Review of Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, An Anurag Kashyap Film Starring Manoj Bajpai, Richa Chadda
September 23, 2022
Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 has a winsome quality about it which makes it effortlessly and addictively watchable. The episodic nature of the film makes it not very different from a soap saga, and its director Anurag Kashyap perhaps realized this point during filming. That why his film begins with the opening credits of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because a Mother-in-Law was once a daughter-in-law), a hugely popular television serial that aired in the 00s about three or four generations of a family living under one roof. Fortunately, Gangs of Wasseypur has none of the overbearing melodrama which Indian soap operas have; the film is all about gangsters, guns, gore, gaalis ( profanity) and revenge. Also about making many babies, which is maybe when the film comes closest to a soap opera.
This film, combined with its sequel, would have been a fantastic four-part television miniseries, but Kashyap chooses to divide his five-and-half hour magnum opus into two feature films, giving them both theatrical releases. This is perhaps why I thought Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 was like a tome without any major turning points to translate it well to silver screen. The film plays out like missions from the latest Grand Theft Auto games but unlike the video-game, it doesn’t let us have our breaks when we need some. A guy I knew was a speed-reader who could finish a tome in one sitting; to watch Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, maybe one needs to be a ‘speed-viewer’ to take in the film in its entirety. The film is made up of too many expositions that extend right up to the very end, and there are times when you feel as though your hard-drive is being loaded with much more information than your storage capacity. The major turning-point in the film for me came only with Nawazzudin Siddique’s entry, which happens way later in the film; until the flurry of excellently written, well-acted and impeccably choreographed scenes did impress me but I found myself a little lost and confused about where the film was going.
Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 covers six decades, beginning in the forties where our narrator Nasir tells us about the history of Wasseypur, a region located in Dhanbad in the state of Jharkhand. The place is dominated by Sunni Muslims, with the Quereshi sub-caste of animal butchers being the most feared in the area. We learn that the British trains passing through the region were robbed by dacoits, mostly the Quereshi Muslims led by Sultana Quereshi. When word spreads in town that someone is impersonating Sultana to rob trains using his name, the Quereshi Muslims suspect Shahid Khan after they find his business flourish suddenly. One night, as Shahid Khan’s men plan to rob another train, the Quereshis attack them and slaughter everyone except Shahid and our narrator Nasir.
The two men are banished after this incident and Shahid finds work at a coal mine. His pregnant wife dies in childbirth leaving him with a son and Shahid later kills the muscle-man at work who refused him leave the day his wife died. He is later hired as the new muscle-man at the coal mine by Ramadhir Singh, an industrialist entrusted with a few coal-mines after the British Raj. Their alliance develops until Singh overhears Khan’s plans to kill him in future; Khan is later shot to death by Mr. Yadav, a supplier of ammunitions, under Singh’s order. However, his son Sardar escapes along with Nasir which leads to a twenty-year jump in the story. Sardar Khan, now a grown man, vows to avenge his father’s death and slowly gains control of Wasseypur. His foe Ramadhir is now a shamelessly corrupt politician who forms an alliance with Sultan, a feared butcher in Wasseypur belonging to the same Quereshis who banished Shahid Khan, to stop Sardar from extracting revenge.
What is interesting about the cinematography in Gangs of Wasseypur is that the film does not have many close-ups and when it does, it’s for undoubtedly the best scenes in the film. Consider the scene in which Ramadhir Singh summons Quereshi to confront him about having lied about killing the young Sardar. We first have a static shot with Ramadhir towards the left of the screen, and Quereshi entering through the door on the right and sitting down, taking a quick look at Ramadhir’s office like guests do usually. Then it cuts to middle shots (covering head to torso) of Ramadhir and Quereshi as Ramadhir asks him whether he remembers Shahid Khan. After this, the camera goes for close-ups of their faces as Singh talks about having seen the ‘ghost’ of Shahid’s son and requests Quereshi to dig out the bones of the ‘dead’ kid as they have to be used for a ritual to drive the ghost away. Quereshi nods uneasily and the camera pauses on his face for a second before he is slapped by Ramadhir. The rest of the time, Anurag Kashyap allows Rajeev Ravi the cinematographer to capture the panorama of Wasseypur, with outdoor scenes being interspersed with shots of onlookers and evocative sceneries such as the idle lake at dawn or the mining sites. The unconventional music and narration seamlessly stitch together the various scenes taking place over six decades, and lighting works fantastically especially during the shooting sequences taking place at night where the street-lights act as the only source of illumination.
Despite all the praise I’ve given, I still feel Gangs of Wasseypur, because of its episodic nature, would work better as a television miniseries. On the silver screen, the saga feels stretched and you feel a tad stressed.