When one thinks of Indian cinema, one’s thoughts may conjure images of Bollywood dance sequences or deep introspective art films by the likes of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak. This perception is highly reductive — the country is replete with profitable and popular regional film industries: Bollywood, Bengali cinema, the Tamil film industry (Kollywood), Punjab films (Pollywood), the Malayalam movie industry, etc., etc. Of course, Bollywood is still king, yet by the early 2000’s as technology made cameras ever smaller a renaissance in the indie film scene began.
Leading the charge, Anurag Kashyap has made a career of directing gritty crime dramas and never wavering from showing the ugly side of Indian society. Be it the endemic corruption in local politics, the tensions between the Hindu and Muslim population, or the ways that poverty and blood vendettas can destroy families. Kashyap’s cultural cache skyrocketed around 2012 when his gangster epic, Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), made it to Indian theaters and international film festivals.
Clocking in at over five and a half hours and broken into two films. Gangs of Wasseypur tracks the Khan family for six decades as they scratch out a living as bandits in 1940 to their rise as a crime family in post-Independence India and their glorious and bloody fall in the mid-aughts. Part 1, introduces us to the paterfamilias, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), whose ambitions first alienate him from the Qureishi clan, local thugs in his home village of Wasseypur. Then, after moving to the nearby town of Dhanbad and rising through the ranks of Ramadhir Singh’s (Tigmanshu Dhulia) coal syndicate as muscle. It does not take long before his eyes get too big for his stomach and he ends up dead. Fast-forward to the 1970s and we meet Shahid’s son Sardar (Manoj Bajpal) who is a chip off the old block as he wages a one-man war first against his father’s old foes and he even manages to make a few new enemies. In Part 2, the focus moves toward Sardar’s sons and the bloody conflicts that ensue as infighting and familial betrayal lead to one tragedy after another.
Kashyap wears his influences on his sleeve. Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy, Scorsese’s gangster epics, and Sam Peckinpah and Tarantino’s operatic actioners are all part of Gangs of Wasseypur’s DNA. While the movie chronicles real-life characters, what elevates the picture to cult masterpiece is it’s visual style and its ability to satirize the very genre that it romanticizes. Rajeev Ravi, the film’s DP, does a wonderful job in mixing the stylistic tropes of guerilla filmmaking (e.g. shaky cam, on location shooting with only natural light, etc.), with the vibrant colors that Bollywood cinema is famous for. With a picture as mammoth as this is, it’s easy to just get into a rhythm and go at that pace throughout both installments. But Kashyap, Ravi, and the film’s editor Shweta Venkat never commit to a singular style and do their best to subvert expectations. A chase scene that only goes as fast as jogging speed, a gory death scene erotically shot and choreographed, or a seduction in slow motion that is far more comedic than romantic.
The disparity between the mythology of gangster cinema and the reality that we witness on the news is quite negligible. Yet, it’s impossible to look at real-life gangsters and not see a chicken or egg scenario. The patois of petty racketeers and violent hoodlums, their fashion sense, and their ultimate fate are borrowed from the likes of Jimmy Cagney, Al Pacino, and a whole host of other masculine leads strutting their stuff on celluloid screens. The narrative of both installments of Gangs of Wasseypur, though following the same beats that all gangster melodramas follow, is very well aware of its genre roots, and how cinema manipulates the masses. In a spin on what Jean-Luc Godard said about cinema being “truth 24 frames a second.” Kashyap brilliantly uses his mastery of the form to attack the truthfulness of his medium and warns his audience about just how seductive and dangerous the moving image is. Or we may soon find that our celluloid dreams are the prelude to true nightmares.