Gangs of Wasseypur
Directed by Anurag Kashyap
Opens January 16 at The Film Society of Lincoln Center
A cheeky repudiation of Bollywood tradition, director-cowriter Anurag Kashyap’s gangster saga is a little bit Tarantino, a little bit Coppola, a little bit Scorsese, and ultimately all his own. The two-part, five-hour-plus Gangs of Wasseypur charts the bloody rise and fall of three generations of the gangster Khan family while providing a crash course in Indian politics from shortly before independence to the present.
The Khans and their nemeses, the ruling Singh family, are based on real people who lived in India’s coal country, the Dhanbad district of the state of Jharkhand. As portrayed here, it’s the kind of place that leaves a poor boy without many options, every cop in a rich crook’s pocket and every politician just a gangster with enough juice to steal an election. As the founder of the Khan dynasty puts it, after the British leave India: “The white dog left some bread, now the monkeys are fighting over it.”
That awareness of the relationship between India’s blighted history and the rise of this particular mafia gives the film more depth than a typical gangster film, as do pointed references to the Bollywood dreams of heroism that inspire the young gangsters. Gangs of Wasseypur inoculates itself and us against the urge to make heroes of its subjects by openly acknowledging their appeal and emphasizing their profanity and brutality. The murders are generally stomach-churning, as when Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) stabs a false friend repeatedly, geysers of red blood spouting upward from the trembling body against the purple night sky. The film is also irreverent enough about its main characters to play potentially dark sequences for laughs, like a botched assassination attempt that leads to a comically inept chase scene. The excellent soundtrack mirrors the gangsters’ insouciant cockiness with songs, both merry and melancholy, that sound a lot like typical Bollywood ballads but have raunchy, often brutal lyrics.
As the film works its way through generations of Khans, it starts to feel oppressively repetitive to watch yet another tough kid establish dominance by stealing stuff and killing people, falling in love, getting married, getting betrayed and getting killed. But making that vicious cycle feel like a wearying dead end rather than a cool-guy route to freedom may be Kashyap’s greatest triumph.