Akshay Seth: The greatest Hindi film I'll ever see

Anurag Kashyap Films

By Akshay Seth, Daily Film Columnist
Published July 23, 2014

“Gangs of Wasseypur” starts with the opening credits of a popular Indian soap opera. Everyone looks happy. The main character, billed as “the perfect daughter-in-law” to a wealthy household, beckons viewers through her life, smiling in response to weepy intro music while making pit stops on the way to point out her supporting cast. They wave and namaste at us in return. As the music wavers, slows, the camera dollies away to reveal the glowing television screen we’ve been watching. A family crowds around it. But the small, battered-looking TV seems too far away. Isolated in the bottom-left corner of the frame, our faceless family stares at it, absorbed — eyes locked toward the top-right.

It’s a brain-numbing pause of detachment dedicated to the sort of brain-numbing entertainment Bollywood, an industry churning out nearly daily installments of these vacuous 30-minute dramas — the one referenced in the opening scene withered away for a grand total of 1833 episodes in its eight year run — gets so much hate for producing. Which is why what comes moments after that apathetic first scene resonates like a crackling “fuck you” to the entire Bollywood establishment, shaping the following 320 minutes in the form of a middle finger aimed squarely at the formulaic, tepid filmmaking that has plagued Indian cinema for so long.

A hail of bullets streaks through the room, blows up the TV along with every shitty soap character inside and sets up the extended tracking shot which launches us into the film, following a gang of gunmen in their attempts to surround and assassinate an unnamed family in Wasseypur, India. As the classic Hindi song “Khalnayak” (roughly translating to “badass motherfucker with a pimp-ass hat”) blares through grainy cell phone ringers, a narrator tugs us back in time to the start of this sprawling, generation-spanning crime epic.

Though leaving it off at ‘crime epic’ would be like calling “The Godfather” trilogy ‘those videos with the Italian people shooting each other.’ “Wasseypur” unfurls like a continually-expanding hand threaded carpet, balancing scores of characters, each with their own unique backstories, to paint a stinging portrait of the way corruption feeds off cycles of poverty. It races over hours of content at an unyielding speed, demanding its audience keep pace as it breaks countless unspoken censorship barriers along the way. Grisly displays of violence, coupled with even more forward depictions of sexuality are strewn at every corner of the script, yet what props the film up is a steady arc for the three clashing clans squabbling for control.

The first of those clans and the one which becomes our guide through this expansive portrait of the Indian mafia are the Khans, descended from Shahid Khan, a 1940s era gangster who was chased out of Wasseypur by his competition, Sultana Daku. Shahid, then forced to earn an honest living as a coal miner in nearby Dhanbad, is eventually killed at the hands of his employer Ramadhir Singh, who overhears Khan’s plans to seize the wealth he has recently acquired from the departing British. As the years roll by, Khan’s son, Sardar swears vengeance for his father’s murder, knowingly sparking a blood-feud that molds decades of conflict between the Khans, Singhs and eventually the Sultanas, who are thrust back into the fray after Sardar returns to Wasseypur. It sounds like “The Real Housewives of Orange County” meets “Game of Thrones” level shit because it is. And it’s never blemished by an apology or a stray moment of hesitation. We trudge through the violence without ever glancing over our shoulders, and the film is better off because of the confidence in these transitions.

Director Anurag Kashyap embellishes countless stories — mostly stemming from innumerable references to classic Hollywood gangster flicks — with individual quirks that harken to an almost Tarantino-esque treatment of character. Early along in the film’s very first act, the final confrontations are inked in blood, but as in “Reservoir Dogs” or “Jackie Brown,” we only climb on for the five-hour-long ride because everything that happens in between is doused in self-referential hilarity: The murderous, blade-chewing psychopath who speaks with a perpetual lisp; the fact that Sardar’s second oldest son, Kashyap’s rendition of Michael Corleone, is a pothead; the flirting (ft. random goat). The number of times the word “penis” is screamed at random passersby.

Still, despite an undeniably hilarious sequence of vignettes to tie the story together, the film’s heart pulses with the rise and eventual demise of the Khan clan. In doing so, the movie adopts a somewhat beaten stance about the perils of heedless greed — the constant need to one-up the competition even if the outcome is chaos. But the more intriguing bit is how Kashyap threads the movement of time using pop culture references to each passing decade’s Bollywood hits. And as a result, he again forces us to confront the role this far-reaching media can play in the violence unfolding in small, education-lacking towns like Wasseypur.

The bloated, unrealistic portrayals of masculinity the films adopt can be seen influencing the characters’ displays of ferocity, with Kashyap taking special care to use various Hindi movie songs in scoring the aftermath of or lead up to fatal conflicts. One of the script’s running gags features an amateur singer employed by the Khans to serenade every family gathering — funeral or celebration — with an unflinching reserve of plastic pop music. We see him gyrating idiotically, bellowing love songs and screaming about eternal love while working a wedding. That is until 30 minutes later, when he’s pretend-sobbing, whispering ballads about unspeakable loss at the same client’s wake. There’s a phoniness used to frame each major development, and though the results are often tongue-in-cheek, darkness comes when watching that phoniness bleed into violence. The revenge scenes are hyper-stylized, with hard cuts and slow motion to further feed into the idea that cathartic bloodshed is dreamlike or otherworldly. Which is interesting given the large number of long takes Kashyap uses, intended to instill a sense of realism, while leading into those bloodbaths.

“Wasseypur” solidifies itself as the greatest Hindi film I’ll probably ever see because it’s one of the first entries from Bollywood that forces us to look directly at the bloody aftermath. What’s more is how it chooses to realize these aspirations in a rural, distinctly Indian setting, where creeping westernization is visible but not just used as a get out of jail free card to address otherwise taboo subject matter. In other words, the violence and sex isn’t injected into the Indian characters because Kashyap sees the value in showing us how (shocker!) Indian people are capable of those things too.

The mini history lessons are narrated detachedly and presented in black-and-white newsreel format to leave a sense of matter-of-factness about stark realities in the small mining villages of northern India. Guns are eventually imported from neighboring towns. Money-making schemes become more complex. The Internet makes a cameo. But the real intrigue lies with a realization that Bollywood’s filling in the human side, warping our reality. And as “Wasseypur” makes clear, fuck the soap operas, because the message has to change.