Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Movie Review: Gangs of Wasseypur

Gangs of Wasseypur
Directed by: Anurag Kashyap.
Written by: Akhilesh Jaiswal & Anurag Kashyap & Sachin K. Ladia & Zeishan Quadri.
Starring: Manoj Bajpayee (Sardar Khan), Richa Chadda (Nagma Khatoon), Nawazuddin Siddiqui (Faizal Khan), Tigmanshu Dhulia (Ramadhir Singh), Jameel Khan (Asgar Khan), Piyush Mishra (Nasir Ahmed), Jaideep Ahlawat (Shahid Khan), Huma Qureshi (Mohsina), Zeishan Quadri (Definite), Reema Sen (Durga), Pankaj Tripathy (Sultan Quereshi), Vipin Sharma (Ehsaan Qureshi), Satyakam Anand (J.P. Singh), Aditya Kumar (Perpendicular), Rajkummar Rao (Shamshad), Vineet Singh (Danish Khan), Sankalp Acharekar (Tangent), Mukesh Chhabra (Nawab Khan), Anurita Jha (Shama Parveen), Harish Khanna (Yadav ji), Murari Kumar (Guddu), Vijesh Rajan (Butcher).

Mixing together the styles of Francis Ford Coppola, Sergio Leone, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino and in the climax John Woo, the Indian film Gangs of Wasseypur is an epic gangster movie in every sense of the word. The film starts in 1940 and ends in 2009, and follows multiple generations in a blood soaked, seemingly never-ending feud over two part, and a total runtime of 5 hours and 14 minutes. Yes, that is long, but in an age where people binge entire seasons of TV shows over a weekend, perhaps not too long to find an audience – although it’s understandable why the film took three years to find its way to North American screens. The film movies at a rapid pace throughout – and is full of violence and bloodshed. It’s also not a traditional Bollywood film – in fact, it’s first sequence seems to suggest that director Anurag Kashyag wants to lay waste to those clich├ęs, as we see the type of scene we associate with Bollywood, only to have the camera pull back and reveal that the scene is only on TV, and soon the entire scene turns into a bloody shootout, with one group trying to slaughter another for reasons that are not clear at the time. Kashyag does use some Bollywood influences to be sure in the film – like Scorsese, Kashyap likes to set much of his movie to pop music, which includes Bollywood music, and some exceptionally violent Indian hip hop music (read the subtitles during these songs – they make a lot of what’s over here seem tame), and has characters who are obsessed with Bollywood – which according to one character leads to their downfall (“Every fucker has a movie playing in their head”). Kashyap wants to change the way people see Indian cinema – and in this brutal, bloody masterwork, he succeeds.

The first part of the epic concentrates on Sardar Kahn (Manoj Bajpayee), whose mother dies in childbirth, and his father Shahid (Jaideep Ahlawat) is first expelled from his town for stealing by the Qureshis, a powerful family who runs it, and is then murdered at the behest of his boss Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), when he fears Shahid, who he has hired as muscle, is too ambitious. All of this in the 1940s, where first the British rule, and then, after Independence, the Indian upper class takes over. Sardar, now raised by his father’s friend, Nasir (Piyush Mishra), who acts as the movie’s much needed narrator, is heartbroken by his father’s murder – and shaves his head, vowing to only grow his hair back when he has gotten his revenge – both on the Qureshis and on Singh – who work together. Sardar becomes a ruthless, powerful gangster in Wasseypur – in the Northern part of India - a torn in the side of Singh, who has become a powerful politician. On the home front, Sardar is a different man – and falls for not one, but two powerful women. First is Nagma (Richa Chadda), and next is Durga (Reema Sen) – and has five sons between the two women. He first abandons Nagma, turning his sons from that marriage against him, and then abandons Durga and returns to Nagma, doing the same thing to his son there. The two women both love and hate the man – which is the same for his sons. The second half concentrates on Sardar’s son Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), a pothead with little business sense, but a nasty streak in him as big as his father’s. We’ve now made our way to the 1980s and beyond – and Faizal continues the feud his grandfather started and passed down from one generation to the next. Like his father, he falls in love with a strong woman, Moshina (Huma Qureshi). The second half of the film is far more violent than the first – setting the tone with one of the bloodiest beheadings I can recall seeing (although it’s in shadow, so it’s not too stomach churning), as the pattern of murder and retribution is played out over and over again. The film ends with the bloodiest gun battle a hospital has seen since John Woo’s Hard Boiled (1992).

Gangs of Wasseypur is inarguably inspired more by American gangster films than by Bollywood films. There are several scenes that are direct homages to The Godfather – a murder at a gas station that will remind many of Sonny’s brutal murder, a sequence stalking a potential murder victim through a market will remind others of the great sequence in The Godfather Part II where Vito does the same thing, and a character telling his wife “Never ask me about my business” – like he’s Michael Corleone. Surprisingly, that character is not Faizel, who is clearly modelled on Al Pacino’s Michael – a man who hates his father’s business, and wants no part in it, although he can find no way out, and is destroyed, morally anyway, by it.

The movie is littered with other references to previous gangster films. Viewers will notice a little Scorsese, in the way music and narration, and the way it shows, step by step, how the gangs get away with their scams, some Leone in the operatic style of many moments, some deaths recall the bloody end of DePalma’s Scarface, etc. There are more here. I am realizing now that I criticized the other movie I saw this weekend – Ryan Gosling’s Lost River – from too much homage, and am praising Gangs of Wasseypur for the same thing. The difference between the two is obvious though – Gosling doesn’t do anything with his influences, he just regurgitates them back onto the screen. Kashyap uses them as simply a starting point – a way to pay tribute, before moving onto something more. For Lost River, the references are the end point – here they are the starting point.

Yes, Gangs of Wasseypur is long. Even watching one part – at two hours and 40 minutes – would considered long by many, let alone both half clocking in at over five hours. But the film never seems overlong – and is never less than superbly entertaining. The film covers 70 years, but it breezes by entire decades at times, and goes off on amusing tangents whenever the inspiration strikes Kashyap. Yes, he probably could have made the film shorter – the second part in particular does tend to repeat itself, perhaps a time or two too many, and there are some characters (like the amusingly named Perpendicular) that serve little to no dramatic purpose in the film. Yet, these disgressions and tangents (and yes, there is even a character in the film named Tangent, so I think Kashyap knows precisely what he is doing) add flavor to the proceedings. We are not just trapped in this isolated world – but something larger.

Gangs of Wasseypur is likely to become a cult hit. It will be a film people discover over time and fall in love with. It hasn’t made much money in North America so far – and heading to Fandor shortly after being released, which is where I saw it. But it’s worth the time to invest in this deliriously entertaining gangster epic – part Hollywood, part Bollywood, and all wonderful. Trust me, you’ll get more out of this film than half a season of House of Cards – which runs the same length.

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