Directed by: Anurag Kashyap || Produced by: Atul Shukla, Anurag Kashyap, Sunil Bohra
Screenplay by: Zeishan Quadri, Anurag Kashyap, Askilesh Jaiswal || Starring: Manoj Bajpai, Jaideep Ahlawat, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Huma Qureshi, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Vineet Kumar Singh, Piyush Mishra, Pankaj Tripathi, Richa Chadda, Reema Sen, Vipin Sharma, Anurita Jha, Yashpal Sharma, Rajkummar Rao
Music by: Sneha Khanwalker, G. V. Prakash Kumar || Cinematography: Rajeev Ravi || Edited by: Shweta Venkat || Country: India || Language: Hindi
Running Time: 319 minutes
The enduring cinematic power of the crime genre and the universal appeal of Western audiovisual motifs manifest themselves across countless film industries, cultures, and auteurs. Most Western remakes, remixes, or dramatic inspirations are derivative of Italian interpretations of what was originally an American phenomenon (aka the “Spaghetti Western“), namely via the works of acclaimed writer-director Sergio Leone, such as the Dollars Trilogy (1964-66) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Different cultural contexts and international filmmakers deconstructed the borderline mythical imagery of the American Western (a movement which dominated cinematic history from the 1910s-1950s), embracing coldhearted anti-heroes over idealized strongmen, chaotic sectarian violence over cultural imperialism, and French New Wave-style self-reflexive editing over traditional Golden Age Hollywood “invisible editing,” all while embracing the unapologetic violence integral to basic Western formula. Needless to say, this cynical twist to classical American storytelling lends its narrative structure, visual style, and character archetypes to hybridization with the crime drama. Both genres are, in a modern artistic sense at least, close evolutionary cousins that have become hallmarks of some of today’s greatest working filmmakers, including but not limited to Dennis Villeneuve, Chad Stahelski, James Mangold, and Quentin Tarantino.
The dry, scalding landscapes of Northern India are the perfect backdrop for modern interpretations of this most visceral cinematic crossbreed (see also, Sholay ). The region’s endemic cultural and ethnic diversity and torrid history provide endless potential for crime narratives, which is something that screenwriter Zeishan Quadri (a Wasseypur native) and writer-director Anurag Kashyap recognized with their 2012 epic, Gangs of Wasseypur.
Told across a 60 year-plus time-span from the pre-independence 1940s colonial era through the 2000s, Kashyap and Quadri weave a multigenerational tale of organized crime, familial legacy, revenge, and shifting cultural landscapes. The story is character-driven in nature, but features an ensemble cast and multiple protagonists across its two-part, five and a half hour structure. In many ways, the film’s hard-edged violence, stylized presentation, energetic and eclectic pop soundtrack, and sprawling criminal communities resemble Brazilian epics like City of God (2002) and Elite Squad (2007, 2010); the added ingredients of a Corleone style family structure and borderline melodramatic intra-(and inter)familial conflicts deepen the narrative’s impact, particularly its violence against principle castmembers, as well as its thematic and historical weight.
That being said, Gangs of Wasseypur’s cinematographic range and tonal versatility outmatch any aestheticization of hunger from South America. Gangs mixes and matches audiovisual styles so fluently it could serve as a benchmark for genre-blending for the entire Indian film industry. Director Kashyap condenses time through various montage sequences of different speeds and composes set-pieces with SteadiCam long-takes, while notable scene transitions are stylized with slow-motion at extraordinarily high framerates and intense, non-diegetic musical accompaniment. Still other scenes showcase diegetic musical numbers whereby characters sing and dance as part of a social gathering or religious festival, which are edited with more traditional, invisible cuts. What’s most notable about this eclectic mix of cinematographic and musical styles are the recurring patterns in which they are used. Where as most filmmakers stick to a single, overarching audiovisual style per film (if not their entire careers…), or tend toward a more generic studio style of editing and formulaic storytelling with occasional cinematic flairs (like attention-grabbing oners or on-the-nose jump-cuts), Kashyap is more deliberate with his diverse collection of cinematic tricks. A notable SteadiCam long-take depicting a brutal gang shooting opens the film in dramatic fashion, sure, but most of Kashyap’s oners are documentarian in nature, condensing everyday chatter and the humdrum details of extortion or blackmail into fluid, visually interesting scenes that keep the pace snappy. Other motion-controlled long-takes build tension before violent hits or drawn-out action sequences, while still others are mined for comedic purposes, such as when a hit-job goes awry after a firearm malfunction, forcing a comical chase sequence in which the would-be assassin is then chased by the would-be victim.
Conversely, super slow-motion and non-diegetic music are used to highlight characters’ emotional intensity or revelation. The stylistic contrast between these and both the motion-controlled and free-form oners cannot be understated, and it’s to Kashyap’s credit that his combination feels synergistic rather than jarring. Perhaps the most notable use of slow-motion is the film’s action-packed finale where secondary protagonist Nawazuddin Siddiqui guns down chief antagonist Tigmanshu Dhulia amidst an all out assault on a police-guarded hospital (the opening sections of which are shot with the aforementioned SteadiCam long-takes).
Still, Gangs could have been an emotionally hollow cinematography showcase if its screenplay and cast didn’t support the narrative’s presentation. For such a detailed narrative stretched across such an inordinate time period, Kashyap and principle screenwriter Quadri did a fantastic job highlighting the personalities of their principle characters. Some have tragic, almost poetic arcs, while others are rife with dark humor and almost ironic (if not comically violent) deaths; nearly all have significant arcs and add thematic value to the overall story. The primary leads for the first and second act are Manoj Bajpai as the principle crime patriarch and Siddiqui as his second son, respectively; they are almost mirror images of one another, yet the latter remains very much a chip off the former. Their almost estranged, distant relationship compounds the tragic irony and pattern of violence that consume their family, which is further complicated by Bajpai’s extramarital affairs and bastard son (the latter played by screenwriter Quadri). Speaking of those affairs, the hilarious soap opera dynamics of Richa Chadda (Bajpai’s Muslim wife) threatening to castrate her husband, juxtaposed with his reassuring his knocked up Hindu mistress (Reema Sen) that “she won’t be a baby-vending machine” like his wife, are some of the film’s best comedic moments.
In the end, while Bollywood films (if not Indian cinema in general) have been blending genres for decades, I assert that most do not mix them and their often disparate tones well. For every 3 Idiots (2009), there is a Munna Bhai: MBBS (2001), and for every Haider (2014), there is a Rang de Basanti (2006). Zeishan Quadri and Anurag Kashyap have found the right balance of eclectic, diverse cinematographic styles and ambitious, if sometimes extraneous narrative elements through deliberate planning of these techniques and effective story structure. The worst thing about Gangs of Wasseypur is that it could not have been told in less than four hours, so as it stands at almost five and a half hours, I can’t lambaste Kashyap for telling this story the way he needed to tell it; that being said, 319 minutes for a single crime drama is a tall order, no matter how many Spaghetti Western motifs it pulls off…
Let me put it this way: Gangs of Wasseypur is worth seeing, no questions asked, if you’re even a passing fan of crime dramas, Westerns, or South Asian cinema. I would still recommend it if you’re not a fan of any of those things, given the film’s sheer entertainment value and charismatic style, but it’s not exactly light viewing even discounting its mammoth length. Still, it’s a more economical use of screen-time than anything Sergio Leone has ever done, and I’m a fan of his.
SUMMARY & RECOMMENDATION: Anurag Kashyap’s Bihari crime epic weaves Indian history with universal cinematic drama to create one of the most tonally diverse crime sagas in modern cinema history. It is nothing if not ambitious, following no less than three sprawling crime families over the course of sixty years and three generations. Kashyap’s use of cinema verite cinematography and documentarian aesthetics is matched only by his stylized long-takes and pulse-pounding pop soundtrack. Even Quentin Tarantino hasn’t made a genre-blender this wild.
— However… at almost five and a half hours long, Gangs of Wasseypur remains… well, almost five and a half hours long. Not even The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) goes down easy after the first three. It’s just a limitation of the medium, I’m afraid.
—> Still, it’s got a better sense of humor than Sergio Leone’s, too. This fucker comes HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
? Seriously though, I swear I love Leone’s films. He just has these ticks, you see.