By Shougat Dasgupta
EVERYTHING TO admire about Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur is evident in the long opening sequence, in which men armed with automatic rifles they can barely hold, let alone control, rain bullets and abuse at a house containing a rival don. The scene opens with the saccharine theme of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. We’re led by the characters’ fake plastic smiles into their fake plastic house to meet their fake plastic family, all in fake plastic technicolour; and then the camera pulls back to show the hardscrabble poverty of people gaping at the TV in the coal-dark. It’s a deft beginning: ironic, savvy and, above all, cool. Until the rattle of gunfire breaks the spell. Three hours later, you stumble out of the theatre a victim of a wild assault yourself, reeling from the visual and aural clamour.
Gangs purports to tell the story of the coal mafia in Dhanbad, to tell a small-town epic of warring clans and through that narrow prism illuminate an entire country. But the coal mafia and its history is incidental, a narrow prism through which to illuminate Kashyap’s unabashed love for the movies. Kashyap has spoken a lot about his cinephilia, the DVDs he takes on the road with him and the screenings he holds for his actors. He knows that, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, the movies suffuse, overwhelm our pop cultural sensibility. How Kashyap must have loved that he didn’t have to invent the detail that a sniffer dog used in the investigation of the 1993 Bombay blasts (the subject of Black Friday) was named Zanjeer.
Plot summary, a précis of the various Khans and Qureishis killed in Gangs, is, in such a tight space, to discard resources. You’re going to watch the film yourself anyway. How can you not? You should know too that every performance is outstanding, that Manoj Bajpai, whose story forms the meat of this first part of a two part film, is on rare form — charismatic, violent, tender and not above buffoonery. Nawazuddin Siddiqui has the hollow cheeks and laconic menace of the young Pacino in the first of the Godfather trilogy. Beware, as Shakespeare’s Caesar knew, of men with a lean and hungry look.
Kashyap shares Tarantino’s facility for extravagant swearing, his visual flair but also his shallowness
Instead, it’s worth considering Kashyap’s compulsive movie habit and its effect on his style. It’s what makes Gangs both brilliant and maddening, caught between the grandiose sweep of the first two Godfather films and the movie nerd kitsch of Kill Bill. Kashyap shares Tarantino’s facility for extravagant swearing, his visual flair but also his shallowness. The allusions are so plentiful and tasteful, the use of demotic so stylish, the details so exactly right I wondered if even the faded sweat stain on a woman’s blouse wasn’t premeditated, that it feels churlish, irrelevant to hanker after purpose. Is it not enough to be entertained?
Henry James described 19th-century Russian novels as “loose baggy monsters”, in contrast to his precise compositions. Gangs is a loose baggy monster. Even Sneha Khanwalkar’s celebrated soundtrack is too insistent battling for your attention as much as Kashyap’s always crowded frames. You long for judicious pruning, for an editor to kill Kashyap’s darlings. But loose baggy monster is meant as praise, for who’d want to check Kashyap and Khanwalkar’s ebullience? Gangs is an indulgent folly and this too I mean as praise. When commercial cinema is so afraid of risk, it’d be absurd to complain about the excesses of Kashyap’s imagination.