Sunday, May 1, 2016

The Gangs of Wasseypur

A minor assassin in Anurg Kashyap's The Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), describes the coal-mining city named in the film's title in these terms:  "In Wasseypur, even the pigeon flies with one wing -- that's 'cause he needs the other to cover his ass."  There must be more than a hundred murders depicted in Kashyap's 5 1/2 hour gangster epic, crimes generally committed by feral kids on motorscooters or gunmen walking up to people in crowded public places and shooting them down at point-blank range.  At times, assassins blow one another up with hand-grenades, called "terrorist apples" by the thugs who seem to be equally divided between Muslim and Hindu criminals.  At the beginning of the film, a half-dozen men with automatic weapons attacks the decrepit palace of Fazil Khan, the leader of one of the two crime-families contending for dominion over the wretched slums and decomposing walled townhouses where Wasseypur's corrupt elites live.  To one not familiar with Bollywood conventions, parts of the spectacular gun-battle are scored, MTV-style to jaunty Hindi pop songs with astonishingly profane lyrics -- at first, this aspect of the film was simply baffling to me.  Indeed, it should be noted at the outset that The Gangs of Wasseypur is not only a huge and gory gangster saga but, also, some sort of musical.

The Gangs of Wasseypur is Anurg Kashyap's fifth or sixth movie and, on the evidence of the picture, the director is a master film maker.  He is also, it seems, wholly remorseless -- in the course of the huge film, Kashyap kills off all of his principal characters, including most of the women, without expending so much as a backward look in their direction.  This is the kind of movie in which an important figure, the mother of four of the protagonists and the wife of a leading Don, is shot to death while shopping, a murder that results, of course, in a cascade of reprisal killings but that is not worth a single frame showing anything like sentiment or grief.  (Although the picture imitates certain aspects of The Godfather, Kashyap's movie has nothing like the spectacular show of grief displayed by Brando's Godfather when his eldest son is murdered -- Italian mafia pictures: for instance the patriarch of the genre, Rosi's Salvatore Giuliani feature extravagant displays of mourning and have an operatic and romantic quality. By contrast, Kashyap's Gangs is peculiarly cold, even nihilistic -- the generations of criminals slaughtered in the film generally die without any one shedding so much as a tear over them.)  The emotional tenor of the film oscillates between a low, mirthless kind of farce and lust inspired by some of the very beautiful leading ladies -- the general tone of the film is raw and objective, Brechtian in its indifference, a turbulent narrative that moves forward so swiftly that the story can't really pause to express any significant emotion.  Bubbling over with weird alienating pop song interludes -- there were 25 tunes commissioned for the film -- the entire enterprise seems fantastically analytical, remote, and completely superficial.  But if superficial, what a surface! -- the movie vibrates with intense, saturated and unnatural colors; the night scenes involve armed men traversing zones of various colored light -- it's like the expressionistic color scheme from Douglas Sirk's Written on the Wind gone berserk.  One gang operates out of a slaughterhouse and everyone is literally drenched in blood from head to foot.  In another scene, two burly coalminers fight a duel by alternately bashing one another in the head with hammer-like lumps of coal -- the men are totally black with coal dust and the fight is staged in a torrential downpour as well.  Kashyap films wacky-looking betrothal ceremonies in which the grooms buy their brides while wearing headdresses that look like day-glow octopuses -- there are garish weddings and dances.  Whenever someone important dies, a New Orleans style band with trumpets, trombones and bass drums marches through the crowded streets led by a bare-chested guy in sunglasses crooning his heart out.  Gunmen hiding in heaps of garbage are spotted by street dogs and assassins purchase home-made pistols that backfire every time they are used.  Mothers in garish saris threaten to chop up their miscreant sons with huge butcher knifes:  "I raised you to be a killer," one mother proclaims to her cowering boy.  Currying favor with the poor, gangsters drive around the slums in trucks entirely draped in ribbons and tinsel with dancing Elvis-imitators mounted on them.  Everything is a spectacle and one that is peculiarly and intrinsically chaotic.  At one point, Danish, the son of a crime boss, named Sardar Khan, gets shot by a killer from an enemy gang.  Danish protests that it is just a flesh wound, but he is obviously severely injured.  Sardar Khan, enraged that his son refused to follow his order to go to the hospital, begins to savage beat the wounded man.  Danish agrees to be taken to the hospital but the keys to the truck have been lost -- Sardar brandishes a gun and says he'll kill someone if the keys aren't found.  (It turns out that one of the mobsters has them in their pocket).  The gangsters rush the wounded man to a hospital where the power promptly fails and the doctor protests that he can't perform surgery in the dark, an objection to which Sardar responds that if they have to use a flashlight to illumine the surgery they should do so -- after which, Sardar promises to ram the flashlight up the surgeon's ass.  In the film, nothing works right and there are comical "low-speed" chases, gunmen hunting one another trapped in traffic jams or whose mopeds inexplicably run out of gasoline at the crucial moment.  The only rational response to all of this chaos is modeled by the Fazal Khan -- he spends the last half of the movie stoned-out of his mind with a hash-pipe perpetually protruding from his mouth:  Khan stops smoking hash only long enough to behead his best friend, a nocturnal scene depicted with enormous back-lit jets of arterial blood, geysers so large and fulsome that they would appall even Japanese samurai film enthusiasts.  The dignified patriarch of the Singh crime family pronounces a kind of verdict on all of this disorderly violence:  "you have to be a real fucker to fuck up a fucker" -- a tautological statement that says it all.

The problem with long-form films of this kind is readily shown by the 12 or 13 hour extravaganzas broadcast by HBO and the other cable shows --  typically, a gangster picture of this length is simply too repetitive to be interesting and, after a couple of hours, interest in the entire proceedings flags.  Who cares who is killing whom?  This was a problem, in my view, with the FX series Fargo, a show that was similarly brilliant in its imagery, unremittingly violent, and, ultimately, much too long to sustain the audience's interest.  Kashyap, however, solves this problem by using two devices, one narrative and the other formal.  The narrative device that keeps the film engaging is that The Gangs of Wasseypur is fundamentally a four-generation family saga -- the movie covers a span of 70 years, beginning with primitive crimes involving wetting down coal to falsify tonnage and ending with elaborate internet scams.  Kashyap shows the progression from one generation to another -- the founder of the Khan crime family is a sort of brigand robbing British trains in 1941; this brigand has adopted the identity of a Hindu guerilla and terrorist, thus establishing the multi-generational feud that comprises the subject of the film:  between 1941 and 2009, the Muslim Khan family battles against the Singh mob (apparently upper caste Hindus) for control of the mines and nasty-looking industries of Wasseypur and its twin city, Dhanbad.  Whenever energy starts to flag, Kashyap and his writers simply kill off one generation and replace them with up-and-coming criminals of the next generation -- thus, we see our characters win their wives, the birth of their children, their inevitable assassination triggering their children's quest for revenge.  Kashyap also has a narrative advantage over Western film makers -- his characters can have several wives and, thus, father different lines of mobsters.  Notably Sardar Khan has both a Muslim as well as a neglected Hindu wife, Durga, a woman who is an epileptic.  Khan favors his Muslim family and has four sons by that wife; but he also has a viciously murderous son by Durga.  Accordingly, Kashyap can deploy complex family narratives involving different strands of the crime dynasty and the various subplots involving the women and their children keep the film moving forward at a breakneck speed.  It seems that there is something intrinsically fascinating about a film that encompasses a long period of history (shown in this picture by skillfully intercutting newsreel footage into the movie) -- the tedium afflicting something like Fargo or Vinyl never sets in because as soon as we start to weary of one cast of characters, they are wiped-out and a new group takes their place.  The second technique that Kashyap uses to keep things interesting is that the overwhelmingly oppressive mood of squalid violence is lightened by the musical interludes -- the sheer, bizarre contrast between the bloodbath on the screen and bubble-gum pop of the Hindi songs keeps the everything weightless.  The songs have lyrics that have to be heard (or translated by subtitles) to be believed -- they are relentlessly obscene with double entendre and use the word "fuck" about every five syllables.  Sometimes, the music is integrated into the action:  when one character smuggles pistols into Wasseypur, a band of hippies on the train sing an a capella ditty about penis size, referring the virile member as a gun.  There are numerous weddings and wakes in the film that all feature preening singers in Las Vegas garb wearing big sunglasses.  This continuous flood of music revives the film whenever it seems to lose energy and keeps things percolating.  Through the music, Kashyap can constantly manipulate and change the tone of the film -- no two scenes seem to come from the same movie.  In one sequence, Fazal Kahn flees from a fire-fight in his mildewed mansion -- for five minutes or so, he navigates a series of shadowy recesses and empty alleyways:  the film seems to stop entirely while Kashyap explores eerie, paralyzed imagery derived from David Lynch's more experimental films.  Some brutal scenes are played for laughs; one assassination involves an extended series of misunderstandings involving cell-phones.  There are extended rants that Tarantino-style obstruct the action -- the leader of the Singh family claims that the manhood of his mobsters has been ruined by the fact that the thugs have attended way too many Bollywood crime films; in making this complaint the venerable Ramadir Singh seems to disclose, however, a suspicious familiarity with the very movies that he condemns.  Young lovers quarrel over which film to attend and there are long disquisitions on subjects only tangential to the plot.  The fourth generation of criminals are so feral and nihilistically violent that they can't really function within the parameters of the plot -- as little kids, this generation is too busy kidnapping candy merchants and making them prepare their confections at gunpoint.  The last generation of thugs don't even have proper Indian names:  the two half-brothers are named "Definite", a word that no one understands (no one speaks English) and "Perpendicular".  These kids are so bad that they end up rubbed-out almost immediately or imprisoned.  "Definite" who is Durga's son is released from jail only to bring the whole epic to an end by murdering his half-brother, Fazal Khan, who has just slaughtered the Singh family in an assault on a hospital, a scene that is similar in many respects to the mayhem at the end of John Woo's Hard Boiled

I didn't understand about a fourth of the film.  I assume that this is based on cultural differences -- the women, in particular, were completely opaque to me, strange combinations of lust and astounding Medea-like ferocity.  And there's too much of the film: you have to devote two nights of your life to this stuff and it's not intrinsically edifying.  But there's, no doubt, that Anurgh Kashyap is one of the world's great filmmakers. 

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