Friday, June 8, 2012


The New York Indian Film Festival provided a sneak peek at Part 1 of Anurag Kashyap’s forthcoming release Gangs of Wasseypur. Audiences at Cannes saw it as a two-part, five-hour film edited down from an eight-hour first cut.

Manoj Bhajpayee in action
Well, if The Godfather, Parts 1 and 2, took five hours to tell, why should this one take less? Gangs is a rich, sprawling, decades-long tale of a feud encompassing several generations of families—two descended from competing train-robbers and a third clan controlling the lucrative local coal-mining industry. As of this screening, Part 1 wasn’t completely coherent as a standalone story, but it’s a thrilling ride.

Gangs opens with a very one-sided shootout that ends when the gunmen conclude that Faisal Khan is dead. He isn’t, and Part 2 will surely connect this bang-up opening to the rest of the story. But the remainder of Part 1 explains only a part of how Faisal gets to this point. And then the film rewinds to the 1940s, when Faisal’s grandfather, Shahid Khan, begins robbing British trains under the nose of bandit king and fellow Wasseypur native Sultana.

Although the characters come and go from Wasseypur over a thirty-year period in Part 1, they all remain tied to the place, to each other, and to traditions that predate them, in spite of the gusto with which they try to adopt the role of independent operators. In each generation there's a lone underdog who thinks it’s unfair for others to have so much more than he has, yet never minds becoming the man with more than his share. The first-generation character is Shahid, who believes that shared local ties will protect him from Sultana’s wrath and who cheerfully swipes loot that Sultana sees as rightfully his—and sells the stolen goods so cheaply that other, poorer neighbors can’t compete in the market. After Shahid turns to an "honest" job at the coal mine at his wife’s behest, he ends up killing the mine owner’s enforcer and then stepping into his place as the man who makes sure that the villagers continue to do the mine company’s bidding.

Shahid’s violent death causes his swollen sense of entitlement to pass to his son, Sardar Khan (the great Manoj Bajpayee). Sardar spends the next two decades or so exacting little bits of vengeance against the wealthy mine owner (Tigmanshu Dhulia, better known as the director of Paan Singh Tomar and Sahib Biwi aur Gangster) and his puffed-up idiot of a son.

Sardar Khan is a larger-than-life character who seems to feel that whatever he wants at that moment is absolutely his due. He is fortunate to be surrounded with loyal friends, but he meets his match in his bride Nagma, played with ferocious relish by Richa Chadda. We get a glimpse of her steel and fury when she bursts into the local brothel, pregnant and wielding a large knife, when he doesn’t come home one night. When he goes to jail, she trains their oldest son to march in with a sneer and a tiffin packed with bomb-making supplies. But her loyalty, unlike that of the family retainers, stops short of allowing him to take a second wife (Reema Sen) who is a Bengali Hindu.

Nawaz: Irrfan + Aamir,
with Amitabh eyewear
Nagma and Sardar have three sons, and the middle is Faisal, who will have so many enemies when he grows up. Nawazuddin Siddiqui’s Faisal is a pot-smoking wastrel who spends his days hanging out—where else?—at the local cinema (we see him at Trishul, falling for the girl who loves Amitabh as much as Faisal does).

So many characters, so many crimes. Nobody is innocent except, perhaps, the impoverished local miners, farmers, and fishermen, who are inevitably the ones most ripped off by the swaggering gang lords.

And so many songs. Kashyap has shown that he’s open to eclectic wildness from his music director (Amit Trivedi’s Dev.D soundtrack paved bold new paths in Indian film, and this time Sneha Khanwalkar--whose work on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! made a terrific impact--does heroic work with songs both old and new). There are fourteen songs in Part 1, with ten or so more promised in Part 2. There are old Bollywood songs performed at weddings (“Salaam-e-Ishq”), reggae-tinged folk songs performed by travelers on a train, and perfectly suited new numbers that show how the right music and the right film story can work together to form something greater than the sum of the parts.

I can guess how this story ends, but I can't wait to see it play out! Meanwhile, here’s the trailer:

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