Gangs of Wasseypur – That Elusive Thing Called Consistency

If there is a landmark that divides Dhanbad in two parts, most would agree it is Gaya bridge, or as the locals like to call it – Gaya Pull. It is funny, how in north India, overhead bridges are mostly referred to as ‘pull’. Wasseypur sprawls beneath Gaya bridge. Geographically, Wasseypur is a level lower than the rest of Dhanbad. Many a times, while going to school, I would peer my neck outside the bus window to see Wasseypur’s landscape. I wanted to know more about its denizens, their occupations, and what happened to those kids who skittered at the end of the Gaya bridge playfully running beside a solitary bicycle tyre. Halfway into the movie, we see two such Wasseypur kids – cleaning toilets in train. Kashyap makes this scene powerful as he doesn’t dwell on the pathos. They are happy with the twenty rupees they have earned. Clearly, a prized amount.

The movie opens to a family watching Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu thi before they are assaulted by bullets. The year is 2004, and shortly after we are taken back to 1941. That right there, this vast spanning of the movie (from early 1940’s to late 1990’s) is Kashyap’s both boon and bane. Boon because it makes this movie ambitious, telling a story in all its richness can at times be commercially crippling, but Kashyap takes a much-needed leap of faith here. And bane because, this is a movie that takes the passage of time seriously, not like the movies of Bachchan during 1970s where 25 years would pass in just one scene – Bachchan would change form either while drinking water or while running from goons/cops during one of his escapades. Kashyap does not want to indulge in that pulpy metamorphosis. So, in order to give the passage of time some credence, there is a lot of setting up to do, before the main protagonists are introduced. And that interestingly, becomes a vital undoing of the movie. It’s not that the setting up itself is a problem, because it is required here. To tell a story this meaty, and to tell a vengeance saga rippling across generations effectively, you can’t eschew the genesis of character’s motivations. And I think the first 40 minutes of back-story (told in an interesting juxtaposition of voice over and vintage still images – lending it a part documentary feel) would work while watching the entire 5 hour 20 minute version of the movie, but eats a lot of time percentage wise, while just watching the first part. Also because, the back-story is just a summation of events that unfolds in a linear, sterile fashion, and ends up engulfing a lot of dramatic sheen.

Gangs of Wasseypur I

The movie acquires its dramatic wheels when Bajpai (Sardar Khan) appears on-screen. Sardar Khan is a very well-rounded character – a gangster who’s a buffoon, amoral, and somebody whose masculinity is stuck in between two worlds — he wants to live with both of his wives. He even insists Durga that she live in one floor of the house while Nagma would live on a separate floor of the same house. They would have separate kitchens, of course. But even then it is not Bajpai’s performance that stands out in the film, it is Dhulia’s. Dhulia, as Ramadhir Singh, exhibits remarkable restraint, because he knows that daggers and guns are not the only weapons at one’s disposal while fighting a battle that wages across generations, and especially when the competing parties are lopsided in terms of economical and social stature. And it comes as no surprise, that Dhulia features prominently in what is undoubtedly the finest scene of the movie. He accost Sardar Khan’s two boys into his car (shortly after they are wondering what to do with the twenty rupees they have earned from cleaning toilets) and asks them what do they think about their current impoverished condition (and what is undoubtedly a hallmark of very fine dialogue writing, the word used here is not toilet, not even latrine, but the crudest of word one can use for faeces –pakhana). The boys obviously don’t have an answer. He fishes out a wad of notes from his pocket and hands it over to them. He tells them to ask for any help, if required. A classic case (even clichéd, you might say) of a rich exploiting the poor by making use of a poor man’s debauchery and his inability to hide it, because poor people are inherently corrupt in non-subtle ways. Ramadhir Singh knows the wars are never won in the moment, that is why he keeps quiet when his son is ridiculed in the police station by Sardar Khan and Asgar. And this is one of the prime reasons, this battle between Sardar Khan and Ramadhir Singh is interesting, because it is not merely a battle between the two individuals, but a battle between two people belonging to two different strata of society, a battle between two people whose maturity levels are at the different ends of the spectrum, and it shows on the two different levels they fight their own respective wars. Sardar Khan’s approach is a lot literal, more content in winning the battle than winning the war. In last 11 years, if there was one outstanding thespian performance that did not have a suitable competitor – it had to be Pankaj Kapoor playing Abbaji in Maqbool. Dhulia’s acting is as accomplished, if not better. If he can go behind the camera and direct Paan Singh Tomar, and come in front of it with as much assuredness, then 2012 belongs to this guy.

Character wise, the final most important cog in the wheel is Nawazuddin’s Faisal (Sardar Khan’s son). This obviously is a very important character to the narrative because he is expected to play a major part in the vengeance arc (GoW II). But even beyond the mechanics of this movie, he is a welcome addition. Because a character like Faisal has seldom found representation in pop-culture. Maybe understandably so, because such characters are found mainly in India’s small towns. People whose idea of love, lust, anger and betrayal are primarily derived from cinema. In another brilliant scene, when he is castigated by a girl he is trying to woo, he is heartbroken and soon begins crying. This character has two-three potential obstacles – one, to overcome his social awkwardness (to stop reconciling cinema and real life), secondly, with his father dead and his brother embroiled in marital bliss, he would have to come of age in a sinister way – not very different from what Micheal Corleone’s character had to go through (just like Micheal’s character, he also likes to hide his weapon on toilet’s roof). The fact that he had lived a life astray and had been sheltered by his family members would make things further complicated. Which is also what would make the showdown between Ramadhir and Fasial very interesting. Because the battles in Wasseypur are not about what you have, but who you are.

One of the areas where this movie heavily scores is the detailing. It does complete justice to the milieu it is set in, and has a lot of deft touches that impresses you. For instance, the jeep which Sardar Khan drives has ‘BHR’ written on its number plates – an abbreviation of Bihar, and for part 1, Wasseypur was a part of Bihar (Jharkhand separated from Bihar in 1999). The dilapidated petrol pumps, the small muddy hovels, it’s all delightfully packed in. The last such movie which bowled me completely by its detailing was Khosla ka Ghosla. (In one of the scenes in that movie, there’s a bottle of Rooh-Afza kept on the dining table. So middle class, Mr. Banerjee).

Another aspect this movie fleetingly touches is the queer dynamics amongst males that is central to small towns (and not only in small town, any place where there is an abundance of sexually oppressed males). It is especially prevalent in small towns, because there males and females can’t mingle publicly. In such a case, some males have to be surrogate for females. Which is one of the reasons why Yashpal Sharma is not a misfit in that scene, and also the reason why the male bonhomie scene in the jail is not only impressive, but is also important. If you don’t believe me, attend any boisterous celebration amidst a bunch of testosterone charged engineering students.

Also, one criticism that is often levied on Kashyap’s works is self-indulgence. And this is one criticism that I can’t wrap my head around. For me, one of the major undoing of the movie was Kashyap’s abated indulgence. He was content in playing to the gallery which reduced Gangs of Wasseypur to a merely genre exercise. When I watch movies, I want the film-makers to be indulgent, otherwise what is the point? When I watch an Almodovar’s movie, I am looking for that sexual energy, when I watch a Lars Von Trier’s movie, I want him to unleash his inner monster, when I am watching a Bela Tarr’s movie, I want him to shackle time and throttle it the way only he is capable of. If you don’t want the film-makers to be indulgent, then they will be making (rather manufacturing) assembly line movies. Unaccounted madness is any day better than structured mediocrity.

But this movie too suffers from a flaw that is far too common to most Kashyap’s works – the movie gives us a lot of moments to savor, but they are isolated and sporadic. These flashes of brilliance do not conspire amongst themselves well enough to deliver a concrete cinematic punch. Barring Black Friday, all his other movies lack some sort of coherence that makes a movie good. A good contrarian example would be Banerjee’s oeuvre (I haven’t seen his Shanghai though), his movies are bound solidly. Although Kashyap’s GoW is a lot solid as compared to his other movies, and since I have just watched only one half of the movie, commenting on its overall terseness would be a little unfair. But if GoW (part I) would have been a complete movie by itself, it does fail to hold up (although that does not mean it is a bad movie, only unsatisfying). And one of the reasons for that could be because for most parts, it is a hodge-podge. No, not because it contains a lot of characters, but the manner in which different scenes are sewn. Many scenes appeared rushed to me, robbing their emotional impact. And what is more surprising is, this flaw appears in Kashyap’s movie – an art movie aficionado himself. Gangs of Wasseypur gasps for breath throughout. Where is that thehrav in this movie? After the initial half an hour, the voice over rears its ugly head again. It is intrusive to the extent that it jolted me out of the movie a couple of times. It also reduced the impact of some scenes by spelling everything out for the viewer. For instance, the scene where Farhan (Piyush Mishra) is holding an umbrella for Sardar Khan, when he goes to meet Ramadhir Singh. It is not difficult to recognize that it is Ramadhir Singh’s umbrella, and that this scene is symbolic of Sardar Khan’s first giant step. It is all out there. But Piyush Mishra explains everything to us via a voice-over. Why such disdain for the audience?

With a lot of material at hand, Kashyap is also a lot insecure. He crams in so much, and not everything enhances the viewing experience. The audience does not need to know everything. After a certain point of time, the movie becomes a chronological fest, more concerned with juggling the passage of time than developing inter-character relationships.  It’s as if Kashyap doesn’t want the viewer to invest any emotion with the characters.

With a spate of vengeance movies in world cinema in last decade, its central theme has also become trite — that vengeance is pointless.  Even Park Chan Wook (the director of Vengeance trilogy) or for that matter, Nakashima, the director of a fine vengeance movie, Confession, did not hammer the messages of their movies, but since a lot of ground has already been trodden, even its subtle rendition now will appear trite. So even thematically, Kashyap has new grounds to break, or at least avoid being obviously trite.

Right now, despite all the promising flourishes, Gangs of Wasseypur-part I is a could have been movie. And that is not a pathetic category to be in (this movie would be in the litany of most cinephile’s top 10 bollywood movies of the year). Like his dad, Faisal would probably not use a katta in the next movie. The times have changed. Hope that metaphor for strength is true for the movie’s second part as well.

Enough of stifled results. The next time around, the gun should bloody not recoil.

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