"This is Wasseypur. Even the pigeons here fly with one wing. With their other wing, they protect their dignity." Such is the world of Wasseypur, a lawless, godforsaken coal mining border town that has over the decades been in either Bengal, Bihar or Jharkhand. Anurag Kashyap's latest Gangs of Wasseypur is designed as an epic saga spanning 60 odd years of gang warfare between two powerhouse families vying for ultimate control of the land. It's an ambitious film about an endless spiral of violence, clocking in at around 5 hours, which has prompted Kashyap to release it in two parts. The film, in its full 5-hour glory, premiered at the Cannes Film Festival this year as part of the Directors Fortnight, and part 1 of the film concluded the recent New York Indian Film Festival.
The film is also set to have its UK premiere at the upcoming London Indian Film Festival. Gangs of Wasseypur is a milestone for Indian cinema in action/crime dramas, for daring to go that leap further and simply not giving a damn. However, part 1's two-and-a-half hour runtime and at times muddled and predictable story draws the film back from its potential for truly great cinema. One of Kashyap's greatest skills as a filmmaker is making the darkest, grittiest, and most violent depictions look fun. Think Quentin Tarantino, Sergio Leone and Martin Scorcese all rolled into one. Violence and grit are given a whole new language, and in true Kashyap style, there's sinister humor thrown in for good measure.
As the title suggests, the film is all about warring clans, and there is plenty of guns, blood and guts on display throughout. It starts in the 1940s and, after a somewhat rushed introduction outlining who is who and where they are and what they do, the film plunges into the world of coal miners. At first, the mythic dacoit, Sultana Daku robbed British cargo trains, which then leads to Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat) who, starts off as a lowly miner and quickly rises the ranks to challenge the greedy owner of the coal mines, Ramadhir Singh (director Tigmanshu Dhulia in a stellar acting debut). When Shahid is murdered by Ramadhir, it sets off the never-ending war between the two families that crosses through generations as well as Indian history.
The real fun in this incredibly bloody feud begins with Sardar, the grown up son of the murdered Shahid, played with tantalizing relish by Manoj Bajpai. Sardar is hot-blooded, horny and doesn't blink an eyelid before finishing someone off, especially if it gets him one step closer to his arch-nemesis Ramadhir. His resolve to avenge his father's murder is so strong that he shaved his head when he was a kid and vowed not to grow his hair until he gets Ramadhir.
On his path of blood-thirsty revenge happen to be two feisty women. His first wife Nagma is the only one that can put him in his place, and the only person Sardar actually fears. She's aware of his philandering ways but sticks it out with him, mostly due to the four sons she has with him, including future gangsters - the rash Danish, the pothead Faizal, and the short-tempered Perpendicular. Sardar's "baharwali" is Durga, a quiet Bengali storm that adds another son to the brood, the oddly named Definitive Khan.The next generation is being groomed to inherit the vengeance.
But once all this is established, the film begins to drag. Kashyap is good at keeping the pace frenetic through most of the film, especially so with gory action sequences that are somehow laced with a unique style of dark humor. However, the cyclical nature of the story - one generation passing down the baton of hatred to the next - makes you crave something that really will shake everyone's foundations or shock the system.
Sardar's multiplying progeny add an interesting dynamic, especially since each son interprets violence and revenge in his own way. The grown up Faizal (pitch perfect Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is the most interesting of the lot. His romantic tryst with Mohsina (Huma Qureshi) is a treat to watch, as is his gradual and unassuming ascension into the power league with his father. But that too, after a while, can be seen coming. Just as Ramadhir's own sons are coming of age and getting pulled in to the war, you are well aware that Sardar will too have a son that rises to the cause. Thus the third round of the gang warfare gets underway. The repetition begins to lose steam, as you begin to wish that Part 2 of the film treads new ground. Fast editing is fine, but the first part could have been shortened to make it punchier.
One of the most fun things about Gangs of Wasseypur is how Kashyap denotes the passage of time using pop culture references. Film posters are subtly placed in several scenes as a point of reference, along with songs that also provide clues to which time period the story is in at any given point. Add to that the 14 original songs - composed by Sneha Khanwalkar - that are spicy, to say the least. Never has a Hindi film soundtrack been riddled with so many sexual innuendoes and expletives.
The first part of Gangs of Wasseypur shines because of an absolutely stellar cast. Every actor (and there are lots of them) fits their role like a glove. Kashyap also shows good command over his actors and the overall story-telling. Despite the almost nonstop violence, the film bears a light feel to it. However, some more unexpected twists, a shake-up to the cyclical narrative, and more chopping would have made the film that much better. It's definitely a great addition to the action genre in Indian cinema, and it remains to be seen how Part 2 takes the story forward. For now, if you can stomach bloodshed and dark comedy at the same time, this one's for you.