Cast: Manoj Bajpai, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Richa Chadda, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Zeishan Quadri, Pankaj Tripathi, Huma Qureshi, Piyush Mishra, Reemma Sen, Yashpal Sharma, Aditya Kumar
Director: Anurag Kashyap
Runtime: 320 min.
Verdict: For the most part a squandered opportunity. But there are moments that give me hope.
Genre: Drama, Crime, Comedy
(Note: I lump together part 1 and part 2, partly because that is how they ought to be judged and partly because makes my job easier. I watched the first part this Saturday night (18th August) and watched the second part the next morning (19th August), in what is my attempt at approximating the experience of those folks down at Cannes. I like to think I succeeded. But for clarity, I shall be specifying the part the moment is from, addressing the first part as opening half and the second part as the second half.)
Consider one of part II’s opening moments, where Fazlu comes running up the stairs to the terrace to wake up a doped Faizal Khan (Mr. Siddiqui) , informing him of his father Sardar Khan’s (Mr. Bajpai) killing. It is one single shot with no cut. Fazlu climbs, shouts, and Faizal wakes up to the utter dizziness of it all. I tell you, Mr. Siddiqui is some actor. So, Faizal wakes, rushes to climb down the terrace, the sequence still offering no cut, and then climbs back up again, runs to the near wall where his slippers lay, wears them and climbs back down. There was this roar of laughter all around me. An audience member in the row in front of me immediately remarked to his friend how remarkable the direction is here. Between this and Mr. Banerjee’s usage of shuklam baradharam in Shanghai, one gets the feeling this is what it has come down to, with this breed of new young Indian filmmakers – trading meaningless details that are targeted for nothing but laughter. Abstract details that are designed to elicit that precise response of appreciation for cleverness within the audience member. Everything within the shot is traded for a bit of “awesomeness”, which lends itself to easy appreciation. These are details that don’t work inwards, i.e. adding thematic depth to the composition and narrative, and instead merely exist to jump outwards, towards us. Which contrasts starkly to an image almost shot some seven years ago, in Black Friday, where Badshah Khan looks at a young couple holding hands on the opposite side of a ferry. It was a detail that was drenched with history, revealing more about the character and his culture and his mental state and his prejudices than any other moment in the film. It was a detail that helped me understand what all the fuss was all about. I look at it now, a little frustratingly, and cannot help but feel that somewhere down the line we got a little carried away.
Unless we consider the moment where the women of this world, in that rare moment in movies, especially those concerning gangsters, or even men for that matter, join together in a song to celebrate Faizal’s wedding with Mohsina (Ms. Qureshi). I admit, I don’t get the meaning of the song, but the moment alone, sculpted in real time like so much of Mr. Kashyap and left untouched by his almost schizophrenic tendency to crack a joke to undermine the dramatic potential, is a thing of beauty. Nagma (Ms. Chadda) remembers her husband and breaks a tear, and without a flashback of him, it is a moment and a memory that is hers alone. I was overwhelmed, and that shot shall stay with me for some time, but bearing the weight of another one, a few sequences earlier, during Sardar Khan’s funeral, where Mr. Kashyap thinks it is mighty clever to indulge us in another of his touches of awesomeness – having the singer (Mr. Yashpal Sharma) sing that track from Ek jaan hain hum (1982), its presence only to provide a big joke. I do get that the film’s central theme is the role of popular cinema in our lives, as subtly presented during the opening half via Faizal’s introduction, and explicitly declared towards the latter part of the second half by Ramadhir Singh (Mr. Dhulia). And I even respect Mr. Kashyap’s right to stay away from melodrama by draping it in humor, because hey, irreverence is an attitude too. An attitude I don’t abide by, but an attitude nonetheless. An attitude that is unfortunately taking a lot of spine and conviction away from modern filmmaking. But just as much I respect an artist’s right to present a moment, I believe an artist ought to respect the moment for my sake and not jump out of the frame and pee all over it just for a few silly laughs. Had the song been played in the background, preferably around the frame than within it, it would’ve created a strange tension and would’ve probably carried the weight of the film’s aforementioned central theme. Instead, Mr. Kashyap cuts to the singer and his shenanigans, even presenting to us a close-up of his fingers while he’s adjusting his rhythm. The death is the set-up, the song is the punchline. It is such a self-congratulatory tone Mr. Kashyap’s film assumes here, thoroughly highlighting and underlining the silliness of the track being sung, that it completely overwrites the moment’s and probably the movie’s essential dynamic – the frailty of life here in this land, the business that is derived out of it (what the narrator refers to as haraami), and the fools who take it all personally (what he refers to as chutiya). In a film as this, where the absurdity of arbitrary and abrupt termination of a life-trajectory – with all its dreams and future and relations and past – is palpable, where faith and God and thus hope have precious little to offer, where cinema is probably the only spirituality and hope everyone seeks, it becomes mighty mighty frustrating when a filmmaker fritters all those layers for the pleasures of a silly joke.
Or, for the simple sensual pleasures of the rhythms of a well-captured moment that offers nothing but bathes in its own virtuosity. Sardar Singh squats besides Durga (Ms. Sen) while she’s washing the clothes. Mr. Kashyap gradually sculpts the rhythm in real time – her washing and blushing and washing and Sardar riffing on the act. Look at it as a standalone moment, it could be mistaken for one of those enchanting little short films, like those Pixar shorts, only that what’s cute there is the purest form of lust here. But scene after scene after scene Mr. Kashyap’s employs this strategy of his, which is guided by an approach to lay-out the details of the process, so that he gets an opportunity to mock that process. It is not enough that Perpendicular (Mr. Kumar) finds the owner of the jewellery store he robbed only a few moments back at his house helping the womenfolk select stuff. It is a unique statement about this world, this town of Wasseypur, but Mr. Kashyap needs to find a joke in there somewhere. Never mind if it is a stupid key, but the punchline needs to exist to overwrite any tonal/thematic residue.
Gangs of Wasseypur could be described as a narrative out of several slices of life, which is ambitious if you look at it that way, but when most of those slices taste funny it renders the overall experience a tad trivial. The only desirable reaction at the end of any given moment is a laugh. Perpendicular and Definite have a bike-jump scene that reveals precious little about either of them but does serve the butt of an off-the-frame cuss-word, and thus a joke. The longer a process runs, one feels, the higher the chances Mr. Kashyap finding the absurdity of the situation. It doesn’t matter who’s gunned down, and in an extended coordinated set-up masterfully handled that leaves the whole thing both silly and clever and funny, he finds time to insert details about what’s bought and what’s being worn and what’s the decoy. It is not enough that a sequence is funny by itself, it is necessary that Mr. Kashyap declares to us that he knows how clever and hilarious it is, and the punchline at the end of it, like taking the dead hand off the horn, is his high-five to us. I mean, the vacuum cleaner running in the foreground is audio-visually on the nose.
Occasionally, Mr. Kashyap finds the poetry and the restraint to let a moment and be, and let the tone and the emotions of the narrative take center-stage, like on Faizal’s wedding night, when he comes down the stairs to drink water, with Farhan (Mr. Mishra) looking at him. Much like Nagma’s moment, this little thing acknowledges the memories of a narrative, a facet too often ignored when we place too much emphasis on cinema being an out-and-out visual medium and attach awesomeness to virtuosity. The framework the script lends to discipline the overall narrative, lending it not merely memory but an internal logic, is for the most part lost here. Sardar Khan spends time with Durga while he completely ignores Nagma, so much so that there’s a moment he remarks how old his son has grown. The geographical logic that is set here is contradicted by an earlier moment where a young Faizal runs to Durga’s house and throws brick at the door. Or when Ramadhir Singh promises Sultan automatic guns, in a land fraught with meaningless death, it doesn’t make much sense when it takes so much time for the latter to find an opportunity to gun him down. Cause is secondary here, and everything happens when it needs to happen. Faizal Khan, who’s until then merely guided by the fantasies of cinema, suddenly develops greed once the narrator breaks it us that development in his very gentle manner. The same narrator confides in us, in both the parts, when the support/fear of the masses is swaying Sardar Khan’s family’s way, and yet the crowd never plays any real part in the scheme of things. The individual families are just about as naked as every other person here, and the waiting game here doesn’t really feel consistent with the terrain. I’m sure Mr. Kashyap has the answers but amongst all the meaningless details and all the resulting jokes, the narration is lost. Most times it feels like a set of short films strung together end-to-end to merely give the feel of an overarching narrative arc, like the abstraction of the opening, which doesn’t offer anything more than being a trailer for the rest of the film, with its random deaths and cinema-intrusion and cuss-words serving a punchline. And when the film is about a place and its people, and when the title of the film is about all the gangs, I find it endearing when a narrative rises above good and bad. Unlike here, where the bad guys remain bad guys with little to no detail of their private lives and their emotions other than to cause a few more jokes.
Mr. Kashyap’s structure for Black Friday, with its feel for both the microscopic and macroscopic, still remains one of my favorite examples on how to construct an epic narrative. There was a film that had both integrity and memory. I wouldn’t necessarily mind the dilution of the overall narrative, which I admit is a considerably tougher thing to pull off, but what frustrates me is the trivialization of the details. The adult Faizal Khan is first seen in a theatre watching Trishul, and the manner in which the notion of popular cinema (Amitabh Bachchan then) seeps into those ensuing moment via Mr. Siddiqui, and even a random dude sitting opposite to him in a train, creates a sublime moment of criticism of an entire culture that breeds and celebrates and imitates adolescence. Yet, Mr. Kashyap brings that observation down via a dialog between Ramadhir and his men, which becomes yet again a joke about actor name-dropping more than anything else. Couple all of that with all those meta-tracks about guns and equating them with masculinity, or those mocking the dialect with English words stretched to confirm to the songwriter’s beliefs about the people and it is reason enough to make me one feel a tad offended. But here is the frustrating bit, Mr. Kashyap, by using those tracks, especially the latter, repeatedly, almost legitimizes it into a private memory. In the film’s most remarkably constructed sequence, completely arresting us within it, Mr. Kashyap lets go off all those annoying tendencies to simply capture every breath and every moment as Faizal climbs stairs and jumps walls and crouches while Sultan’s gangs unload seemingly an unlimited supply of AK-47s somewhere below. It is that rare shot that betrays both virtuosity and attains greatness, almost 6-D in the way it numbs our senses and suffocates us, and when Faizal takes a jump and hurts his ankle and winces in deep pain Mr. Kashyap audaciously plays that private memory. There’re often in our day-to-day lives moments as these, often after a dull day, when we feel an almost magical surge of optimism. That shot from Mr. Kashyap sculpts that surge.
And thus the question. In this post-ideological climate, do reactionaries like me who swear by the classical seriousness, have any reason to cheer? I don’t know. There’re so many different angles and so many perspectives from where Mr. Kashyap looks at Wasseypur, mocking Faizal’s cinema-induced reverie (please don’t tell me that his weed-addiction is another in-your-face stand-in, it’ll break my heart) one moment, and dancing in its frenzy the next. All of that sort of condenses into Mr. Kashyap’s aesthetic – intercutting and slow-motion – when Faizal consumes his revenge, assuming multiples layers, at once celebrating emotion and condemning violence. For the first time in the film, the pawns in the narrative assume an identity of their own, stakes of their own, their existence not merely to serve the principal characters but to provide the essential counterpoint to Wasseypur’s tragic absurdity. It is a rare gesture of grace and respect that transcends the families and unites the community in its own mess. Maybe Mr. Kashyap somewhere believes Wasseypur deserves to be the butt of a joke. I don’t know. But when I remind of that final shot, a slow pan into a new world, of migrants and Mumbai, a motion leading to cause new memory in a completely removed geography, it humbles me. And bears testament to how easy it is to cause awesomeness borne out of virtuosity, which doesn’t need any memory, and how difficult it is to build greatness.