By Shougat Dasgupta
IT’S impossible not to acknowledge the excitement around Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur diptych. It may have been conceived as one, very long, movie, but it has been split for Indian audiences; part two was released on Wednesday, 8 August, slightly less than two months after part one hit screens in the last week of June. I watched the film at Osian’s Cinefan festival in Delhi, a week-long event packed with films from all over Asia. Later, on a bright Delhi afternoon that had drawn festival-goers to gather on the grass, preening in the sun like basilisks, I watched Kashyap make his way across Siri Fort, the festival venue, held up by young men — always young men — eager to pump his hand, to have a picture taken, to tell him how much they loved his film. At the screening, people guffawed, whistled, gasped and at the end, applauded.
Kashyap’s job is done, so far as the popular film industry is concerned: he has made a hit film, two in fact, since whatever Kashyap’s vision of a five-hour-plus gangster epic, the commercial benefit of splitting the film in two, of having the tills ringing twice, is obvious. Fortunately, I don’t have to account here for moderate commercial success, nor the effusiveness of festival crowds, only the slight headache that, as I write this, is the most lingering effect of my encounter with Kashyap’s magnum opus.
Like the precocious child too aware of being cute,Gangs of Wasseypur is ultimately irritating. It’s not the cuteness or the precociousness that is the problem, it’s the awareness. Anurag Kashyap is a canny filmmaker. He knows what audiences will respond to, but he is so pleased with this knowledge that he can’t resist yet another slow-motion sequence, yet another film reference, yet another spray of too vivid blood, yet another character with yet another defining tic. It’s not enough that a character is named Perpendicular, there has to be another named Tangent, and another still, named Definite. Sneha Khanwalkar’s unquestionably cool soundtrack is so overused, it punctuates the film like a giddy schoolgirl might punctuate a text message or tweet: “OMG!!!!! GoW ROCKS!! 2 gud!!! Nawazuddin is SOOO CUUTTEE!!!!” There are so many exclamation points, you long for the restraint of the full stop, the courtesy of the comma.
An arresting image, Kashyap should be told, is not the same as an idea. For instance, inGOW 1, a consigliere (one of two, like everything in this film) of the Khan family crime syndicate self-flagellates in the manner of Shia Muslims to punish himself for his lust. There are other scenes of collective Shia self-flagellation in GOW 1, and in GOW 2, the same character once again cracks the lash against his back, his face set in stoic denial, while listening to Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Huma Qureshi’s extended post-nuptial frolicking. This must mean something, you think, must reflect something about this man’s character, or perhaps make some general point.
Like a precocious child aware of being cute, GoW is irritating. It’s not the cuteness or the precociousness that is the problem, it’s the awareness‘
But, no, Kashyap just likes the sight and sound of a man whipping himself. Definite, a half-brother of gang boss Faizal Khan (played with coruscating charisma by Siddiqui), briefly wears a cobra pinched from a snake charmer around his neck. Faizal asks Definite why he has the snake. Definite is nonplussed by the question, the answer, to him at least, so plain: “It looks sexy.” I expect that might be Kashyap’s answer to reviewers who insist on asking why. Boss, it just looks sexy.
As with GOW 1, GOW 2 careens from scene to scene like a drunk driver between lanes, the tone at once portentous, bawdy, abrasive, comic, earnest: the film amounts to much less than the sum of its often violent, often tender, often funny, often spectacular parts.
What I find most baffling about the reactions to Gangs of Wasseypur are the claims for realism, for authenticity in its portrayal of north India. Kashyap is guilty of spreading much of this, but his words on his film are not to be taken at face value. At a press conference after the Cinefan screening, he denied his film’s debt to the Godfather trilogy, which is clear down even to the minatory signature tune that accompanies Faizal Khan on his trail of vengeance. The politics in the film, the attempts to place the internecine rivalries in some historical context, are half-hearted. The plot, which begins like all good epics in medias res, is soon so lost in digressions, cul de sacs and various dead ends that it becomes an afterthought. What is genuine, or if you like authentic, in GOW (1 and 2) is Kashyap’s devotion to the logic of commercial Hindi cinema. Huma Qureshi, whose warm, sexy performance is a primary reason to watch GOW 2, said in an interview to the website Rediff that she tease[s] Anurag that “Gangs of Wasseypur is your Dabangg. It’s a full on masala potboiler”. She is exactly right. The only way to watch the Gangs of Wasseypur films is as you’d watch any other Bollywood film, either by giving in entirely to Bollywood’s particular language, as indeed Qureshi’s character in GOW 2 does, or with an eyebrow arched.
I enjoyed both GOW 1 and GOW 2 for a fair amount of the considerable running time. In the latter, the extended slapstick sequences — including an attempted assassination held up by jokes about fruits and vegetables and a running gag about shoddily manufactured guns, scooters and the like — are frequently funny. As are Qureshi’s and Siddiqui’s early courtship scenes; the two actors, despite appearing physically incompatible, share a casual, natural chemistry. Several of the performances in the film are excellent, particularly Richa Chadda as Sardar Khan’s steely widow and family matriarch, though her elegant face remains unlined as she ages and her hennaed hair resembles Donald Trump’s rust-coloured pelt. All that said, GOW is a trifle, airy and insubstantial, and unworthy of its extraordinary length. It may be rollicking, raucous, but so is a pebble rattling round an empty biscuit tin.
Shougat Dasgupta is an Assistant Editor with Tehelka.