A Ribald Duet: Gangs of Wasseypur, and the Movement Towards a Mature, Questioning Cinema

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October 25, 2012 by bluberie


“It’s a hit, it’s a hit, it’s a hit,” cries Al Pacino in Godfather 3 as a dastardly helicopter gunship hovers over a meeting of aging mafiaheads and ganglords and starts blowing them up. “It’s a hit, it’s a hit, it’s a hit,” cried I when I saw a group of ten ageing executives chuckling at the feats of Gangs of Wasseypur in a Borivali-Churchgate local.

Catching the young and the aggressive in a pot-boiler is one thing, but involving middle-aged, ageing guys in a modernised and a stylised plot is quite another achievement. There they stood, near the door of the third first-class bogie, discussing whether the first part was better than the second, calling out the relative merits of the two parts of GOW.

“Part 2 has more comedy yaar, like the way the hired singer sings when first Sardaar Khan and later Danish dies, the way he lifts his hand from below to above, as if he was singing a bhajan to God. Hahahaha! The deaths are so funny in this film. Part one has more drama, you know,” said one.

“No Munnabhaai, both films are equally funny. Part two is all action-action, but good action you know, not unbelievable like Akshay Kumar in Blue or Sunny Deol in hamaare zamaane ka Ghaayal. Part one is very emotional. Gaali madhe immense power aahe. Solid majedar cinema it is. Kya paagal maafik jagah hoga Wasseypur yaar!” said another called Tawde.

Sahi mein yaar, solid film banaya hai, bilkul hat kar. Only it was too dark along with being very funny, but I think aisa hota hoga. How would they give so much detail otherwise? And the violence is such that you don’t like it, too much, yes, too much, but very real,” mused a balding Mr. Patel. And on and on and on the conversation went till they started commenting on the relative merits of a patchwork of films.

It was clear that these guys had been thrown out of their usual moral standpoints about how cinema should be defining good guys from bad guys by the sheer evocative, expressive power of the absolutely realistic but through and through bad characters of Gangs of Wasseypur. This was cinema trying to cleave the gap of moral binaries. It wanted to further a uniform, unitary idea of a real and well researched cinema. It was trying to create images and sensations that throbbed with the lifeblood of society, conflict, and the naked, exposed individual. It gave its audience more than a mute viewer’s position. It actively desired to involve them and seemed to be working. This was a cinema didn’t want to leave these men on their way to their respective offices. That’s what powerful, impactful films did. They stuck to you, seeded you, and made your mind quibble, wobble, and run. In its independent, heady style, Wasseypur was essaying a movement in Indian cinema, the movement from a sentimental and stereotype celebrating cinema to a thoroughly realist cinema that questioned stereotypical values, ideologies and personality types even as it used them for telling real stories with a dab of the fictional.

 

Inspired to Fire

Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather trilogy unconsciously has a lot to do with the Gangs of Wasseypur duet. While Godfather is a tale of two generation of gangsters in three films, Gangs of Wasseypur is a two part film about three generations of a mafia family at war with other mafia groups and other nexuses of crime, business and the state. While Godfather 2 and 3 explore the trepidations of a mafia hood who never wanted to be a gangster in Al Pacino’s character, Michael, Wasseypur 2 does the same in Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s character, Faisal Khan. In Godfather 2, after getting his erring elder brother killed, Al Pacino dreams and looks back upon an evening of conflict in which he had upbraided his father’s chief henchman for daring to think about what he should do in life. Fifteen minutes into part 3, Al Pacino openly tells his estranged wife that he had never intended to be a ganglord and had intended something completely different for her, his kids and himself, but he couldn’t help both the inheritance of mafia business and the onslaught that the call of survival brought into his and his family’s life. In GOW 2, Faisal Khan breaks down by Mohsina on the terrace of his mansion and admits vocally to have never wanted to lead the life of revenge, bloodshed and crime. He too speaks of wanting fight what he has inherited against his will and making a new beginning to have a life that makes sense as Mohsina sings the trippy, egging song, “Moora,” in his ear. 

Both of these film series, therefore, decry the alienated though compelled and trapped individual, and berate failed, inherited, violent masculinities. From man to man it passes, and men who inherit it kill other men and women, continuing the trend from one generation to the other. While Godfather breaks down these masculinities with the force of subtle dramatic tension, Wasseypur tears them down with sharp, succinct moves of the sickle of sarcasm. No wonder then that both Al Pacino and Faisal Khan’s deaths are rather lame in the two films. Neither of them can move a limb when they’re struck with a cardiac arrest and a bullet, respectively. All the other men in these films die quite haplessly too. While in Godfather Coppola maintains a tragic-dramatic atmosphere through and through to tap voices of the hopeless in the human condition, in Gangs of Wasseypur Anurag Kashyap catches the absurd in criminal lives, mores and cultures by gelling intense drama, parodied melodrama and acerbic, caustic humour. This humour swings between the inventive, the common and the popular kind to the lame and the poor jokes kind to the blackest and numbingly chilling variety and floors us while still letting us have a critical viewpoint towards the characters who mouth them and kill and die.

The unconscious inspirations to GOW also flow from RGV’s 1998 crime drama, Satya. Both films emphasise individuals, who find themselves landlocked in the hypocrisies and structural violence of societies, take to crime, and pay the final price in death and defeat at the hands of the socio-political system and culture that has created them for its amusement. One must remember that Kashyap wrote the dialogues for Satya and has spoken of RGV in the electronic media as the one who has taught him almost everything about storytelling and filmmaking in his days of learning filmmaking hands-on. RGV’s chilling take on the character of gangster Satya (the postscript of the film reads: “I cry as much for Satya as for those who he killed”: Ram Gopal Varma) and his nauseating, mind-curdling display of thick black coloured blood flowing from human bodies and heads finds an echo in the way Kashyap has used images of violence in his film. What Kashyap has done is to take it to another level altogether by surrendering it to parody of the blackest variety wherever and whenever required. This is why Kashyap responds to Satya’s minimalism in dialogues and story with raunchy dialogues and a sprawling story in GOW even as the camerawork and the screenplay are kept fairly minimalist in both films. What we see in GOW are Kashyap’s exercises in deliberate exaggerations of the despicable. The despicable in human nature, culture, and behaviour is to be upheld and enjoyed in cinema, but debunked at the same time for the unreasonable blood and gore it brings into regular, lived life. Life in places like Wasseypur is absurd to the point of intolerance and Kashyap wants to bring it out to the point of its absurdity.

By taking this avant-garde route in Indian cinema, Kashyap has moved beyond that hilt that most Indian filmmakers cannot move beyond: decrying the good from the bad. Unlike them, Kashyap’s GOW openly says that there’s no good out there at all. In fact, all that we see—like the daily soap, Kahani Ghar, Ghar Ki; remember the first nine minute shot of the film in which Faisal Khan’s family is watching it on TV?—is systemic and bad. All of it is part of a system that is bad and evil in ways in which it makes people and constructs desires around prejudices of sexism and power: the hero, the villain, those with the hero and the villain, the audience and the filmmaker are all confronted by the same systemic rot and condemned to live in it. They trundle along different angles and axes, serve the system and perish in one way or another. If they have to weed out the thorns from this system and walk out of it safe even as they collide with exploitation, they first need to become self-conscious through knowledge and thought. This is the gap that GOW tries to fill. In this sense, it could also be said that Wasseypur poses the abstract question of how the soul of men and women could be saved. Its answer is quite simple: know, think, laugh, dissociate and move on, pushing your fight by means other than what the system wants you to fight with; don’t stick around for paybacks, equalisations and revenge; grow-up, understand that these are tools of defeat, move on and try to negotiate the exploitative processes of life not with impulse-ridden reactions, but with thought-out responses and controlled impulses that have long-lasting impacts and not just an immediate burst.

                       

Daddy Death, Let Me Kiss You

Gangs of Wasseypur makes us laugh on death unlike any other Indian film by presenting us with travesties and distorted spectacles of it. In Wasseypur, death spreads itself indiscriminately and consistently, like an uncontrollable virus. The film is built around a contorted desire for death rather than around the overused idea of love. Even the erotic lies in GOW either in death or in its vicinity. Remember the parodied songs that are sung rather emphatically when Sardaar Khan and Danish die? It is for this very reason that everyone (except for Mohsina who migrates to Mumbai to carry on away from the deadly place) carries on in Wasseypur either to kill or to die by the hand of someone who wishes to kill. Quite evidently, this is an intended and watershed travestying of the emotional sensitivity and dramatic finesse found in the Godfather trilogy. When we leave the hall after watching Wasseypur, we aren’t sad. Rather, we leave it laughing at the stylised idiocy of Wasseypur’s characters. We even curse them after we have seen them die. This is Kashyap and his thinking trio’s (writer, Zeishan Quadri; production designer, Wasiq Khan; cinematographer, Rajeev Ravi) original, incomparable and landmark mockery of the web of power politics that on the one hand creates gang cultures, gangsters, policemen, politicians, and the state, and on the other, hoists these as popular legends to be enjoyed by the masses. Quite ironically, we are also reminded that it also produces films on them. GOW, therefore, is Kashyap and Co. punching Bollywood, politics and Bihari popular culture in the face.   

 

Mirror, Mirror, I Can See It All

Gangs of Wasseypur comments self-reflexively on the institution of the Hindi film. It carries within it a sense of the failure of the Hindi film. When the characters of GOW make use of dialogues and references from Hindi films they do so to cover up for their sick and killing culture, for expressing their biased erotic identities and always enraged masculinities, and for trading in scathing moralities that stop short of nothing in achieving their deathly ambitions. Many a times they also use these references to kill people. Remember Faizal Khan saying, “Hum ko to laga tha ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein hum Bachhan paidaa hue hain. Lekin jab aankh khuli to dekha ki saalaa hum to Shashi Kapoor hain,” and following it up by slitting his treacherous friend’s throat and hanging his cut head on the door the his house for his mother to watch? Bollywood, therefore, is the plaque on the living tombstone that is the suburb of Wasseypur, and GOW, Kashyap and Co’s definitive critique of a cinema that produces misgivings and bad faith among people. It is their criticism of a cinema which poisons men and women with images of spectacular violence and biased ideas of manhood, leading them to the deathbed of crime, revenge, and bloodshed.

In the post-independence India, literatures in the native languages of Bihar underwent a downslide due to state-exercised neglect. An overt emphasis on building a new India around Hindi as the dominant language started gaining ground. Bihar which had traditionally always belonged to Eastern India started getting classified as a part of the Hindi/Khadiboli speaking Northern India. Hindi was pushed into classrooms at the expense of languages like Maithili, Bhojpuri and Maghi. The resulting vacuum of native identities, oral narratives and cultural emphases was taken over by the Hindi film. The Hindi film became the new literature of places like Wasseypur. It gave the people of these places both characters to marginally identify with and characters (and cultures) to enjoy as spectacle. As this cinema was drenched in heavy tones of melodrama, sentiment and simplistic understandings of life, it reshaped the cultures of these places in accordance with the values it contained. In fact, it started controlling the cultural imagery of these places. TV programmes like Chitrahaar, which promoted and popularised Hindi film music and Hindi films all over northern and eastern India, played a great role in the creation of this hegemony even as it manufactured entertainment and spectacle for this other India along the lines that the then entertainment-manufacturing Bombay elite wished.

Wasseypur depicts one such place where people think the way characters think in Hindi films and become willing purchasers of the rigid social formulae and biased ideologies (be it macho masculinity, the careless alienated smoker, the honest family man, the revenge thirsty son, the raped woman or the arch villain who works out of some primal deep-seated metaphysical villainy) that these films produce in their stories and plots, but only to die at their hand. Anyone who doesn’t agree to the idea of Hindi film brainwash needs to onlyask sixty year old Meera Aunti, my neighbour in Patna, how many times she’s asked her vagabond, elder son if he’s paid his ma ke doodh ka karz. Or they also could call-up my U.S.A. settled 55 year old academician uncle and ask him how he feels about dharamkaram when talking of responsibilities and duties.

 

The New Language of Cool

Gangs of Wasseypur also hits the mark as an advertiser of the new Bihari cool. The coolness of this film isn’t a borrowed one. It not been stolen from the sets of a Hollywood production house or imitated from some fancy, upper middle-class idea of living life in luxury. Its coolness is the coolness of the dirty and the grimy. Its coolness is a coolness of physical labour and real-life grit. It coolness is the coolness of the lives of the lower middle-classes and the labouring, working classes. Its coolness is the coolness of the hardy, guerrilla style grab-it-and-run-filmmaking that its makers do. It coolness is the coolness of stark realism staring you naked in your face.

A lot of Wasseypur is populated by characters which are either running a hand-to-mouth lifestyle or are limited in their decision making because of their frugal circumstances. Moreover, its heady and path-breaking track, “Cheechaaleather,” has been sung by a vagrant girl who sings for alms on trains, and not by some priviledged playback singer with expensive training in music and an expensive priviledged life. Some other songs, such as “Humni ke chhodi ke,” “O Womaniya,” “Electric Piya,” etc. have also intentionally brought the middle-class, folk, working-class, and feminine flavours of Bihar on to the Bollywood palette that’s been largely dominated in contemporary times by fabricated images of pomp and high living.

GOW doesn’t glamourise violence, but shows us how a human being is chopped by Bihari gangsters. It details how a human head is severed and how someone’s eyeball is stabbed and made into a trophy in Bihar. It must be said that in spite of crime being a favourite subject of some of the biggest Bollywood blockbusters, crime in a perpetually crime-ridden state like Bihar has never formed the interest of the Hindi film. It’s this trend that Quadri and Kashyap invert in GOW, bringing alive on screen the ways in which crimes are actually committed in Bihar and giving life to caricatures of the people who commit them. Therefore, with its realist-to-the-point-of-being-crude-style depictions of crime, and its excavation of local music, local singers and local lyrics from the pits of national forgetfulness, GOW is a stumping signature and strict reminder of the ineluctable centrality of Bihar and its cultures. In fact, part 1 of the film starts with a clear narrative reminder of Wasseypur becoming the criminal Wasseypur because of national neglect and power-hungry local short-sightedness.

 

Conclusion: The Deep-cleansing Effect

“Baap ka, beta ka, dada ka, sabkaa badlaa legaa re tera ye Phaijal!” If one listens to this dialogue by Faisal Khan clearly and repeatedly, one can understand what GOW has done to the world of Indian filmmaking. It has made sure that “Phaijal” is pronounced as Phaijal and not as a more suave sounding, Faisal. The reason? The story and its character required it. Direct a story exactly as its subject-matter needs it without caring about hollow ideas of sounding sophisticated and prim-and-proper, therefore, is the lone moral that Anurag Kashyap has left us with in GOW. To that extent the clogged pores of excess and overflow in the Hindi film have been cleared prodigiously, precipitously and patently in GOW. We are now sure that filmmakers would endeavour to be exact. Whether this would lead to a mad science of overt exactitude being practiced in Indian filmmaking is something for the future to see and show. But for now we can be content that true impactful cinema that Kashyap and Co. call “adult cinema of mature people” has been set in motion and is there to stay.

4 thoughts on “A Ribald Duet: Gangs of Wasseypur, and the Movement Towards a Mature, Questioning Cinema

  1. amandangi says:

    Wt the faadu description of movie

  2. prateek says:

    Nicely put insightful view of the movie. I think, the way both movies have been narrated also signifies the storytelling skills of Anurag Kashyap. “Gulaal” was a fine example of the same.

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