Gangs of Wasseypur, from Indian director Anurag Kashyap (Black Friday) was the first Indian film to screen in official competition at the Sydney Film Festival, and a serious commitment for festival moviegoers. It’s an epic in two 160-minute parts, scheduled back-to-back on the last Sunday of the festival, and SFF director Nashen Moodley greeted the audience as ‘the bravest of the brave’ with a smile when he came out to introduce the film.
To be honest, though, bravery and fortitude weren’t required, despite the running length — for me, Gangs was riveting. The film is set in Wasseypur in India’s east, in the state of Bihar (contemporary Jharkhand by the end of the movie). It tells the story of a local family gang striving for control of the criminal underworld of Wasseypur and neighhbouring city Dhanbad, and their war over the decades with a seemingly untouchable powerbroker.
(I should note that there are some spoilers in the following — it’s not easy to write about the plot of a film that takes place over decades, with the leads shifting generation-by-generation!)
At the start of the film, in colonial India, we meet Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), a Wasseypur man who has taken to robbing the English coal trains as they pass by his village, impersonating infamous train dacoit (bandit) Sultana Daku. Khan’s physically imposing and fearless, but his cocky behaviour attract the attention of other bandits who’ve earmarked the trains for themselves, and Khan only just makes it out alive when they come to shut his operation down. Chastised and outcast, he takes a job nearby as a coal miner where he quickly becomes a man of the people, siding with the miners against the mine’s operators and the ‘muscle men’ they use as enforcers.
We fast-forward to India’s independence and the mines become the property of powerful industrialists, who work the miners harder than ever before. Canny politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) gains control of the mine where Shahid Khan labours and recruits Khan as his muscle, using him to keep the miners under control. Singh’s an operator, though, and he acts quickly and brutally when he perceives a threat, going after Khan and giving rise to the war that consumes the rest of the film.
As the years pass, we follow the ascendance of Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee), Shahid’s only son, who vows that he will rise to take control of Wasseypur and destroy Ramadhir Singh along the way. Sardar’s a very different man from his father, less physically imposing but possessed of a certain vicious cunning and a rampant wandering eye for the ladies. War erupts on the streets as Sardar goes after Singh’s empire with home-made pistols, tightly-wound improvised bombs and the occasional short, ugly knife to the belly. Along the way, we watch him marry Muslim firebrand Nagma (Richa Chaddha) and equally strong-willed Hindu girl Durga (Reema Sen), who bear him a total of four sons, the focus of Part Two.
The days of improvised weaponry and small-time brawling in the street are gone in Part Two, as we move into the modern era: automatic weapons, rigged elections and racketeering are the order of the day. Sardar Kahn’s second son, the slow-burning but wily pothead Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), rises to pre-eminence in Wasseypur, keeping one eye on the family’s various illegal businesses while he plots his vengeance against the now aged Ramadhir Singh, who has cemented his control over Dhanbad.
The multi-generational scope, frequent violence, and cyclical story of the head of a crime family battling his way to the top are immediately reminiscent of Coppola’s Godfather films, and there are other obvious influences too — Scorsese perhaps, particularly in the way the very contemporary soundtrack is used. Like Quentin Tarantino (and countless HK or Korean action films), director Anurag Kashyap punctuates the story with the occasional broadly comedic vignette, often as a prelude to violence: Sardar’s interactions with his wives, which leave him grimacing and ducking thrown tableware, for example. There’s a very funny conversation between a group of would-be assassins, tracking their target and talking on their mobile phones: just why is he buying jackfruit? How do you cook it? My gran fries it and serves it with rice, it’s great, etc.
Bollywood references signpost our way through the years: we see our characters cheer on Amitabh Bachchan as he takes on The Man in the 70s, watch Sardar’s son Perpendicular (his nickname, after the way he uses a knife — his best friend’s called Tangent) enjoy Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., and see the whole family watching soaps on TV in the present day. But Gangs also distances itself from Bollywood, dropping candy-coloured melodrama for gritty violence, corruption and (some) explicit sexuality. World-weary Ramadhir Singh even addresses it himself, in Part Two, when he opines that the reason that he’s still alive and prospering is that he isn’t the imaginary hero of his own personal Bollywood film, a condition that afflicts too many of his rivals.
Gangs of Wasseypur isn’t without its flaws — it’s a long film, and there are a bunch of subplots that don’t go anywhere, and there’s some CGI blood towards the end of the film that’s disturbingly iridescent. But it definitely holds your attention for the full five hours, and it’s an unpredictable, fascinating ride through India’s frontier underworld.