DIRECTED BY ANURAG KASHYAP
STARRING: MANOJ BAJPAYEE, NAWAZUDDIN SIDDIQUI, RICHA CHADDA, HUMA QURESHI, JAIDEEP AHLAWAT, PIYUSH MISHRA, JAMEEL KHAN, ANURITA JHA, RAJKUMAR YADAV, ZEISHAN KHAN, VINEET KUMAR with REEMMA SEN and TIGMANSHU DHULIA
The fact that I’m covering part I and II of Anurag Kashyap’s ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ together in my analysis is not to say that they’re to be considered together. They are, let me clarify, distinctively separate films and are intended to be so. I shall, however, stick to addressing both films in the same review for the very same reason that I opted to watch both films at a stretch that lasted about 320 minutes of my life – to save myself from the trouble of having to do the same damn thing twice in succession. And if that isn’t irony, then I don’t know what is.
Kashyap has always been one to look out for, what with his intricate sense in shot-taking, framing and storytelling in general, where he could energize a story with sheer treatment. He’s one of the rare Indian filmmakers who bends with the story rather than dictating it through sequences; in his films, I observe sequences that exist without pressure and not more than a slight motivation by the story, giving enough of an invitation for the viewer to engage and quite intimately at that.
But where there’s entropy, there’s predictability as well – predictability which exceeds the confinement of style and signature. For someone as ambitious with his cinema, Kashyap is painfully limited, incredibly unimaginative; wasteful with his extravagance than wise. He could treat you to 5 and a half hours of an epic adventure and leave you with little felt. ‘Artificial’, I think, is a word that wouldn’t quite cut it, which ‘that Girl in Yellow Boots’ epitomized. In all ways, ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’, both parts I and II, are better films in the sense of comfort that the filmmaker has with the story he’s chosen to tell. If ‘that Girl in Yellow Boots’ was bad translation of a text that he didn’t understand, this gangster epic is a transliteration to colloquial text, read out by a bunch of skillful readers in a struggle with timing.
How Anurag Kashyap writes a script almost sounded like a range of Kalki Koechlin jokes that I conceived back when I watched her screw around with acting and writing in ‘that Girl in Yellow Boots.’ From what I heard (which could be my source’s own unromantic notion), he arms himself with a pack of cigarettes and alcohol and the cinema that he likes, and hugs them together at his desk to set the wheels in motion. This, in no way, is to accuse him of being a plagiarist, but it is, nonetheless, a fair idea on how his world shrinks to the space of a screen when he sits it down with a notebook and a pen. An effect that I’ve found to be conspicuous in what I’ve watched of him.
Perhaps I have too much of bias where intertextuality is concerned. With it, I seem to demand a set of characters who are capable of it; who, at the end of the day, justify the intertextual element and give it a right to exist. Let me give you a not-so-remote example from ‘Ratatouille,’ which I happened to watch over lunch today as it was on TV. Anton Ego, the food-critic, orders for ‘perspective’ and a wine to match. Then he proceeds to ‘give perspective’ when the waiter is baffled and asks him to get something that would go well with a 1947 Cheval Blanc. Chef Skinner, waiting for Linguini to disappoint, says, in a gruff tone to match his disguise, that he’ll “have what he (Ego) is having.”
Think of the scene where Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) gets killed at the gas station. The reference needs no introduction; we’ve all, at some point in time, seen Sonny get knocked and rather ruthlessly at that, en route to sister Connie’s place in ‘the Godfather.’ At the end of the onslaught is a cinematic treat with three of the best things about the duology in place – sound, camera and performance – as Sardar crawls out of the wreck, gun in hand and holed like gauze with the amount of gunshots on him, and staggers around for a while before he collapses, a piece of Sneha Khanwalkar’s glorious soundtrack in the background, a song that’s potentially a favourite. The scene is as wacky as Mr. Blonde’s (Michael Madsen) ear-cutting in ‘Reservoir Dogs’ with ‘Little Green Bag’ playing and him doing a jig to it. Sardar Khan, who is kind of a blend of the hot-headed Sonny and the bum in Mr. Blonde, empowered by a subtle performance by Bajpayee, pulls it off. And yet I was left wondering if the scene should have been there, stretched beyond limit as it was, for the sole reason that it was the last shot of a film that was desperate for a heroic end.
I’ve always considered ‘the Godfather’ films to be a duology where I think the third film exists by itself – as a continuation and a build-up on existing characters than the ascent-to-power stories and a virtue-ethics course that the first two were. It was consistent as a confession where I thought judgement day had long gone by. Granted that, it seems too coincidental (and even more blatant) that ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ was proposed to be a two-part film that covered two generations of an ancestry with cameos by a third and a fourth. There’s as much patriarchy where religious custom comes as a stronghold, the men uphold as much of it as the women provoke, if not more.
Speaking of women and provocation, we have two spread over the two films who ask for heroes of men they either wed or spawned. One is the acid-tongued Nagma (Richa Chadda), the tormented wife of Sardar Khan and mother of Danish (Vineet Kumar) and Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). The other is Sardar’s mistress Durga (Reemma Sen), an import from Bengal who is saved from one kind of prostitution to enter another. They both expect of their sons what they could never get from their husband. To Nagma, in a command of intense passion and devotion that wanted her husband alive, it is revenge. Durga, who never cast as much of a thought on devotion, demands legitimacy and appropriation of power. These things are usually expected of wives and mistresses if cinema’s taught us anything at all. Kashyap’s credibility, in both cases, rests on the strength of performances, and in that he, I felt, was in safe hands.
The third woman of any importance (and in no particular order) is Mohsina, who exists to intimidate Faizal, being as much of a knockout as Huma Qureshi’s debut performance makes her to be – tall and almost smiling and with eyes that speak of mischief. In her I see an exciting new actor along the lines of favourites like Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence. Faizal would have to rattle the whole house to get to rattle her, but Qureshi’s Mohsina just needs to sing her pet lyric, one that was used, to my dismay, as much as punch-line in a John Woo movie.
That these men are defined by the women in their lives is interesting to note. Sardar finds other women because he’s ashamed to face his wife. Faizal plays passive-aggressive in a relationship he holds in the palm of his hands and knows it as well. It also correlates with his fluctuation between strength and vulnerability in a life that goes with the ganja he does. Danish, to complete the picture, is the emotional fool not unlike Sonny Corleone who misses the toll-booth/petrol-pump because his father gets there first.
Definite (Zeishan Khan), in that way, is arbitrariness – the dotted line on which the film is drawn as the structured end-product. He has no boundaries and is almost unguessable, a fact that irked me in that it was too much in convenience of the writers and director. Definite, in essence, is the undefined and thus is a play of irony. He has the ambiguity of a Catherine Tramell where there’s seduction in not knowing when he times his strike. Or that’s how it’s supposed to be, except that it’s here that I’d take Ebert’s track. Suspense in excess keeps the viewer out than in. It’s exciting in the eve of ample information, wasteful when there isn’t. But I have to admit that the beauty of Definite is that he isn’t even a suspense to begin with. He is, so to say, the Chekhov’s gun of the duology, a realization that asked for a better actor even though it worked in that he was not as conspicuous.
I’m aware that, up until now, I’ve said more good things than bad things about a film I said I didn’t like – if this was an argument, I'd have lost it already. ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ does dig deep into concepts and I can’t comment on its factual elements, having watched the films like I was a native of Cannes and like I caught it there at the festival than right here in New Delhi, where my alienation came right down to the fact that I need subtitles to understand. This also puts me in a bad position to judge the film on grounds of authenticity on how it captured the region and the dialect and if or if not the performances cohered with the same. However, it wasn't new to see Kashyap’s resourcefulness in capitalizing on history and pop-culture, something I had a sneak-preview in ‘Dev D’ where he made a story out of an MMS scandal that went around a while back.
I think my fundamental problem with the films (put together) was George Simmons’ dissatisfaction with his own performance on stage in ‘Funny People.’ In his words, “it wasn’t a pee, it was a shit – it took too long.” And it left me with too little, to top that. ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ is mock-Godfather with Tarantino wackiness and a breath of Kashyap's humour that’s crude, distracting and oddly-timed which works when not in excess. There’s an ingenuous sequence where the set of brothers and friends plan and execute a killing that’s almost like untying and tying a knot on your kurta with a phone on each ear and too much cheek to spare. That scene was sheer brilliance. Also amusing are the conversations between Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia, excitingly subtle) and son J.P. who can’t do enough to impress his father.
Too many characters with too much intersection and with emphasis on too little – makes me want to ask a lot of questions, but I wished to ask just the one. Why ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’? It’s neatly executed, well-crafted and largely entertaining; it’s not 'old wine in new bottle.' It’s new wine in an old bottle that reeks of nostalgia, raises the bar and tastes cheap in the end, contrary to the labels stuck on it – ‘the Godfather’ duology and the Tarantino handbook. Kashyap stands the weight of the films’ hefty performances (by Siddiqui, Bajpayee, Dhulia, Chadda and Qureshi) on a thin crust of soul without a core to support. It’s fancy blade-work in a gunfight that he initiated in the first place - tiresome, futile, but amusing. Or, in his own words, it hits the ‘tangent’ and not the ‘perpendicular’ in a pepper-spray routine than a shrapnel-packed explosion that it tries to be.