Smriti Irani’s ridiculously bovine grin welcomes us to the Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhu Bahu Thi house, introducing us to the saccharine-soaked members of the smiley family, before the camera pulls out and the television is silenced by gunfire. And more gunfire. As Pankaj Tripathi’s Sultan leads a group of marauders through twisty side-streets, Anurag Kashyap’s film has, within seconds, evolved from soap opera to First Person Shooter. We’re jolted into its noisy, brutish world. Then, yet another metamorphosis: into a history lesson. And this — in keeping with the lamentable way most schoolteachers use the subject to provoke yawns and force dates down student throats — is instantly boring.
And the yawns are the primary issue with Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur, an impressively ambitious — and excellently shot — collection of memorable characters and entertaining scenes, set to a killer soundtrack. The film never recovers from the unforgivably tedious first half-hour, and despite many laudable moments and nifty touches, never quite engages. This is partly because of every Indian filmmaker’s befuddling desire to borrow plot-points from The Godfather whenever dealing with crime families, but mostly because Kashyap is defiant in his self-indulgence, piling on more and more when less could have done the job more efficiently. He wouldn’t have made a good hitman, clearly; Kashyap is a kingpin.
It must here be remembered that mob bosses, at least the ones Hindi cinema have accustomed us to over the years, have hardly been an efficient lot. They growl orders, surround themselves by those applauding their every maniacal move, and, intoxicated by their own bluster, proceed to boast about their convoluted plot to the protagonist, resulting in their climactic downfall. It is this look-what-I-did windbaggery that constantly weighs down Wasseypur, a highly competent and occasionally enjoyable product, and keeps it from soaring like it should have.
The magnificent Piyush Mishra narrates this sprawling tale, lifting his first two lines almost verbatim from the start of Omkara. We’re told about Wasseypur, legendary dacoits, impersonators and trade unions. It is clear from the very onset that coal — which, we’re taught, is light till it soaks up water — isn’t the darkest thing about a colliery, and that we’re in for a real blood-feud. And, in keeping with most phrases in this film, we mean literally. Tigmanshu Dhulia’s portly and effortlessly sinister Ramadhir Singh kills a fearsome foe and anoints his bereaved son with a drop of his dead father’s blood.
As you can imagine, there’s a fair bit of Prakash Mehra and vintage Yash Chopra running through this film’s veins, and while Kashyap doffs his hat to each of the directors in style, his film tries too hard to be more: more than just an actioner, more than just a drama, more even than a bloodied saga. This overreaching desire to be an Epic makes it a film that, despite some genuinely stunning individual pieces, fails to come together as a whole. There is much to treasure, but there is more to decry.
Entire sequences that could be compressed into clever throwaway lines are staged in grand, time-consuming detail; while genuinely sharp lines are often repeated, as if too good to use just once. The characters are a wild, fantastical bunch of oddballs and trigger-happy loons, but attempting to do each fascinating freak justice with meaty chunks of screen-time may not even be film’s job. Wasseypur may have worked better as a long and intriguing television series, one deserving a spin-off movie only after six seasons. Here it feels too linear, and even too predictable: scenes themselves often surprise, even delight, but the narrative is cumbersome and unexciting. And, as said before, Godfatherly.
And yet it hurts to lambast Wasseypur, because it contains a lot to love. The randy and over-virile Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpai), justifying polygamy as an altruistic gesture to support two families, a man his fiery wife declares should have been born a horse instead. A gangster calling ‘shotgun’ as he runs to an escape vehicle, and another, unable to pronounce his wife’s name, reassuring the newlywed by saying that calling an orange an apple won’t change the fruit it is. Love over laundry, and love through Aviator sunglasses. A Mithun-impersonator is made to mock a foe, while a moustached performer lacking the ability to say ‘r’ sings a Lata Mangeshkar song in falsetto. Two lines, in particular, will stay with me a fair while: “Tum sahi ho; woh marad hai,” (“You are right; he is male”) said in resigned agreement to a wronged wife, and, ultimately, a spectacular Trishul analogy: about how while Waheeda Rehman is alive, Sanjeev Kumar is invincible.
The cast is mostly spot-on. Richa Chaddha and Jameel Khan are the pick of a very talented bunch, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui (who, Part One’s plot promises, will dominate the sequel) burns through the frames he’s in. There are admirably few familiar faces in key roles, and while characters age very sporadically — Tripathi’s Sultan, for example, barely ages a day in over four decades — their growth is very well defined. And the film’s best performer is composer Sneha Khanwalkar, whose Keh Ke Loonga is, I repeat, the song of the year. The film picks up a lot of steam in the final act, and the trailer for Part Two (which comes after the end-credits) with a man called Perpendicular treating a razor blade as if it were a stick of Wrigley’s, is crackling.
Yet it is the excess that suffocates all the magic, originality dying out for lack of room to breathe. Kashyap gets flavour, setting and character right, but the lack of economy cripples the film. There is a lot of gunfire, but like the fine actors populating its sets, Wasseypur fires too many blanks.
Rating: 2.5 stars
First published Rediff, June 22, 2012