Film Review: Gangs of Wasseypur Part I
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Cast: Manoj Bajpai, Richa Chadda, Reema Sen, Jaideep Ahlawat, Tigmanshu Dulia
The prime triumph of Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur is that it chronicles, from the 1940s onwards, the story of three generations grappling with the immutable circumstances of life in the eponymous dusty Jharkhand town, in a fashion atypical of our usual overblown cinema. As time passes the cars improve, the gardens get greener, vacuum cleaners and refrigerators appear, but generation after generation remains trapped in a feud that seems to be about blood but is actually about control. We learn that it is the British who set up the patterns of subjugation—pehelwans enforcing colonial modes of production on workers—yet it is under the sightless auspices of the Government of India that these patterns are perpetuated, augmented even.
Yet Gangs of Wasseypur is joyously told, thumping sequences of action interweaved with stories of family, love and desire. The dialogue is profane and amusing, underlaid by an infectious soundtrack, and there’s excellent acting. Manoj Bajpai, as the principal character Sardar Khan, plays his part well enough; Richa Chadda brings nuance to her portrayal of his wife. The camera’s erotic caress of Reema Sen’s backless choli will stay long in most minds, but her performance should as well. Her gradual transformation from seductress to destroyer is essayed elegantly. The interplay between these three characters strikes a chord, enriching the story beyond the familiar inter-generational conflict sagas of Bollywood.
You forget, as you watch, what a small canvas this is—almost everything takes place in the desiccated coal mining stretch between Dhanbad and Wasseypur, though there are two brief but pivotal interludes in Varanasi. Even those who gain the most from the trade are trapped here. Ramadhir Singh, the politician who serves proxy for the innumerate hustlers who’ve denuded this belt, expands in stature and dimension, yet even he remains, scheming until his eyebrows grey, immobilised by kaala sona.
On November 15, 2011, Sister Valsa John, a 53-year-old nun from Kerala, was hacked to death in her home in the village of Pachwara by a group of 40 or more men. Pachwara lies in the coal-rich district of Dumka. Valsa John had gone to work there with a convent, but soon left to live with the Santhal tribals of village, a group displaced by mining around the area. It is still not established who killed Sister Valsa. Her family alleged it was the coal-mining mafia, who she was fighting, before it emerged that it might involve a rape case and a group of tribal people. Others said her links with PANEM, a local mining company, might have motivated the Maoists to kill her.
Whether it was the mining mafia, the tribal mafia or the Maoist mafia, this is how any such collective survives and then thrives: through the asymmetrical assertion of power. This was my primary gripe with this first part of Gangs of Wasseypur. For all its claims to authenticity—and there is much about it that rings true—the director chose, often at crucial moments, to romanticise the crime being indulged in. In the film, the only battles of real force were those of clan against clan, as a politician pulls the strings. In truth, the mining mafia works in more insidious ways, domineering over those with little recourse, claiming cess, burning homes, killing. It is a system that relies on imposing diktats on a population the government does not care to protect, whether the indigenous tribes of India today or Sicilians in 1950s America. It seems strange that we have endless iterations of mob movies, set in all kinds of contexts, yet no one is willing to show how the mafia steps on the little guy.
No successful Indian film breaks the mould of the protagonist-antagonist struggle, so the “goodly” clan of Sardar Khan must be differentiated from their rivals, the Qureshis. This is achieved in two different ways. First, Sardar Khan is shown as a valiant defender of womanly honour, repeatedly coming to the rescue of every Dhanbad damsel in distress. While the Qureshis have no such qualms, Sardar Khan chops willies and wonkas if anyone dares so much as touch a girl from his muhalla.
The second manner of differentiation I found more discomfiting. The Qureshis are descendants of a colonial-era dacoit, and now run vicious roost over Wasseypur. In some ways, the Khans are the Good Muslims and the Qureshis the Bad. I noticed any time the Qureshis were pictured, the standard tropes of Muslim representation in Bollywood were trotted out, those most alienating and worrisome to India’s majority community. You had repeated shots of Matam, the Shia practice of self-flagellation, interspliced at random in almost every montage of Qureshi violence. Whatever you may think of the practice, this film’s visual conjoin of the Qureshis’ bouts of murderous rage with a widely performed act of religious penitence seemed unnecessary. It is also worth noting that the Qureshis are butchers, another stereotype beloved of Bollywood, and that there are plenty of shots of chopped carcasses and cracking bones that accompany their varied vengeances.
I feel churlish writing this about a script that has taken care to make its Muslim characters so rounded and real. This, perhaps, is why I was more disappointed. The violent, lascivious Muslim is a Bollywood cliché, just as the noble and sacrificial Muslim of Kaalia and Sholay once was. These are representations that affect the viewer subtly, playing on subconscious fears and anxieties, and are especially damaging when he or she has no real sense of the milieu a film is set in. “An omniscient narrator, who survives throughout the film, explains how, from time immemorial, Muslims have fought other Muslims in the area, not for religious reasons, but out of pure evil [emphasis mine],” wrote the Hollywood Reporter critic after seeing the movie at Cannes.
That said, Gangs of Wasseypur is also not what I feared it would be—a hackneyed Bollywood tale transposed to the rural hinterland with a lot of colourful language added for “authenticity”. This, to me, seemed a story true enough to a place and time. Part II should be cracking.
Prayaag Akbar is assistant editor of the Sunday Guardian.Anurag Kashyap, Bollywood, Film, Gangs of Wasseypur, Manoj Bajpai, Manoj Bajpayee, Reema Sen, Richa Chadda