The love child of Bollywood and Hollywood, “Gangs of Wasseypur” is a brilliant collage of genres, by turns pulverizing and poetic in its depiction of violence. A saga of three generations of mobsters cursed and driven by a blood feud, it’s epic in every sense, not least due to its five-hour-plus duration. Helmer Anurag Kashyap puts auds on disturbingly intimate terms with this psychopathic family and its hardscrabble North Indian mining town, while encompassing nothing less than India’s postwar history and deep-rooted problems in microcosm. Riveting as the film is, its sheer length presents a formidable challenge for theatrical distribs.
Pic screened in two segments (159 minutes and 158 minutes, respectively) at its Cannes Directors’ Fortnight preem. Although it will probably blast through international festivals where Kashyap is perceived as an edgy alternative to Bollywood, only part one has been booked for domestic theatrical release.
Unquestionably the magnum opus of Kashyap’s seven released features, this saga allows the helmer to harness his visual flair and snappy narrative technique to a formidable subject, an extended historical timeframe (over 70 years) and a sizable production scale, while the quasi-rural backdrop requires him to rein in the kitschy excesses he displayed in urban-set works like “Dev. D” and “The Girl in Yellow Boots.” Even with a tapestry of more than a dozen central characters, the screenplay is structured in such a way that half of them are granted their own chapters, so their personalities, foibles and mixed-up feelings toward each other emerge with coruscating clarity.
Absorbing styles as diverse as those of old-school Italo-American mafia classics a la Coppola, Scorsese and Leone, as well as David Michod’s taut crime thriller “Animal Kingdom,” Kashyap never lets his influences override the distinct Indian color. The pacing is machine-gun relentless, sweeping incoherence and repetitiveness under the carpet as it barrels forward with hypnotic speed.
The pulse-quickening prologue opens in 2004, with a shootout in Wasseypur that catches auds as off-guard as it does the Khan crime family, whose members are ambushed in their home by their rivals, the Qureshis, from neighboring Dhanbad. The origins of the strife between the two clans are then traced back to 1941, when the movement to oust the British left a power vacuum in the coal-mining industry, the only livelihood in a Muslim-populated region in North India. The family pioneer, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), blazes a trail as a train robber, exile, coal worker and merciless enforcer for mine owner/kingpin Ramadhir Singh (Rajat Bhagat), who has Shahid dispatched as soon as he becomes a threat.
When Shahid’s son Sardar (Manoj Bajpayee) grows up, he moves back to Wasseypur in the 1960s and makes vengeance his vocation. Soon, he becomes sidetracked by empire building, a fracas with a guild of Qureshi butchers and, most of all, his bigamous pursuits. When his eldest son, Danish (Vineet Singh), marries Shama Parveen (Anurita Jha), daughter of butcher Ehsan (Vipin Sharma), an uneasy truce emerges, but it can’t last: By the end of part one, Ramadhir (now played by Tigmanshu Dhulia) has become Sardar’s nemesis.
Part two plays out in frenetic fashion as Sardar’s sons — libidinous Danish, pothead Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), money-grabbing Perpendicular and power-crazed Definite — take turns auditioning for the role of most ruthless don.
As the town ushers in a new order in which every boy is a Godfather wannabe, the finale culminates in a spectacular orgy of bullets and blood that impresses even after five hours of murder, rape, castration, beheading and random carnage. Stirred into the hard-hitting action is a heady cocktail of spontaneous romanticism, cockily humorous dialogue, period-sensitive music of staggering range, and songs with lewd lyrics that form a caustic chorus.
On a fundamental level, the Khans mirror the power pyramid of postwar India, which, if one believes the film’s mix of archival photography, footage and analytic commentary, is run by a few clans behaving like gangsters. Yet “Gangs of Wasseypur” is also a scrapbook of Bollywood references, observing the industry’s hold on India’s cultural imagination.
Sardar’s chapter is the most fully realized, partly due to his complicated love life. His seduction of Hindu maid Durga (Reema Sen) invokes and reinvents Bollywood romance through a rapturous pageant of costume, dance and song that reps one of the film’s intermittent sensual delights. Kashyap even suggests the gangsters are so brainwashed by glamour, they use their lives as fodder for Bollywood scripts.
Action veteran Bajpayee, who gets the most screentime, delivers a well-calibrated character study, treating Ahlawat’s Shahid as a blueprint and wringing notable variations on it throughout; though his Sardar can charm when he needs to, he leaves no doubt of his intrinsic nastiness. The same could be said of all the members of the cruel Khan clan, brought to life by vigorous, hot-tempered thesping, in contrast with the cold efficiency of their rivals.
Coming off as a sort of Hamlet on hash, Faizal is the only figure here who grows sick of the cycle of violence, and Siddiqui sensitively limns the character’s sense of world-weariness and self-loathing as he inherits the role of avenger, making him the most human character in the film.
Tech package is uneven, especially the sometimes deafening sound mix. Combo of 35mm and HD lensing by Rajeev Ravi captures the landscape’s rugged majesty and the town’s lumpen squalor, while staying in synch with the ever-changing action and mise-en-scene.