|partha chatterjee has written this article in Fronline
Volume 29 - Issue 15 :: Jul. 28-Aug. 10, 2012 issue|
“Gangs of Wasseypur” typifies the commercial cinema in which paranoia passes for intensity.
Director Anurag Kashyap during a road show to promote the film "Gangs of Wasseypur", in Mumbai on June 5.
There is more of the withered state of contemporary India to be found in commercial films, particularly those in Hindi, produced in Mumbai, or Bollywood, than in daily newspapers, magazines or even television news channels. If news channels give you a slice of life, commercial films give you a slice of cake disguised as a slice of life! India’s chaotic economic and political condition gets best reflected in the paranoia that passes for intensity in commercial cinema. A case in point is Gangs of Wasseypur, directed by Anurag Kashyap. He is believed to be one of the leading lights of what might be called the “neo-progressives” among Hindi film-makers of Bollywood. His latest production is a huge hit – his first – and is being compared by neophyte film critics with Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), which chronicles the rise of the Mafia in the social and political life of the United States between the two World Wars in the last century.
Gangs of Wasseypur begins some years before India’s independence from British rule in 1947 and continues into the late 20th century. It is set in the coal belt of Dhanbad in what is now Jharkhand. The film is set in flashback, with hoodlums armed with AK-47 automatic rifles, a weapon meant exclusively for the army and the paramilitary forces, attacking a house in a kasba, an offshoot of a small town.
On hearing the commotion outside, moments before the gunfire begins in earnest, a shopkeeper watching Kyon Ki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi, a hugely popular Hindi TV serial, quickly pulls down his shutters. The gangsters apparently wipe out the family of a rival gang leader and, on their way out, butcher an inconvenient police cordon. The parallels with the utterly lawless Bihar come to mind, whether Kashyap wants it or not. Then the film slowly but surely meanders into hero worship, horseplay and, of course, myth-making.
The intention of the director, for all his grandiose posturing, appears to be the manufacture of harmless entertainment; the kind that excites, even titillates, the economically deprived, giving them false hope in the form of Sardar Khan, the son of Shahid Khan, a slain bodyguard of a rising gangster. The son avoids all the pitfalls his father had faced, until overwhelming success in crime goes to his head and his seeming invincibility is put to the test. The structure of the film is misleading, much like the structure of the Indian economy, if one can indulge in a bit of levity. A number of red herrings are thrown at the viewer; there is some chit-chat about the state of coal mines and the deplorable treatment of miners during British rule and how the conditions have not changed in independent India, but nothing develops organically in relation to the narrative. Kashyap and his scriptwriters have somehow sketched in the background to tell the story of Sardar Khan, a gangster.
Coal played a vital role in Bihar’s politics in the second half of the 20th century. There were huge profits to be made. Politicians and the gangsters they employed made huge sums of money and successfully terrorised both colliery workers and lay citizens. The climate of fear brought about by the ruling party and its henchmen kept the party in power in Bihar for a long time, until one fine day the gangsters who worked for them declared “independence” and decided to seize power for themselves and their families.
Stills from the movie. Critics have found parallels with Francis Ford Coppolo's "The Godfather", though they are in reality quite superficial.
Sardar Khan is a thoroughly repulsive character; he will kill without any twinge of conscience and fornicate as and when he has the urge. He is the kind of man that every deprived Indian would be proud of; after all, he is a challenge to the authority of the state, if largely at a theoretical level. He is in reality only a pawn and the source of a dream that the poor cling to in the absence of justice, dignity and equity.
Kashyap and his scriptwriters know the box-office value of having a protagonist such as Sardar Khan, what with the prices of vegetables skyrocketing; grain rotting in silos but not given to the starving, teeming poor; and jungles belonging to the tribal people being handed over by the government to gigantic corporations for enormous mutual profit that the mineral wealth under the tribal land might eventually bring. One is not suggesting that Kashyap and Co. made this shrewd move deliberately. It may have been unconscious, for all we know. However, it has paid handsome dividends at the box office and raised his stature in the eyes of a largely apolitical but disgruntled audience.
Gangs of Wasseypur-Part I is indicative of the fact that it is going to be an ongoing saga. In its intention and politics it appears to be inspired by the Godfather Trilogy (Coppola) and Kill Bill I and II (Quentin Tarantino), both films espousing, of course without intending to, hard-line right-wing politics. The irony suggested is intentional, not many American film-makers have had the guts to be openly political since the McCarthy witch-hunt in the late 1940s. Coppola’s study of the Mafia in The Godfather is not critical enough, and, at times, without intending to, is admiring of the gangsters of Italian origin, who well-nigh pulverised social and political life in the U.S. Tarantino’s Kill Bill is nothing more than a tale of blood, gore and revenge; utterly nihilistic.
It is nihilism that has permeated Indian social (read also religious) life, for the two are entwined, and has brought about an overwhelming desperation among the poor and the middle class. There is an unexpressed feeling that despite godmen fleecing all and sundry and promising prosperity and peace of mind to all the faithful, God, that bribable judge, may after all not deliver. There is also an increasing awareness among the marginalised that the rich and the super rich have robbed them blind to reach where they are. These are some of the considerations that come into play when the success of Gangs of Wasseypur-I is to be analysed. It makes the poor as well as the middle class happy, but for different reasons.
It gives (false) hope to the poor to see a man like Sardar Khan, who has risen from among them, overcome and terrorise all upper-class, upper-caste opposition, symbolised by the equally villainous Ramadhar Singh, who earlier controlled the economic and, therefore, political life in the region. The middle-class people, with their stomachs full and with money to spend even in these times of high inflation, are titillated by a character like Sardar Khan and the tale he inspires. In a perverse way, Sardar Khan makes them feel good! Gangs of Wasseypur manages to kill two birds with one stone.
The English language press has gone overboard in its praise of the film. Critics have found parallels with The Godfather, though they are in reality quite superficial. There is, for instance, the final sequence in which Sardar Khan is betrayed by a phone call made by his second wife and is gunned down at a lonely petrol pump on the highway. This section certainly is a copy of the portion in The Godfather where Sonny Corleone is first set up and then led to his death in a shoot-out. Kashyap’s personal touch can be found in the pseudo folk song in which Sardar Khan is hailed as a hero. There is no irony here as there would be in a Sam Peckinpah film, nor is there a sense of utter futility resulting from a life that has been a misadventure from the start. Some squeamish critics – from the “educated” middle class to be sure – have found the violence in the film to be excessive; one of them even said, “If we were to meet the characters from Gangs of Wasseypur, they will leave us unmoved.”
The absence of knowledge as to what constitutes cinema, its aesthetics, its moral and ethical dimensions, has in recent times led to much confusion, especially among young newspaper and magazine critics of cinema. This is all the more ironic because DVDs of films from all over the world are now as freely available in India as in many other countries. A misreading of the word “globalisation” has led to much confusion. The idea of “anything goes” under the guise of freedom of expression has affected the subconscious and conscious thinking of the young the world over. The young in India have been similarly affected.
The English language press has gone overboard in its praise of the film and the Indian language press has not been far behind. Those who lavish praise on "Gangs of Wasseypur" ought to pause and think in what ways their hearts and minds are being illuminated by the film, says the author.
Overboard in praise
Those who write film reviews, especially for dailies and magazines in English, resort to a plethora of adjectives to describe a film. They forget that films are about action, about movement in time, and that verbs, rather than adjectives, would prove to be more useful in describing one. A particular critic, unable to find the word “visceral” to describe Gangs of Wasseypur-I, went into a tizzy and used words like “coitus” and “virus” to describe the intensity he felt after watching it. As to its moral and aesthetic possibilities, he is silent. He is, it seems, completely convinced that a film must, above all else, be an “experience”, and to quote a jargon of today, “a value-free” one. He seems to forget that the most amoral book or film has its own system of values, its own aesthetics. In this regard Gangs of Wasseypur-I is an arid exercise, yet the film has been hailed as a path-breaking work by leading English language journalistic publications in the country. The Indian language press has not been far behind in showering praise on the film.
Uncritical praise of a film whose primary objective is to make money does not speak well of the critics who indulge their whims while pretending to understand the medium. They, in their defence, may say cinema in India, or for that matter in the U.S., should only be seen as a purveyor of mere entertainment. These worthies forget that some of the most memorable films ever made were “entertainments”. Perhaps the Hindi word for entertainment, manoranjan – that which paints/illuminates the mind – is more to the point. Those who lavish praise on Gangs of Wasseypur-I ought to pause and think in what ways their hearts and minds are being illuminated by the film. Let them see, if they have not, Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, a 1974 (political) thriller made by Sam Peckinpah, the last great director to come out of that meat factory called Hollywood, in 50 years or more. The studio bosses who employed Peckinpah did everything possible to derail him; they mangled his films and released truncated versions of them. But nothing could take away from them their fierce intensity and flashes of acute political awareness, a fact most critics in the U.S. were blind to.
Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is about a down-on-his-luck barroom pianist and his sex worker girlfriend literally chasing the head of a dead gigolo, who made the young daughter of an immensely wealthy Mexican rancher – read warlord – pregnant and disappeared without a trace. The reward for his head is a million dollars, though the rancher’s henchmen offer Benny, the pianist, only $10,000 if he succeeds. Such stories end in tragedy, and this one does. The film has grandeur and a profundity because it is a most perceptive study of capitalism and the greed it engenders both in the rich and the deprived, of course of different kinds.
American critics, for all their high literacy, tend to pigeonhole film-makers; they did that to Peckinpah as well. Of Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia, Roger Ebert, the eminent film critic of Chicago Sun-Times, observed, “The movie is some kind of bizarre masterpiece. It’s probably not a movie that most people would like, but violence, with Peckinpah, becomes a psychic ballet.” The critic from a much smaller newspaper, Cole Smithey of Daily Radar, was much closer to the truth when he wrote, “Fermented in a tragic romanticism placed firmly in a no-man’s land between liberation and capitalism, Sam Peckinpah’s 1974 thriller is a film that sticks in your mind’s eye like a lingering sunspot.”
One may ask why all this talk about Sam Peckinpah while discussing Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur-I? The answer is that both are products of mainstream cinema of their respective countries, the U.S. and India. Talent in the eyes of the moneybags is the ability to sell tickets in very large numbers, and in today’s context, various other rights connected with the film, such as television screening rights, DVD rights and music rights. Peckinpah’s producers thought they knew more than he and always took a pair of scissors to his films, without rhyme or reason. They, poor apolitical finance men, were always trying to “tighten” his long narratives without once understanding their political or philosophic intent. He was always considered an anarchist who liked to rebel for the heck of it.
Kashyap, on the other hand, is considered a safe proposition. He has made films ‘different’ from the norm, like Black Friday, Dev-D, The Girl In Yellow Boots, and now, Gangs of Wasseypur-I, though how different one wonders.
His politics, like that of most of his colleagues in Bollywood, is conservative and covertly right-wing, despite his claims of once having belonged to the Jana Natya Manch, a leftist theatre group from Delhi founded by Safdar Hashmi, who was martyred at the hands of Congress goons in 1989. Take a scene from Black Friday based on the 1993 bombings in Mumbai following the demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by Hindu fanatics on December 6, 1992. There is a scene of a young suspect running for his life from several overweight, middle-aged policemen, for what seems to be an eternity. Against all norms of logic the boy is caught; more so, if one keeps in mind a newspaper report that said a middle-aged policeman, appearing for a physical fitness test prior to promotion, collapsed and died after running a kilometre. The metaphor that Kashyap uses is not cinematic, it is a literal expression of the saying, “Nobody can escape from the long arm of the law.” What exactly is his political or philosophical thesis in this film?
The financiers have realised that his films make money and are a safer commercial proposition, especially if they keep in mind the investment-to-return ratio compared with the average medium- or big-budget Hindi film. Gangs of Wasseypur-I, budgeted at Rs.18.5 crore, has already touched the Rs.50-crore mark in India, and the money is still rolling in. Various overseas rights have not come into consideration as yet. Who has the money to buy expensive cinema tickets – they certainly are expensive in metropolitan India – one may ask? Twenty-three per cent of the Indian population still can, despite murderous inflation, while the remaining 77 per cent goes to bed hungry. These figures are not arbitrary but have been provided by a former economist of the Planning Commission, the late Arjun Sengupta.
The reason for bringing up Peckinpah’s Bring Me The Head of Alfredo Garcia is also aesthetic. The opening begins like a traditional late 19th century western, when without warning, within the same scene, principal participants in the manhunt that is about to begin drive away in the latest Mercedes Benz car, with horsemen also in the picture. The sequence ends with a commercial jet airliner landing in an airport. Peckinpah acquaints us with the inner and outer structures of a half feudal-half capitalist society with great economy and mastery. In Gangs of Wasseypur-I, the film begins with AK-47 toting ruffians bursting into a lane in a kasba firing crazily, then slowly the film goes backwards in time, to possibly suggest that nothing has changed socially or politically since the British left. But the progression of the story suggests that this attempt at presenting a socio-political backdrop is only a facade. The director, it seems, wants the audience to fall in love with the rogue Sardar Khan despite all his failings, including a penchant for committing murder whenever he runs out of ideas. There is no moral ambiguity here, just a straightforward lust for blood.
He does commit a murder in a lane in broad daylight, most lovingly, by stabbing a man many times, almost at the behest of a choreographer. This scene had a reviewer in paroxysms of delight. What can one say about the taste of contemporary film critics of the English language press who applaud gratuitous violence in films, Indian or any other. Sardar Khan is a one-dimensional character typical of Hindi films; his wonkiness, too, is predictable. He has two wives, one a Muslim and the other a Hindu; he has two sons by the former and one by the latter. There is obvious tension between the two households, and at one point he virtually abandons his first wife and two sons for the second and the son by her, so much so that the young boys from his earlier marriage clean toilets on trains to get by. Then, without warning, he is back with his original family as if nothing has happened. He, however, retains an emotional and sexual affinity for the young Hindu wife and affection for the son, and pays for their upkeep; something he neglected to do in the case of his older family. It is the younger wife who betrays him in the end, fed up perhaps with being the other woman in his life.
Another strand in the narrative is the running feud between the Qureshis (butchers) and the Pathans (presumably warriors) in the area, though one never knows why. Then there is a scene of Shias flogging themselves and being bathed in blood during Mohharam. It is difficult to fathom why Kashyap and his scriptwriters chose to give the viewers vignettes of Muslim cultural life in and around the coal belt in Dhanbad, in what was once Bihar. There are also shots from old black-and-white newsreels and of smoking coalfields that are used as “narrative punctuation”. Do these digressions help to understand better the character of Sardar Khan and that of his associates?
The film is strewn with cliches found in a regular Bollywood film. The son, who had been left to his own devices as a child, has blind devotion to Sardar Khan, and is going to be his unspoken successor in crime. The other cliche is the theme of revenge. There is war between Ramadhar Singh and family and Sardar Khan and family. Sardar Khan’s son kills Yadavjee, the hitman and gun supplier and the killer of his grandfather Shahid Khan, who as Ramadhar Singh’s bodyguard had wanted to take over his employer’s business territory. To add to the confusion is the tale of a young Shahid Khan looting trains in British India masquerading as Sultana, the much-feared bandit!
There is no clarity of vision, and hence purpose, in the making of Gangs of Wasseypur-I. This statement may be challenged by Kashyap, who might say that he was absolutely clear in his mind about making a super hit no matter what the cost. He can claim that he is helping people tired of tightening their purse strings forget their troubles, if only for two hours and 40 minutes! The one claim he cannot make, however, is that a character like Sardar Khan can in any way help make things better for the poor. He is for himself, and his sons shall be like him. There is a similarity between him and Don Corleone in The Godfather, who, of course, was infinitely more ambitious and controlled an empire of crime to match.
Coppola’s The Godfather cannot escape being in awe of its subject because Coppola knew very well the world of the Italian immigrants in the U.S. dominated by the Mafia; indeed his father, who played second flute in the great Arturo Toscanini’s symphony orchestra, had his musical tuition funded by the Mafia. He has gone on record saying that while his machinist grandfather would oil the Tommy guns of the Mafia in the morning, the same weapons would probably be used to kill people afterwards. Anurag Kashyap may or may not be in awe of his lead character in Gangs of Wasseypur-I, but he is certainly rooting for him, though why? One may never know.