Gangs of Wasseypur Dir. Anurag Kashyap

[Cinelicious Pics; 2012]

Styles: crime saga
Others: Once Upon A Time In America, The Godfather Part II, Casino, City Of God

Recently, a friend of mine complained that Nightcrawler wasn’t good because, “you can tell that story with one sentence.” But that’s true of pretty much every story when you get down to it, isn’t it? The plot of even something like Moby Dick can be boiled down to “man hates and hunts whale, ultimately leading to his own destruction.” Even that has a bit of an opaque poetic flourish at the end, but the point remains & it’s the storytelling, not the story, that can engross or dissuade an audience.

So even though Gangs Of Wasseypur is riddled with crime saga clichés (revenge ends bitterly for both parties, a woman scorned leads to problems for the gangster, etc.), the telling is almost original enough to overcome these overwrought plot elements. Almost because clocking in at over five hours long and covering three generations of a family and roughly 60 years of India’s history, the film could stand to be whittled down to place more emphasis on a central story. If these measures had been taken, director Anurag Kashyap could boast of creating a new international crime classic; as it stands, Gangs Of Wasseypur is merely an okay story that’s mostly well-told.

The main thrust of the tale is the back and forth balance of power between the ambitious Khan family, the bloodthirsty Quoreshi thugs, and the Singh family who is propped up by the tale’s bloodshed. The film follows the various generations of each group as they alternately seek power, vengeance, or both. It begins with an incredibly vicious assault on a home in 2004 before backtracking to 1940, in an India ruled by the British and village elders. From there, audiences watch as the multiple families involved change along with the times and their country and see what decades-long feud led to that violent night in the present.

Much like Martin Scorsese, whom director Kashyap alludes to multiple times, Gangs Of Wasseypur paints its characters, who could be larger-than-life villains, as real-life people complete with virtues and vices; it’s easy to cheer for a character in one segment, only to see that character devolve a few scenes later to become the base criminal they truly are. While the film is in some ways more indebted to Hollywood than Bollywood (most of the music is non-diegetic and there are no true musical numbers), it is still filled with the overt passion found in those films and the outsized emotions of its (loosely based on true life) characters. Only, in Gangs, it would seem, these emotions are reasonably high because it is a life and death struggle between the many factions competing for some semblance of power and respect. But just as in every other gangster movie since Mean Streets, the audience knows that power is just a bullet (or a kiss) away from being taken, and that fear is often mistaken for respect, or at least embraced as an acceptable substitute.

One of the strongest elements in this film — one that communicates both power and respect — is the cinematography of Rajeev Ravi. The opening has a long take that begins with a zoom on the beginning of a soap opera on a TV, before following a cadre of gunmen going down the streets to open fire on a household for reasons we don’t learn until much later. By connecting the two images without ever cutting, Kashyap is showing how these worlds co-exist: the ideal life of the soap opera and those crowded around watching it along with jack-booted thugs running an amateur military operation to kill their enemies. Ravi shoots the countryside in wide scope any chance he has, in beautiful images & even when the scene is one of deplorable violence or an industrial pit, it’s all sumptuously shot. But by shooting these wide, beautiful countryside scenes, Ravi and Kashyap remind audiences how large the land is, yet also how brutal these men (and a few women) are willing to become in order to rule over small pieces of it. In the face of the majestic mountains and billowing meadows, heinous acts are still undertaken in order to control what amounts to a suburb of a suburb.

The only missteps are, in part, a result of our familiarity with these types of stories. After all of the films of Scorsese, Coppola, To, Kitano, Leone, and Mann, it’s easy that many of these archetypal characters have become stereotypical ones instead. The echoes of previous films can be heard (and appreciated) in Gangs Of Wasseypur, but only occasionally do the filmmakers truly subvert expectations or defy cinematic history with how their characters are handled. This can be forgiven when the story is still engaging and beautifully told, but when you see yet another mobster’s girlfriend lead to a downfall, you might start checking your watch.

Even with those problems, it’s still a great — and quite epic — tale that is told well. Its music vibrantly contributes to the story, as does the expert cinematography — utilizing sight and sound to keep audiences engaged throughout its lengthy running time. Gangs Of Wasseypur is a tale of family, of a country, and of humanity that can be easily boiled down to a simple line of plot description. But it’s between the words that Kashyap finds a rich world of complicated characters and an enthralling generational saga. While his film may be guilty of falling into the same storytelling tics of those that came before him, the director has crafted a film that may very well influence how others tell their tales in the future.

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