Gangs of Wasseypur is so visceral, that watching it feels like sticking your face right above an exploding Laxmi Bomb. The effect, carried gleefully and brilliantly by director Anurag Kashyap is blinding. This is not a film to just watch once at the multiplex, it’s a movie to love completely and become absorbed into its lush imagery and glorious characters.
Mercifully free of item songs and music video style flashy cinematography, Gangs of Wasseypur works as both an entertaining gangster thriller and a gently mocking sardonic history lesson. Apart from the dizzy shifts in mood between the guilty pleasure of dark sexy comedy and gripping socio-political drama, writers Kashyap, Akhilesh Jaiswal, Sachin Ladia and Syed Zeeshan Qadri create a loaded and layered canvas of revenge and violence. They avoid the clutter and manipulation of most mob thrillers and escalate the plot and tension solely through the characters' stormy emotions.
And what a crackerjack pack of characters these are – easily the best performances you're likely to encounter in some considerable time. Manoj Bajpayee makes a hurricane of a comeback as he is simultaneously mesmerizing and repellant as the foul mouthed bald gangster out to avenge his father. Relative newcomer Richa Chadda who plays Bajpayee’s wife, is absolutely searing in her role. Nawauddin Siddiqui (who has a bigger role in Part 2) is hilarious and charming as the wheeling and dealing, disillusioned, soft spoken son of Bajpayee. Then there’s Tigmanshu Dhulia as part fascist chieftain and part conniving rogue, quietly petrified of being hunted by Bajpayee. But far ahead of them all is Pankaj Tripathi in his first major role as Sultan the Butcher –he so effortlessly entwines his many shades that you can't separate his helplessness from his nepotistic determination to seize power. An ambivalent character has rarely been made so magnetic.
What is NOT magnetic is the opening 15 minute section of Gangs of Wasseypur, which is bizarrely complicated enough make you feel like a 10-year-old in an Advanced Thermodynamics class. With a droning voiceover by Piyush Mishra, you are straightaway plunged into dozens of characters in a half a dozen places and you’ll have a hard time trying to connect the dots between the who’s who what’s what and where’s where. It takes a while to sink into the film and identify the characters, and this may be frustrating for some. Perhaps according to Kashyap this is what cinema is about, taking the viewer into a completely new world and challenging them to make some sense out of it. A more knowledgeable person could probably explain how Kashyap’s vision of Bihar’s history in miniature reflects the personality of its chronically divided people, but Gangs of Wasseypur rings true to anyone who's ever watched a mafia drama.
There is violence, a lot of it, the gritty, unsettling kind, not the bloody in-your-face flying limbs variety, and it is kept firmly in its place and never allowed to take over the story like in Rakta Charitra. In one scene a local goon is made to watch his brother getting shredded to pieces - the slaughter occurs off camera but you are left cringing at the sight of the goon’s face reacting in horror. In another scene Bajpayee repeatedly stabs someone and drifts around as if playing kabaddi. Later a hapless cop investigating a murder finds a finger in a butcher’s den and is made to walk away or mix with the dead meat lying around. It makes for a righteously angry, yet joyous story because Kashyap fills every moment with song and life - Womaniya plays to the backdrop of Bajpayee finding lust at first sight in the form of Reema Sen’s glistening kamariya; Keh ke lunga is juxtaposed with violence while the Calypso I am a hunter is mixed with a character smuggling guns in a train. If all that weren’t enough there is also Yashpal Sharma in a cameo dancing and singing at a wedding.
After the three hundredth character is introduced one begins to wonder where all this is leading, but Kashyap pulls a stand up-and-cheer finale out of his hat, sweetened only by the self-liberation of the character featured in the climax, escalated by the infectious Jiyo ho Bihar ke laala playing at full blast.
Some of the imagery is downright fantastic. It'll be a long time before the image fades of Huma Qureshi and Nawazuddin having a hilariously flirtatious exchange at a pond. Even the beginning credits are crafted with large doses of grindhousey amphetamine. The dialogues have a force that pack a gut-punch and are a mixture of dicey menace, goonda lingo and expletive-laced fiery one-liners. There are one too many ‘bhosadikas’ but even when the film turns darker it never loses its sly humor.
Editor Shweta Venkat deserves a hand for Wasseypur’s fine, razor sharp pacing that glances over so many things without needing to rub them in. Equally pleasing is Rajeev Ravi’s cinematography which alternates bright sunlight with the coldest, blackest coal colored nights. Sneha Khanwalkar’s meticulously crafted music is an exotic sandwich of genres buoyed by Varun Grover’s super lyrics. But GoW’s big achievement is Kashyap’s cinematic vision of post-independence Bihar and Jharkhand’s landscapes. No tacky stock villagers here – only shifty hoodlums framed by heavy silences to inculcate a powerful sense of claustrophobia and power.
The other big feat of Gangs of Wasseypur is that Kashyap balances massy masala and offbeat snobbery very well - you can watch the film for its character study, political idealism, or for entertainment value alone. In either case it doesn't disappoint. Kashyap eschews the arthouse minimalism for cinematic pizzazz. His fine ear for dialogue and control of tone is all the more impressive for being delivered under the short schedule and massive story content.
Alive and far more entertaining and exciting to watch than just about any Indian gangster movie you have ever seen, Gangs of Wasseypur is thrilling as fuck, because it achieves the rare feat of wanting to be an epic and actually being one. It’s carefully strained pulp and when it's over, you won't remember much of who killed whom, instead what remains is the silly grin on your face and the desperate urgency to watch Part Two.