(Published in The Sunday Guardian on 24 June 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/when-violence-and-cusswords-are-politically-correct)
Cast: Manoj Bajpayee, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Piyush Mishra, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Richa Chadda, Reemma Sen, Huma Qureshi
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Rating: 4.5 stars
It isn’t everyday you move from Smriti Irani to gang violence. And isn’t everyday you get to watch an Indian film where the violence is poetic, and the dons can be doofuses. After an intense five-minute opening sequence where the gunshots are only outnumbered by thema-behn genre of swearwords, we’re dragged back in time to 1940, after a brief history of the geographical identity of Wasseypur.
For the next two and a half hours, it’s a crazy ride that has all the elements Anurag Kashyap promised in his pre-release interviews – fighting, revenge, love, drama, and more than ten songs. Throw all this masala into a classily stylised gangster film, fill it in with some brilliant actors and quirky characters, and say goodbye to boredom.
The sweep of the film goes from 1940 to 2004, narrated by Nasir Ahmed. The inspired casting of Piyush Mishra as the man who witnesses three generations of a family feud bolsters the film. His casual use of cusswords, so much in contradiction with his mild manner, is the perfect foil to a storyline that’s so over-the-top it would jar without his almost bored recounting.
The inception of the feud is a communal clash from 1941 – it’s the Qureshis vs. Pathans. A legendary dacoit, Sultana Daku, has been raiding British trains carrying Indian goods, and the battle of Wasseypur begins with Shahid Khan and Sharif Qureshi clashing over who gets to be Sultana Daku. Village conventions, the industrialisation of the country, and tragic turns of events dictate the trajectory of a cycle of violence that will eventually envelope an entire district.
The Bollywood noir that Anurag Kashyap has made his own is essentially male. But there’s space for far more than izzat ka sawaal and gunbattles. The gangsters who believe in their own legends are complemented by women who have more gumption than their men. The temporal and social setting of the film makes for some tasteful political incorrectness.
The narrative is compelling, and its nuances are to be found in the delightful flavour of the local sayings, many of which are too explicit to be quoted in a family newspaper. From cracks at Bollywood stereotypes to social commentary, the dialogue aims at a fairly broad spectrum of targets.
It needs very capable actors to carry such a bulky plot, and to a large extent, Gangs succeeds. Manoj Bajpayee’s lusty execution of his role as Sardar Khan, son of Shahid, makes the character irresistible. He handles a gamut of behavioural transformations, and seems to belong in this world, where blood ties matter far less than family honour, where women would rather see their sons killed than let murders go unavenged.
Newcomer Richa Chadda excels as the motormouth who first chases after her husband with a stick for daring to bring another woman home, and then humiliates him further by asking him to eat well so he’ll be able to ‘perform’ at the brothel. Only one dimension of the characters played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Reemma Sen is exposed in the first part of this film; it appears that their importance will only become apparent in the sequel.
The film is not without its negatives, and does take liberties with logic – the most glaring irregularity, to me, was the bafflingly inconsistent attitude of the police to murders and dacoitry. However, those are somehow easy to forgive in a film that so painstakingly creates an alternate reality.
Sneha Khanwalkar’s almost eccentric music design aids the texture of the story, and comedy is injected into it at crucial times. These, combined with the look of the film – so beautifully faithful to the era it traverses, down to the rupee notes – may just give you the feeling you’ve been served a smörgåsbord of hallucinogens.
The Verdict: This marketplace-killings-meet-
mechanised-industry storyline will grow on you. You laugh with the film, cringe at it, gawk in disbelief, and shake your head at various points –but mostly, you simply lose yourself in it.