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.