Art or Artifice?

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Caught in two minds, Shougat Dasgupta wonders if Gangs of Wasseypur is a triumph of form or a betrayal of content

Anurag Kashyap
Thought provocateur Anurag Kashyap
Photo: Appurva Shah

TWO WEEKS ago, on these pages, I reviewed Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. I gave the movie four stars and wrote admiringly of the wit and flair of Kashyap’s filmmaking, how I was willing to overlook the lack of a plot because I so enjoyed the admittedly self-indulgent flourishes. Setting aside the starrating, an arbitrary choice and meant only to appease those who (perhaps sensibly) think of reviews as consumer reports, diminishing word counts mean that reviewers can only hint at their responses to a given work of art. Reviews, or rather a certain kind of review, are necessarily reductive, the reviewer trying to transmit enthusiasm or disdain or indifference but rarely all of those things at once.

In the days since the review, I’ve been involved in various arguments, passionate espousals or disavowals of Gangs. It mirrored the reactions of the group of people I watched the film with in the theatre. We continued our conversation over dinner, Kashyap’s loud champions countered by equally loud sceptics.

I have a foot in both camps.

The response to Gangs is a version of the debate over form and content. Susan Sontag in her famous essay ‘Against Interpretation’ writes of the “odd vision by which something we have learned to call ‘form’ is separated from something we have learned to call ‘content’”. And content, writes Sontag in the mid-1960s, is “mainly a hindrance, a nuisance”. The strongest criticism I have heard of Gangs is of its lack of content. This is not, in Sontag’s formulation, a “subtle or not-so-subtle philistinism”, but a genuine confusion created by Kashyap. In interviews both he and scriptwriter Zeishan Quadri have talked about the film’s foundation in truth, described their desire to make a film rooted in the political and social reality of north India.

There is, of course, little that is ‘real’ about Gangs of Wasseypur. It is a film rooted only in cinematic reality. As with Quentin Tarantino, everything Kashyap makes is in homage to the movies he loves. Even in his more disciplined, restrained films, Black Friday and Gulaal particularly, the narrative seams are frayed, the film always on the verge of coming apart. Kashyap forces you to consider the question, ‘What is the filmmaker’s responsibility to his subject?’ The answer, in Gangs at least, appears to be none at all. Of course, it’s hard to know whether the film has a subject at all, so scattershot is its attention. Certainly, Wasseypur is not its subject, not the coal mafia, not local politics, or why would Kashyap be so cavalier, so careless in his attention to detail?

Kashyap enjoys using documentary footage in his films, real people, real locations. He thinks of filmmaking as a guerrilla enterprise and has boasted about members of his crew being imprisoned or threatened. He has described his process as investigative, even journalistic. He fetishises the real, the authentic (see the much praised dialogue in Gangs). So it’s hardly surprising when people, particularly people familiar with the culture of small towns in north India, of places like Wasseypur, leave the cinema bewildered. Those huge, menacing butchers, what was that about? Why is the powerful politician such a willing patsy, so easily emasculated by an apparently lone gangster? Why does the story make so little sense? Why are we being distracted by song-and-dance sequences devoted to Ray Bans?

Work of art? Stills from Gangs of Wasseypur

The Hoot, a website that tracks the Indian media, noted a divergence in reviews of Gangs in the Hindi and English press. In the former, reviewers scorned the film’s pretensions to authenticity, joking about the hypocrisy of playing to urban stereotypes and fantasies under the guise of realism. The English-language media were fawning about precisely the sort of things the Hindi reviewers noticed as false, including the language with its extravagant crudity.

It’s rather a clever con. Kashyap uses the vocabulary of independent cinema to make commercial cinema. Like so many of us in the middle classes, who spend hours in dim rooms, watching TV, movies, listening to music, reading comics and novels, Kashyap is enraptured by notions of the frontier, by a wilder, less circumscribed life. Out there, life is real, in here we watch, safe and cosy, titillated but untouched by ‘reality’. The denizens of Wasseypur, as recently reported in the national newspapers, are angry with their portrayal in Gangs. They, like those I know who hated the film, are disappointed by what they see as the film’s abdication of its responsibility to the real.

But for Anurag Kashyap ‘documentary’, ‘journalism’, ‘research’, ‘roots’ — all words he has used when talking about Gangs — are in service of a greater reality, perhaps the greatest reality: entertainment. He craves content, or thinks he does, but really he just wants to play with form so instead of a film that captures something essential about Wasseypur and, by extension, north India, Gangs devolves into broad pastiche. Kashyap takes the easy option of giving in to his cinephilia, to his imagined Wasseypur incubated in the movie theatres of his youth.

HINDI CRITICS, who listened to Kashyap talk of his desire to make a film about his roots, looked at Gangs of Wasseypur for verisimilitude, for a world they recognised, populated by characters whose motivations they understood, whose actions they found plausible. But Kashyap’s target is a certain kind of filmgoer: a multiplex audience too sophisticated for the aspirational fantasies peddled by mainstream Bollywood, but too naïve to see that Wasseypur serves the same function for Kashyap that Switzerland does for Yash Chopra. Just as Suketu Mehta in Maximum City panders to a prurient fantasy of Bombay, so Kashyap in Gangs of Wasseypur offers middle-class filmgoers the frisson of slumming it in mofussil India.

Gangs, for all its frenetic action, is enigmatic, a cipher. I remain both convinced and unconvinced by the film; convinced by Kashyap’s talent, unconvinced by its shallow application. Form, as Sontag understood, can not be entirely divorced from function. For us to respond to art, it needs to say something, engage us in conversation, confront us with an idea. Perhaps, by prompting a second thought, Kashyap did precisely that. Frankly, I’m just not sure.

Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.
shougat@tehelka.com

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