Delving through the hundreds-strong line-up before last year’s Cannes Film Festival, it was a surprise to find that it was the words ‘five-and-a-half-hour Bollywood gangland epic’ in the Director’s Fortnight section that most piqued the interest. Finally arriving in select Picturehouse screens this weekend, GANGS OF WASSEYPUR fulfils the wildly idiosyncratic promise of that precis with aplomb, bullishly overturning a few preconceptions about Indian cinema as it does so.
A knotty, 60-year narrative timeline begins in 1940s Jharkand, where the ambitious Shahid Khan is exiled from Wasseypur by the ruling Qureshi clan for impersonating a legendary bandit and hijacking British trains. In neighbouring, coal-rich Dhanbad, Khan is hired as muscle by the corrupt industrialist Ramadhir Singh, only to be murdered when Singh learns of his plans to take control of the mines. Rescued from the same fate by his father’s assistant Nasir, Khan’s son Sardar returns to the region years later with revenge on his mind. A violent, ruthless philanderer, Sardar wages a vicious campaign against both Singh and the Qureshis, swiftly becoming the most feared man in Wasseypur.
Spurning the sanitised, utopian image of India so frequently presented in mainstream Bollywood fare, maverick director Anurag Kashyap’s lens doesn’t fear the country’s squalid, grimy underbelly. Remaining true to the real-life story on which it is based, GANGS instead revels in the ugliness of both its milieu and its inhabitants’ brutal, callous behaviour. In the vibrant cinematography of director of photography and serial Kashyap collaborator Rajeev Ravi, the bloodstained, coal-streaked streets of Wasseypur become a seething, grubby, bustling underworld of vengeance and vice.
With the film standing at an imposing 320 minutes, it’s a testament to Kashyap’s storytelling ability that GANGS never sags or drops in pace, instead throwing up a sufficiently expansive range of meaty characters and subplots to warrant its marathon runtime. Indeed, the director’s confrontational yet coolly ironic style has seen him labelled the Indian Tarantino, while Scorsese’s GOODFELLAS and, in particular, Coppola’s THE GODFATHER are clear influences – and comparisons of which Kashyap’s hulking crime saga is more than worthy.
As if decreed by some unbreakable law of Indian cinema, there are a handful of musical sequences (though not full-blown song-and-dance numbers) smattered across the film. But thanks to a combination of restraint and some brazenly vulgar lyrics, these sequences remain of a piece with GANGS’ distinctive character: the film is neither a traditional Bollywood vehicle nor a mimic of Western cinema, but something satisfyingly in-between. As far as music is concerned, it’s composer Sneha Khanwalkar’s pulsating neo-Bollywood electro soundtrack that actually makes the greater impact, in a manner vaguely reminiscent of Morricone’s screechingly anachronistic electric guitars in the Leone westerns.
It’s unfortunate that GANGS’ audacious scope makes it a tricky fit for most cinema schedules. But if you can find six hours this weekend, you could do little better than to head to your local Picturehouse, stock up on beer and Bombay mix, and strap in for a brutal, blistering cinematic sortie into Kashyap’s Wasseypur.