As the camera fades up, the first image audiences are met with is a woman dressed in traditional garb, gesturing for the camera. It plays out like a parody of a bad sitcom, complete with cutesy gestures and goofy interactions complete with a classical Soap Opera (as detailed in the subtitles) song overlays the imagery. As the scene continues, the camera dollies back slowly, until the once prominent, grainy image is but a fragment of the screen. With the camera at its resting point the former Soap Opera aesthetic is replaced by a more contemporary looking group of people sitting transfixed to a TV that continues to project the cheerful woman. For a moment it’s tranquil but, again, the aura is supplanted when the TV (literally) explodes with bullets, the scene erupting into a lengthy barrage of explosions, gunfire, and chaos.
It’s difficult to not read into the opening scene of Anurag Kashyap’s five and a half hour epic, Gangs of Wasseypur. A somewhat controversial director in his home country, Kashyap’s career has been plagued by a sense of identity lapses; having to fight the image of Bollywood outside of Indian, while simultaneously refuting claims that he is ‘too European’ at home. With this in mind, the literal destruction of the image of ‘Bollywood’ (the Soap Opera as a surrogate for the exaggeration of Bollywood’s most chastised characteristics) in the opening of this film appears metaphorical. It questions the concepts that Westerners may have of Indian cinema, it sets Kashyap’s film apart from the Bollywood tradition (without outright rejecting it), but, most importantly, it shows the power that film has on Indian culture.It is somewhat of a disservice to the film to attempt to reduce the rich narrative into a concise synopsis. Kashyap utilizes not only an eclectic cast of full bodied characters but the film unfolds over a 60 year history, spending a great deal of time in each decade. The beauty of the film is the way in which it unfolds. Years of violence and warring are the result of a simple bout of jealousy between two men, each driven by greed and hubris.
Chronologically, Gangs opens with a Robin Hood-esque tale. Shahid Khan is leading a small gang of bandits who are, each night, stealing from an export train. While they are criminals, the act is painted as survival; a result of their oppressed state. When Shahid is caught, he is ousted out of the community and forced to work in labor mines. Skilled and intelligent, he rises in ranks, until — following Britain’s departure from India — he becomes the right hand man for his region’s most powerful boss, Ramadhir Singh (played by the internationally renowned Indian director Tigmanshu Dhulia). When Ramadhir fears that Shahid is too ambitious for his own good he commits an act that instigates a 3-generation long quest for vengeance.Throughout the film’s lengthy runtime, the power of cinema in every day Indian life becomes a driving force for the film. Characters explicitly identify with Bollywood archetypes. Kashyup highlights this during many moments in the film. In the opening scene a ringtone points to the duality of the hero-villain while dialogue later in film includes lines like “there was a time when film heroes became cops, now they become villains to wreak more havoc.” Additionally, Characters spend a great deal of time either in front of their TVs or at their local cinemas (including consecutive viewings), they mimic their actions, quote their dialogue, paint themselves in the manner of the screen images. It’s not just an interest, it’s an obsession. Kashyap’s sensitivity is revealed in his ability to both honor and reject notions of this mentality. Gangs does not feel like a complete rejection of Bollywood cinema, but a reaction to it, and in many ways a homage.
But its not just Indian cinema that Kashyap’s film is indebted and responding to. Gangs has a sprawling list of influences running the gamut of World Cinema. What sets Kashyap apart from his obvious cinematic kinships, is his honest depictions of characters. Gangs is a movie as much about violence as it is a movie that undermines violence. Each and every one of his characters is fully formed and realistic. Kashyap avoids reducing his characters to archetypes and, through the film’s many narrative arcs, continually diverts central focus so that viewers’ allegiances are in constant flux. In doing so, Kashyap highlights both the positive and negative features of each and every character. Even the vilest of his villains are treated with a sense of respect rarely witnessed in modern film.Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of the movie is Kashyap’s sense of comedic timing. He has often been considered — and even says as much himself — to be following in the cinematic footsteps of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarintino. While this is obviously witnessed in his sprawling camera movements, operatic violence, and lush cinematography, Kashyap also observes their tendency to undermine the darkness of their films with humor. Kashyap pushes this farther than either of the aforementioned directors. Even amidst some of the films staunchest scenes, his characters will blunder and fail. He has a prowess for capturing a purely physical propensity of uncertainty in his characters. It imbues the film with a genuine atmosphere, allowing his untrained gangsters to reveal their amateurism in action. Guns are clumsily shot (including a hilarious scene where a homemade gun backfires so drastically that it nearly injures the gunman) and grenades are more dropped than hurled; it has an almost Coen Brother’s feel in its treatment of ‘average Joe’ crime.
In spite of the film’s daunting run-length, it moves at a lighting speed. Kashyap savors every frame; there is nothing excessive, nothing that should be cut. It may long ride but it’s worth every second and, by the end, you’ll likely be pleading for more. The choice to unfold the story over multiple generations was particularly wise, as it allows for the narration to constantly evolve and transform. At first, the film almost moves too fast and it can be tricky to find your grounding but is not long before it balances out. While the narrative development serves a practical function, it also adds to the richness of the story. Because, the film not only tells the story of revenge over three generations, it unfolds the history of India from the point right before its independence from Britain up to the current day. This is crucial to the film, arguably the it’s central critique (among many): that the systematic economic exploitation intact is nothing more than a reflection and evolution of the oppression witnessed during the British occupation.Kashyap cannot be credited for all of the film’s success, however, as the cast does a lot to hold it together. In particular, Jaideep Ahlawat (Shahid Khan), Manoj Bajpayee (Sardar Khan), and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Faizal Khan), put in excellent turns as the three principal leads. While Bajpayee takes the first part of the film, it is Siddiqui’s performance in the second half that steals the show. It is to no discredit to either Ahlawat or Bajpayee, but Siddiqui is granted far more range as Faizal, transforming from a dead-eyed stoner to a calculated but in-over-his-head gang lord. Additionally, there are numerous minor roles that are brilliantly cast and performed. Zeishan Quadri and Aditya Kumar put in equally measured performances as the two cock-sured juvenile gangsters Definite and Perpendicular. Kashyap’s script also allows for strong, realized female roles (something that Western crime cinema still often gets wrong). All three of the film’s principle female leads (Richa Chadda, Huma Qureshi, and Anurita Jha) contribute immensely to the overall feel of the film.
Cinelicious Pics is a relatively new company, but this disc really shows a great deal of promise. Beautifully packaged in a clear case and featuring a much-appreciated booklet— sadly not a common trend in current publishing. The booklet includes both a family tree of characters (to help track the many characters) and a nice essay by Aseem Chhabra that assists in putting the film in context for those less familiar with Kashyap and Indian cinema. The disc features a stunning transfer that is bright, colorful, and crisp. There are a few minor typos in the subtitles (perhaps inherited from the original elements) but nothing that is terribly distracting. It’s a shame that they did not lease the many behind the scenes features that are available (many of which can be viewed on YouTube), making this disc a bit bare-boned but, in addition to the booklet, there is a nice audio commentary with Kashyap and members of the cast and crew. In spite of this, however, this release is still essential. Quite frankly, if you haven’t seen Gangs of Wasseypur you are missing out on one of cinema’s most crowning achievements. A film of ambitious proportions, Gangs of Wasseypur is an instant classic that is hindered only by its lack of exposure. With Cinelicious Pics Blu-ray release offering one of the first easily accessible options for North Americans, with time Gangs of Wasseypur’s rightful place among the greatest films of all time will surely be realized.Gangs of Wasseypur is now available via Cinelicious Pics.