Gangs of Wasseypur—The Review

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Gangs[More a deconstruction I guess than a review, (despite the title) this post has spoilers]

There have been very few movies that have had as much influence on its genre as The Godfather. When I say influence, I am of course using the Pritamian euphemism for “provide a treasure-trove of characters, situations and set-pieces on which the carrion-feeders of Bollywood can feast on for decades as they produce one aatank (terror) after another, including a movie titled Aatank Hi Aatank”. A part of the blame for being ravaged lies with the victim itself (and how often do we hear that). So epic is Godfather’s scope, so compelling are its protagonists and so eternal its dramatic conflict  that it becomes genuinely difficult to extricate oneself from its influence, even with the best of intentions.

It is easy to forget however, especially in front of the 800 pound Luca Brasi of a  Godfather, that other mafia film, smaller and less grand but as enjoyable. I am talking about, of course, Goodfellas, which is as not-Godfather as one can possibly be while remaining solidly in the mafia genre. While the world of Godfather is populated by dead-serious, larger-than-life characters and its narrative built around epic themes of revenge, sin and moral atrophy, Goodfellas is a colorful mosaic of low lives alternately, and often at the same time, pathetic, foolish, funny, shrewd and murderous. It has, because it is a more difficult movie to understand and hence lift, remained largely unmolested by Bollywood’s celluloid-pinchers,  who have instead feasted on the meaty flesh of the more lowbrow Scarface. (As an aside, when I saw Scarface in 2007, I realized how much of the movie I had already seen scattered in numerous Hindi flicks of various vintage.)

Gangs of Wasseypur may have some elements of The Godfather— the reluctant young man forced to don his father’s mafia chappals after the murder of the anointed sibling, as also a minor variation of the Jones Beach Causeway sequence. However, with its cast of quirky, bizarre, severely psychotic characters and the way it intriguingly walks the line between felony and farce,  Gangs of Wasseypur is more Goodfellas than Godfather. When I say this, I do not want to slyly imply that it is copied from Goodfellas, not even in the “it has been transplanted to an Indian context” originality argument that some film-makers, whose movies get firmly thrown out of the foreign film category at Oscars, use as a figleaf for their transgressions. The reason I spend so much text on drawing parallels is if we are going to be talking about inspirations (which we Indians love to do in a snarky way), we should at least get the most egregious inspiration correct.

For me though, and I love my game of “Who copied what” if only because they do it all the time,  Gangs of Wasseypur is wildly original, with the originality stemming from its characters,  its music (Sneha Khanwalkar thumbs up) its thematic ambivalence (Is this crime or is this comedy?) and, perhaps what I found most intriguing,  its vision.

The Gangs of Wasseypur saga, or rather the heart of it, are the characters of  Sardar Khan (Manoj Vajpayee) and Faisal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Though they are equally dim-witted, equally murderous and equally filmy, this father and son-duo are polar opposites in every other way. And that is what makes each of them individually and together so fascinating.  Sardar Khan is all braggadocio  all “Bata deejiyega sabko” Bihari-babu swagger, the “haramkhor, bhadwa sala, randibaaz”, predator of women and slayer of men, brought to life marvelously with eyes-and-blades slashing aplomb by Manoj Vajpayee. Faisal Khan is diffidence personified,  breaking into sniffles when the love of his life admonishes him for not taking her permission before holding her hand, as passionately monogamous as his father is not, lazing about like a crocodile in a drug-induced stupor one moment and pumping lead maniacally into the bodies of his enemies the next, sometimes slinking away from battle dragging a broken foot and sometimes striding heroically with guns blazing.  Topping even Manoj Vajpayee’s performance, this is a sensational tour de force from Nawazuddin Siddiqui whose narcotics-addled gaze, vacant and remote, is about as perfect and authentic as one can get to the real thing.

And crowding around are the equally fascinating other denizens of the world of Wasseypur where the flight of pigeons is quite a bit different from the Ruskin Bond ideal. There is the supremely evil blade-runner Perpendicular, the enigmatic Definite, the strong-willed Nagma Khatoon, the voluptuous Mohsina and my personal favorite, the indescribable Ramadhir Singh. If there is one major criticism that I have of Gangs of Wasseypur is that one always seem to want to know more about these characters and many a time one feels that some of the footage, for example Faisal Khan’s long-winded adventure to procure guns, could have been edited out and that time used for more development of the fascinating support-cast.

Then there of course is the humor, which even when scraps of brain tissue are flying around, is never far from the surface. A goat grazes placidly as a romantic scene plays in the foreground. As a hit takes place, one of the hitmen relieves himself while the other seems more fascinated by the items on the mark’s grocery list than on the job at hand. In the midst of great drama, a character returns to retrieve his shoe.  A man pounds his wife in bed, comes out vacantly expressionless, and then goes back in and resumes the pounding. A Mithunda impersonator is used to taunt an opponent. Macho murderers sit around with housewives to watch Kyun Ki Saans Bhi Kabhi Bahoo Thi before the TV explodes in a hail of bullets.  A mustachioed Yashpal Sharma sings emotional Hindi songs, in a faux feminine voice, both at marriages as well as funerals. A supposedly evil usurper hatches evil plan and then just when you start getting taken in by his earnest seriousness, you see him dancing dirty, grinding into a skimpily clad human being of indeterminate gender. Before dispatching a man to meet his maker, Faisal Khan has a barber shave his head and then forces he-who-is-about-to-die to wear black goggles just so that he can have the pleasure of killing someone who looks like the legendary filmy villain Sakaal. This transition from the serious to the ridiculous is so sharp that one wonders if Gangs of Wasseypur is a crime drama or a comedy, an homage to pulpy Hindi movies or a savage takedown.

My take-away, and this could well be my personal interpretation, is that it is all of them. In my favorite sequence, Ramadhir Singh (played with heart-breaking brilliance by Tigmanshu Dhulia), once he finds out that his son, with whom he has been disappointed with in the past, had gone to see “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge”, says with infinite sadness “Beta Tumse Na Ho Payega”. (Son, You will not amount to anything). Later on, Ramadhir Singh observes, with more than a bit of quiet satisfaction, that the only reason he has been able to outsmart so many of his opponents, spanning generations, is because unlike them, he never wallowed in Hindi cinema.  It is Hindi cinema, he claims, which makes the people around him stupid, deluding  them into constructing filmy narratives for their pathetic little lives. And this situation is unlikely to ever improve because “Jab tak cinema hain lok chutiya baante rahenge.”

Maybe I am over-analyzing but that is where I believe Gangs of Wasseypur gets in its true punch. The slavishness towards Hindi movies, while being comical is also pathetic, being  a symptom of a much more fundamental social malaise— the lack of hope. Pulpy Hindi popular entertainment in the badlands of Bihar is like a narcotic, providing a fix of scripted dreams to those that have none, creating a morass of comfortable dumbness or bewakoofi that consumes those that remain immersed in it. The battle between the bewakoof (bumpkins) and haramis (smart bastards) that is laid out in the opening voice-over is thus not an external conflict but an internal one, raging inside each and every character in the world of Wasseypur, as foolishness crosses swords with sly street-smartness. It’s a war with unpredictable results—the proudly harami Ramadhir Singh ends up riddled with bullets, his haramipanti bested by the mostly bewakoof Faisal. But then he too gets bumped off by Ramadhir’s DDLJ-watching son, bringing to fruition the prophecy of Ramadhir “Jaise lohe lohe ko kaatta hain, waise chootiya chootiyon ko katega” albeit in a supremely ironic way that old Ramadhir was perhaps too big a bewakoof to understand.

Ridiculous, over-the-top, memorable, and perhaps, just perhaps, quite a bit smarter than it appears, Gangs of Wasseypur remains, without a doubt, the best Hindi movie I have seen in some time.

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40 thoughts on “Gangs of Wasseypur—The Review

  1. There are a couple of scenes which should go down into folklore. The scene at the lake, the scene at the butcher house and finally the scene where Faisal empties the guns into Ramadhir. And my favorite performance from the film has to be “debutant” Timangshu Dhulia with his epic portrayal of Ramadhir.

  2. One of the few interesting reviews of GoW, thanks! I am glad that the film did quite well in general and found an audience in India, which for quite a while, the film-maker struggled with.

  3. Btw – did you guys know that the person who plays the character “Definite” in this movie was also the script-writer of this movie? He is from Wasseypur…

    Btw – great review… And i think the chase-scene with Definite in part II… with the assailants on a bajaj scooter, thru’ the alleys of Wassepur… and the petrol-station… that was a classic…Could not have been more realistic…

  4. Nice review. I am a big Anurag Kashyap fan. My favourite scene apart from whatever GB has already mentioned is the one in which Ramadhir asks ” Kahaan gaarre they….. Kahaan garre they……. Yaad to hai tumko…. To jao ja karke sareer ke avses le ke aao………. Followed by a tight slap…….. Loved the suddenness of slap……….

  5. finally you reviewed gow….
    brilliant article….although i dont quite agree with you on the goodfellas point……i thought to a certain extent it could be seen as a different take on city of god and godfather……of course i dont mean ‘a different take ‘ in the “pritamian”sense….:-)…
    I too loved that ddlj scene the disappintment on ramadhir’s face and the sheepishness on jp’ face are epic……tigmanshu dhulia portrayed the character with great intensity….one of the best characters……
    A great movie.

  6. Brilliant take, GB.

    My comments:
    1. I loved the way you have never referred to the two parts of the movie. They need to be seen back-to-back. There is a reason that they were released to close to each other.
    2. The one thing I did not like in the movie was the fact that all characters in Wasseypur seem to be too identical to each other. They are born, go to school, drop out, fall in love and take to arms. Period.
    3. The character of Perpendicular, albeit fascinating, took away about half an hour. That part could have been used to show layers in other characters.
    4. The music (and lyrics) have been phenomenal. It took me a few months to stop humming O Womania when I was not concentrating.
    5. I do not want to go into details on Manoj or Nawaz (I can do that, scene-by-scene). However, Dhulia, as Ramadhir Singh, did brilliantly: he did not exaggerate, neither did he underplay: he did exactly what was expected – nothing more, nothing less.
    6. I, too, loved the way the movie switched between the ominous and the ridiculous. However, that, I think, has always been Anurag Kashyap’s USP.

  7. Also, I suppose Gangs of Wasseypur is the first epic ever made in Bollywood. That does not mean it is the best, or even the grandest movie ever. High-budget, long-duration blockbusters do not necessarily make an epic. Gangs of Wasseypur gave me that “epic” impression.

  8. Its telling us what we have known from August 8!! The review does not offer anything new!! it has been hailed all across and was surprisingly even preferred for awards over Khan and 100cr flicks… The portrayal of ladies in GOW has not been discussed which would have been quite relevant.

    Richa Chadda, Ms. Sen and Huma’s characters were quite strong and had they been given a longer footage Vidya Balan’s award for Kahani would have been in danger. There is this scene in the movie where a Muslim lady goes to Sardar Khan and tells him about the Animal Behavior of few men in his town!! While listening to her tale, his animal eyes are prying with lust at Reema Sen!! That was marvellous and well describes men who talk about Women Safety in the day and watch Porn (mute) in the night.

    It would have been served if Bong Great had focussed on particular aspects of the movie rather than on such a long review.

  9. GB – i personally think apart from GoW … one of the more fantastic moves to come out in recent times is Udaan.. by Vikramaditya Motwane. Its originality at its best. And i think Ronit Roy’s character and acting deserved a lot more appreciation than what he received… Btw – Vikramaditya Motwane is one of Anurag Kashyap’s proteges.

    Do watch it, or maybe you have … Not sure if it will fit your “criteria” to carry out an analysis or a review here though…

  10. And btw – one of the comments i read about GoW in a movie review and something i felt whole-heartedly too was -> one of those rare Indian movies… where Indian Muslims are shown as normal people… like the rest of the folks. They dint have any typical “muslim” stereotypes as in other movies… nor did they have to wear any explicit patriotism to their motherland on their sleeves. They just went about their tasks and their daily lives like all of us regular folks…

    Kudos of Kashyap to have done that….

  11. Thanks for decoding the end for me…having been bombarded by “Pulpy Hindi popular entertainment” I was not left satisfied by Faisal getting killed by Ramadhir Singh’s DDLJ-watching son. But then you pinpoint “bringing to fruition the prophecy of Ramadhir “Jaise lohe lohe ko kaatta hain, waise chootiya chootiyon ko katega”and bring me to tranquility.

  12. i was waiting for this movie since the promos came out. being lived in collieries, I was especially enthusiastic about it. and i did see both parts of the movie … but sadly this was a singularly underwhelming experience.

    first of all, in a movie of such a scope no characters should be glorified, and this is where this movie differs from goodfellas by a wide gulf. sardar khan and faisal are too much glorified in this movie … though they are not portrayed as the “good” side … nevertheless too many slow motions devoted to them gives the impression that this tale is being told from their side to the denigration of the rest of the characters.

    the other big disappointment is under portrayal of ramadhir singh. for a person who spans the whole of movie, finishes off 2 generations of protagonists and almost does away with the third too, pits two warring clans off one another for generations singlehandedly, the movie never gives any hint of him at work. he is just someone to be assumed as existing and not paid attention to while we applaud sardar and faisal and definite. this is made all the more jarring when you realize that even minor characters like tangent are fleshed out more satisfyingly than ramadhir singh.

    finally the scissors of thelma would have done a lot of good to this movie. even anybody less indulgent would have easily trimmed at least one hour from the movie and made it crisper … enough to make goodfellas proud.

  13. Saw this movie at Toronto film festival – endured six hours of bullets and violence. I felt that the movie should have been short by half an hour – ended where exactly it started. The last half hour seems stretched and unnecessary.

    I wonder why you refer to Yashpal Sinha’s voice as “faux feminine”. IMO, it was Anurag’s Kashyap’s “homage” to trashy songs sung by trashy singers (Shabbir Kumar – Mohammed Aziz) in mid to late 80s. It is funny how he sings for occasions both happy and sad and pronounces the consonant “r” as “d”. (“pyaad” instead of “pyaar”). I found the usage of such “vintage” songs in the movie pretty imaginary.

    The yuckiest part in the movie was all the scenes in meat/chicken/fish market. Had to turn my face away from the screen. Reality – yes but still disgusting.

  14. As someone earlier mentioned, the movie was more tarantino style. How tarantino movies go into details – discussion on superheros in Kill Bill2, is similar to the “kathal” discussion before the hit. and how i wished that shahrukh , the chopras and johars could watch the “tumse na ho payega” dialogue. It was also an indictment of the goody-goody school of filmaking and running in sarson ke khets.

    what is also great in kashyap’s movie-making is that he does not ignore the importance of quality songs/music in his films, which blends into the narration.

    I think GOW 2 was phenomenal , esp. because of Nawazuddin. When I look at this guy, the world seems so unfair. He was languishing for so many years struggling for roles ( I saw Munnabhai 2 rerun the other day…and he had a minor role of a thief being randomly beaten up by junta) and on the other hand you have the Varun Dhawans and Alia Bhatts who have no idea of acting getting roles and making money. Kashyap and his school of film-making is undoubtedly the best thing to have happened to Indian Cinema after Amitabh Bachchan.

    btw its not haramipanthi…its harampanthi.

  15. Everything abt the movie is terrific.

    Some of the fav scences were..

    Abroo song

    Mohsina-faisal romance — the parmission scene and later faisal asking parmission for sex. mohsina asking if he would search for dropped popcorns in her lap.

    The moods at funerals…

    Meeting of ramadhir and faisal ..

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  17. The first three paras are the best I have seen of Greatbong in a long time. You flirt with these stratospheric zones which someone like me can only be when I read writeups like these..Goodfellas, IMHO is the most original movie in the mafia genre after God Father & I watched and enjoyed it more times than the God Father

  18. Gangs of Wasseypur is a good movie, excellent by Bollywood standards. It is not quite in the league of City of God, Once upon a time in America, Goodfellas, Godfather. Slightly off topic, but In my opinion, the best crime movie ever made is Once upon a time in America.

  19. Saw this movie at a film festival…all six hours punctuated by samosas (in sydney yes…got by the guy who arranged the tickets bless him..and some dhuan..:)…LEGEND…what a movie..even the goras were totally blown away…hindi or english or whatever…simply one of the best cinematic experiences ever…period…almost every frame every scene is just too good…almost every scene has really subtle humorous undertones besides the obvious gags..this is the benchmark for hindi cinema onwards

  20. Anurag Kashyap is on record saying that he’d presented his editor with 9 hours of solid-footage to squeeze into two films [ or was it one?]. And the effort shows. Apart from an excessively long hospital climax shoot-out, there are plenty of scenes and characters that do not contribute to the main-body of the narrative. When a film that is THIS long needs voice-over narrative to stitch up the hacked-body parts…it means trouble for the screenplay. AK seems to have spent more energy in individual scenes and character development than in telling a cohesive tale.

  21. My two cents:
    1. I loved Richa Chadda. LOVED her. You didn’t? (No mention. Hence the question)
    2. I loved Piyush Mishra. (He even wrote some of the songs here!!).
    3. I came to know yesterday at the Filmfare Awards telecast that “Definite” wrote the script for this movie. So, I love him too.

  22. Ramadhir might have been in early or mid 20s when he had Shahid Khan killed. Roughly about 60 years later, he doesn’t look suitably aged. Same with Naghma played by Richa Chadda. Her physical reflexes after Danish’s death are quick like a young woman. The easy way to cover for this was to show her as a 13-14 yr old girl while marrying Sardar, but she looked reasonably old even then.

    Whatever, it was a very very satisfying movie.

    @Parama Ghosh
    Apparently AK told Definite that the story seemed like a rip off of Gangs of Newyork. When Definite showed him newpaper clips and other material, he took more interest in it and asked for a screenplay.

  23. GB… I agree… it will rank among the best Hindi movies I have ever seen. Music is unique, dialogues are unique, no melodrama, Manoj V was good but Nawazuddin S takes the cake. He is simply superb. The innocence when acknowledging the greeting of a mannequin to cutting his best friend’s head of with precision of a butcher. All the supporting cast were fantastic. T Dhulia played the perfect villain. I also have to mention his “Paan Singh Tomar” which was another superbly narrated story.
    GOW- both parts will go down in history as a legend!

  24. Pingback: Top 10 Bollywood Movies of 2012 | As I Was Saying

  25. Great Review…totally agree with your point of evolving the characters and having a back story to them which i think anurag kashyap tried by splitting the movie in two parts but still was not enough and i think this could have been solved by not makin a movie but making movie length/hour long episodes and the real nittty gritty would be revealed.the film is such a beauty that even the edited portions would be juicier then the crap served on indian television

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