I never could like Bollywood movies. I don’t enjoy musicals. So it took me a long time to come around to “Gangs of Wasseypur“, Anurag Kashyap‘s epic 2012 revenge saga about rival organized crime families. I thank Pascal Grenier and Charlie Parker for their recommendation because this film is PRETTY GODDAMN AWESOME.
I want to highly recommend it to my fellow crime and action cinema fans. Since I know zip about Indian cinema and fools rush in, I dare to talk about the movie.
I’ll start with the the two film elements that seem to prevent people like me from watching “Gangs of Wasseypur”: the music and the running time. For me and many of my friends, these are the big hump to get over. So a little extra clarification is needed.
A happy message to my fellow musical-hatin’ friends: “Gangs of Wasseypur” is “safe” to watch. The characters don’t suddenly break into song. There are no choreographed dance numbers. Yes, there are singers hired for weddings, funerals, and rallies. But they’re kind of awesome and their presence is minimal, integrated, and always furthers the story. Also, the music is pretty edgy. Indian reviewers apparently consider the soundtrack very experimental and off-beat compared to “typical” Indian films. There is a lot of electronic stuff, and the lyrics are dark and sometimes mind-blowingly fucked up. One song says “I will rape every pore of your body with my bullets”. See what I mean? And I actually LIKE the music. Enough to Youtube it. I can’t say the same for other Indian films I’ve been watching recently.
And now for the running time of the film: yes, it is 5 hours 20 minutes. It was divided into Parts One and Two (2:40 each) for theatrical and DVD release but Kashyap intended it to be one film. The two parts do not stand up well by themselves. The film is one continuous story so watching just one part or the other won’t make much sense. Please rearrange your life for a 5 hour 20 minute film. I know it feels like a marriage commitment.
I want to marry this movie! I love it and have already watched it three times. Three generations of the Khan family compete to control organized crime in Wasseypur, and an old family feud fuels their lust for revenge. Business grows, the body count rises, and Wasseypur becomes a battlefield. The saga is rich, gritty, absorbing, beautiful in a nonglamorous way, funny, sad, and violent. The ending is bloody, heroic, over-the-top, fucked up fun. I have seen too many comparisons by reviewers to “The Godfather”, which I feel is inaccurate. Yes, a son takes over his father’s criminal business but that’s about it. The crimes, violence, manners of death of “Gangs of Wasseypur” are their own, and they are based pretty closely on real life incidents.
The very fact that the film attempts to follow the true story of three generations of the Khan crime family creates some problems. A tome-like chronicle is bound to get unwieldy in places. At times there is too much telling and not enough showing, which renders the onset of some situations and relationships confusing. Some fairly extraneous sub-plots could have been pared down to make up for it. Some of the comedy feels forced. Yet the story is intensely character-driven and the locations feel extremely authentic. The amount of detail in both character and setting breathes a very rare, very real sense of life into the saga. And the stunningly beautiful photography pushes “Gangs of Wasseypur” right up to the edge of “masterpiece”.
Five hours spent with any characters will of course make them start to feel like people, but what makes them feel real is the details. The dialogue and action feels spontaneous. The authentic slang and cussing is apparently quite shocking to many Indian viewers (make sure you get yourself a good set of subtitles that includes all of it). The actors come off as extremely natural. They bicker endlessly with each other. They slip, trip, drop things, and slap each other really hard. This is a truly magical film element: Cool people do dumb shit but they’re still cool. And little regular things happen. During an important romantic moment, a goat calmly eats from a tree in the background. Street scenes include regular folks surreptitiously staring at the camera. Kashyap does not edit out the nonglamorous, incongruous stuff of life; in fact he seems to embrace it. It works because he does not allow it to dominate and weaken the story. He finds the unique and beautiful in everyday people and places, and his gaze is intense. A viewer can become completely immersed in Kashyap’s vision.
Like the real life events that it is very closely based on, “Gangs of Wasseypur” is filled with weird and interesting people. The subtitles in my version replace a large amount of Indian cultural references (especially to cinema) with universal metaphors, and even with this loss the characters remain three-dimensional, fully fleshed out people. New characters are introduced all the way up to the last 20 minutes of this positively character-infested story but every one of them is memorable. And the main characters are totally unforgettable. They are conflicted people, and the secret ingredient of their complexity is their many flaws. As this reviewer so charmingly points out, “nearly everyone makes a fool of himself at least once”. Kudos to the actors who bring so much life to these characters.
Sardar Khan’s onscreen presence is huge but it is his frail little son Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) who totally rocks the socks off of “Gangs of Wasseypur 2”.
Faizal Khan is a fantastically conflicted anti-hero. An intrinsically gentle man filled with inertia, he evolves into an angry viper crime boss with crazy-bad business skills. The lethargic, dreamy pleasure he takes in killing during the blood-soaked revenge finale is truly an amazing thing to behold.
And finally, the most fun part: the violence. It is not stylized or glamorous. It is awkward, nasty, sometimes comedic, and always risky. Jammed weapons, cellphone malfunctions, incompetence, a fatal stumble… the ironic human elements are always present, somewhat similar in mood to Johnnie To’s action. Long takes create a sense of immediate, visceral risk. And the uber-violent finale, although short in length, is pretty goddamn awesome. I’m amazed to say that it feels a bit like early Woo – nothing fancy, just some dudes blasting the shit out of each other with a shitload of guns, ridiculous brutality and balls of steel. Because Kashyap avoids cliche highly stylized, highly dramatic filming and editing, a deeper, more honest emotion remains in the action scenes. Indian viewers consider the violence to be gruesome and excessive, not for the amount (there’s honestly not all that much) but for its “realism”. It is exactly that messy, nasty reality that makes Kashyap’s violence so visceral and satisfying.
On a side note, I have so far seen two other Anyurag Kashyap films. “Black Friday” is gritty, ugly, not a musical, and is pretty damn good (think “Munich”). Kashyap wrote the screenplay for “Satya“, which IS a musical and pisses me off for more reasons than that. “Paanch” is still unreleased due to violence and drug use. Sounds good to me. I hope he can get it released soon.