11 August 2012
Film Review: Gangs of Wasseypur
First things first. There is no denying that Gangs of Wasseypur is an exceptionally clever film. Right from the opening of Part 1, when the camera pulls away from the brightly artificial world of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thhi to the dimly lit room in which a joint family is gathered to watch it, the film effortlessly positions itself as ‘authentic’. It is a brilliant tactic, and one that reveals the surety of Kashyap’s grasp of his audience: since the Ekta Kapoor universe is a synonym for fakeness (at least to anyone who watches Anurag Kashyap films), Wasseypur gets automatically coded as ‘real’.
All the investment in historical-sociological detail that follows is meant to cement that belief, that this is the evocation of a real world – the voiceover that begins grandiosely by recounting the history of coal-mining in the Dhanbad-Jharia belt of Bihar (later Jharkhand) and then narrows its focus to the hard-scrabble battles of two warring families, the barrage of dates, the documentary footage, the marking of place through houses and clothes and the much-touted ‘unapologetic’ language the characters speak and the marking of time quietly through gadgets (fridge, vaccuum cleaner, pager) or more vocally through Hindi film songs.
In fact, Hindi cinema is the reference point for everything in this world. Quiet familial grief at a man’s funeral is swept into another pitch by the soaring, tinny splendour of Teri Meherbaniyan. A graying Ramadhir Singh (director Tigmanshu Dhulia in a performance that ought to make other directors leap to cast him), told by his son JP that he was watching DDLJ, serves him a dismissal that is somehow both weary and brutal: “Tumse ho nahi payega”. The very self-image of GoW 2’s ‘hero’ is based upon the cinematic: “Hum toh sochte thhe ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein Bachchan paida hue hain. Pata chalta hai hum toh Shashi Kapoor hain,” says Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faizal at one crucial juncture – and everything that happens henceforth might be said to be driven by Faizal’s desire to become the Bachchan of his own life.
The uber-machismo of this world is undeniable. But so what if his men talk dirty and run guns and kill people at the drop of a hat and always win the women they fall for? They’re real, Anurag Kashyap seems to insist, because they also stutter and weep and occasionally confess to fear, sometimes to failure. It is precisely in the gap between the mythic, larger-than-life aspiration and its often unglamorous factual counterpart that Kashyap seeks to establish the ‘reality’ of Wasseypur. So that when Faizal (or Faijal, as everyone in Wasseypur calls him) twirls a cigarette out of a packet and flicks it into his mouth for the visual pleasure of his love interest Mohsina (Huma Qureishi), who’s watching from her balcony, the trick fails. The lovely Mohsina laughs in delight, and we’re meant to believe that her love for Faijal springs from knowing and understanding that gap, between what her man is and what he’s striving to be.
GoW’s depiction of violence, too, is self-consciously punctuated in this fashion by ‘reality’. A man coordinates a murder on two mobile phones while trying to re-tie his pajama drawstring, a chase scene is slowed down by a scooter spluttering to a stop, a gun jamming. Kashyap’s poker-faced subversion of our expectation of slickness is ceaseless. Much of the first half of Part 2, for instance, centres on the fifteen year old brother of Faizal, named Perpendicular because that’s how he uses the blade he carries in his mouth, who is the terror of the neighbourhood but speaks with a lisp.
The humour is sharp and dry: Perpendicular and his friend rob a jeweller’s shop in school uniforms and—still holding the stash—argue over which rubber chappals are whose. In the next scene, Perpendicular returns home to find the jeweller sitting with the family women, suggesting a set for Mohsina. In an earlier moment, Faizal lists his sins for Mohsina – charas, gaanja, a few murders; then says, now you list yours. Sometimes the humour is silent, contained in ironic visual juxtapositions that are barely, fleetingly there. The ineffectual police station where a central pillar reads ‘Aagyakari, Wafadar, Buddhimaan, Daksh’ (Obedient, Loyal, Intelligent, Dexterous), the school wall with the stencilled inscription ‘Aadhi roti khayenge, phir bhi school jayenge’ (‘We’ll eat half a roti, but we’ll go to school’) – these are quietly brutal jokes in this world where the state seems to barely exist on the sidelines, pointing to another kind of gap between the real and the aspirational.
As I said at the start, there can be no doubt about the stylistic achievements of this film. Its visual flair, its absolutely remarkable performances, its piquant dialogues – these are enough to cancel out any instinctive annoyance one might feel at its maddening refusal to kowtow to any notion of plot.
But my problem with the film is one of tone. Does Kashyap want to show us the desires and sorrows of three generations of a family, or does he merely wish to milk the otherness of these lives—for their unending performance of hyper-violence, and worse, for humour? There is something deeply discomfiting about watching a film in which every supposed tragedy, from a husband’s betrayal to a brother’s death, is offered up as a space for ironic appreciation. Any possibility of emotion is held at bay, as it were, by putting it within quotes. The only parts of the film that seem to be given us without irony are the culminatory deaths of the principal protagonists. But having laughed and cheered and hooted our way through so many deaths, we feel absolutely nothing. That, after five hours of ‘epic’ filmmaking, is the real tragedy.
Read this review on Firstpost here.