfed by nearly everyone around him, including his beautiful wife. Where she is cool and hip, he is hopelessly disheveled and nervous looking, though certainly not without his charm (at least when he isn’t busy decapitating someone). His gangly, awkward appearance is just one of many ways Gangs of Wasseypur seeks to undermine the increasingly outrageous, hyper-stylized Bollywood action film, where kungfu fights and shoot-outs are packed with dramatic posing and over-the-top super-punches that send bad guys flying end-over-end fifty feet. Perhaps reflective of the fact that India had to learn almost overnight how to be an independent country again after the British left, the gangsters in Gangs of Wasseypur actually have to learn how to be gangsters. They do not step into the role bristling with studied confidence and super-human skill explained away by the always trusty “ex-special forces” excuse.
Villain Manoj Bajpayee is terrifying without even trying and never needs to go over the top. In fact, the quieter he is, the more menacing he becomes. Nawazuddin Siddiqui possesses all the smoldering, dangerous charisma of young Amitabh Bachchan. Siddiqui is a nervous bundle of unsure machismo, awkwardness, menace, and vulnerability. Huma Qureshi is a moving, engrossing character without ever resorting to histrionics or overt statements of how tragic it all is. And though he plays a smaller (but still very important) role than Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Zeishan Quadri’s Definite is a fantastic character, the most feared killer in Wasseypur but also, as we see when we follow him around, a clumsy, distracted guy whose reputation depends somewhat on luck and on being competent only in relation to the incompetents around him. He may be a stone-cold killer, but he’s not the sort of hyper-efficient, perfectly choreographed killer movies usually give us.
They also dress like normal humans. Bollywood has a well-earned reputation for fabulous, lavish, and sometimes astoundingly absurd fashion. As with everything else, the clothes are aspirational, either fabulously expensive or hilariously over the top. But always out of reach of the people watching the movie. Most of the characters in Gangs of Wasseypur dress pretty realistically. The most opulent dresser is Definite, and that’s because he owns an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt. As for technology, well…so the remake of Don starring Shahrukh Khan is a movie I love (something I didn’t expect since I hold the original very near to my heart). There are few movies as indulgent in the shiny fantasy world as Don. Everything is velvet smoking jackets and chrome and glass and ultra high-tech everything. In Gangs of Wasseypur, the single most amazing piece of technology that makes an impact on the story is when Faizal sees his first pager.
I invoked the name of Johnnie To, but perhaps just as recognizable is the style of Japanese filmmaker Kinji Fukasaku, who made a name for himself by taking the overly romanticized and stylish yakuza films of the 1950s and turning them into desperate, ugly, much more realistic gangster films, like the landmark Battles Without Honor and Humanity series. There are scenes in those films of brash, boasting yakuza suddenly becoming panicked and desperate, flailing and falling and freaking out during knife and gun battles — because that’s often what happens. Gangs of Wasseypur has a similar feel during its many action scenes. They are frantic, sloppy, and unnerving. The men taking part in them are frequently terrified and clumsy. The two best examples of this are when Sardar Khan first tries to arm his gang with pistols, all of which blow up when fired; and the scene in which his eventual illegitimate son Definite seeks revenge against a long-time enemy of the family, a hit that is a totally confused disaster from the very start.
Which is yet one more way Gangs of Wasseypur seeks to subvert the conventions of the average Bollywood action film: righteous revenge. Bollywood action films are full of tough heroes who seek revenge against a mustache-twirling villain, probably because they offended India or the hero’s mother. The death of a character inspires the hero to righteous revenge, and that revenge somehow settles the matter. Not so in Gangs of Wasseypur. Acts of vengeance almost never bring any sense of satisfaction. Justice is never served. The characters are never righteous heroes. They are just one group of horrible gangsters we know slightly better than the other group of horrible gangsters. Revenge killing usually just results in a reciprocal killing, an endless cycle of violence that accomplishes nothing. Death has no point, no lesson to teach us other than “watch your back.”
“How can these guys be fighting over nothing for so many years?” Kashyap wondered in regards to the real-life gangsters and events that inspired the movie. But that is, ultimately, what the fight is about: nothing. And that’s what it accomplishes. No one seems to benefit from the power they amass. No one suddenly lives an incredible super-criminal jet-set lifestyle. They live marginally better off than the people around them, but with a much higher chance they will be randomly shot in the head at some point. At the end of the day, none of it seems to have been worth it for them. And indeed, at the end of five hours of relentless criminal suffering, Gangs of Wasseypur admits that after four generations of Khans killing Singhs, nothing was accomplished. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.
Which is not to imply that the journey of Gangs of Wasseypur itself is pointless. It’s a fascinating movie, a landmark in my opinion of Indian filmmaking that fully deserves to be mentioned alongside — if not relentless compared to — The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II or Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. It’s mesmerizing, so much so that not only did the combined five-hour run-time not faze me; I was sad when it was over. It’s a mesmerizing film with natural, effective performances and a plot that is both expansive and complex while being international and comprehensive. There is much, culturally, to be extrapolated from Gangs of Wasseypur that glides over my head, especially when it deals with the dynamic between Indian Muslims and Hindus. At the same time, though, it speaks a very understandable international language, not just of gangster film conventions that have become common across the world, but of human struggle and conflict, of hopeless poverty and ruthless ambition. There is an endless well of relatability to Gangs of Wasseypur.
The three things that got Kashyap’s directorial debut in trouble with Indian censors were the sex, the violence, and the drugs. All three of those things are also present in abundance in Gangs of Wasseypur. The violence is bloody and realistic and often abrupt. When people are hurt, they bleed. The violence is never glamorous or stylish. Like the city of Wasseypur itself, it’s grubby and mean and brutal. Rather than making the main characters seem cool or tough, it often exposes them as clumsy and fearful. When the second half of the film eventually returns to the shoot-out that opened the movie, we follow Faizal as he escapes the besieged compound and makes his way through its labyrinth of halls and stairways to the ceiling so, we assume, he can mount a counter-offensive. But that’s not the case. He’s merely hiding, trying to survive, reverting to a base animal instinct. It’s not a moment that exposes him as particularly vile; merely human.
Faizal’s drug use is also frequent, but other than a few accusations that he was too stoned to get some important stuff done, drug use is never really vilified. It’s merely a part of life, no better or worse than any other vice. Kashyap seems to be saying, perhaps directly to movie censors, that it seems ridiculous to ts-tsk a neutral portrayal of drug use as evil in a film industry that glorifies the most insane excesses of violence, and further reduces that violence to something cartoonishly harmless when, of course, violence usually hurts in real life. As for the sex — there is some. Both Sardar and his son Faizal are randy fellas, and while we don’t get a Western-style sex scene, we do get a sex scene (which is played for laughs). The relationship between Faizal and Mohsina is an interesting one, partly because it’s as close as this movie gets to something sweet, and partly because, despite Faizal’s drive to get laid, Mohsina calls the shots. He touches her hand when she’s ready. They kiss when she’s ready. And if he gets out of line, the fact that he’s a criminal kingpin and murderer doesn’t intimidate her.
Gangs of Wasseypur is not, contrary perhaps to how I’ve made it sound, a grim and joyless affair. Kashyap is smart enough to understand that such a complex plot, with so many faces and such a long run-time, cannot sustain itself on relentless grimness. Characters are allowed to succeed. They are allowed to be happy and enjoy that happiness — which makes the sudden explosions of violence and tragedy more meaningful. There is obvious anger behind Kashyap’s work, but there’s also a sense of humor, even if it’s somewhat dark. Much of the violence, for instance, is realistic but also comedically sloppy. In particular, the lackadaisical crime spree of Perpendicular and his friend Tangent, which includes a robbery in which the two young gunmen keep mixing up their flip-flops (which they were polite enough to remove before they stepped in and held guns to everyone’s heads), are as funny as they are unnerving. Definite stealing a cobra from a snake charmer and walking around with it draped across his shoulders is similarly absurd and lends the film an emotional texture that it needs to keep itself and its changing and evolving cast of characters interesting.