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July 16, 2015

Gangs of Wasseypur

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Anurag Kashyap - 2012
Cinelicious Pics BD Region A

The Blu-ray cover comes with an endorsement from Martin Scorsese. The blurbs used to sell Gangs of Wasseypur appear to be aimed towards an audience that is more familiar with several high profile gangster films from the likes of Coppola, Scorsese and Tarantino. While this is understandable given the story about the decades long conflict between to criminal families, and the increasingly brutal violence that takes place, it may also diminish what makes this an Indian film. And at a total of almost five hours and twenty minutes, describing this film as an epic is not inaccurate.

The first film periodically breaks into documentary footage, providing historical context to the narrative which begins during the final years of British rule over India. Part of the country has been turned over to the coal mining industry. Workers, paid paltry wages, steal coal and grain for survival. Even when India becomes an independent country, the situation does not improve for many workers as the British are replaced by an equally ruthless coterie of Indian industrialists. With the first half hour, Kashyap establishes a story not simply about gang warfare, but a history of a country that can not, or will not, break the cycle of exploiting its resources or people. The film can also be said to be about how easily even those who profess to have certain ideals can be corrupted, personifying the adage that absolute power corrupts absolutely.

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Indian popular culture is also intertwined here. There are a couple of scenes of people watching television, movie posters are everywhere, there are a couple of scenes of film-going, and a couple discussing which Bollywood film, if any, they will go see. The chief villain explains that the reason he has out-lived his rivals is due to his not watching any films, not imagining himself as whoever the current screen "hero" is at the time. Even if one is not well versed in Bollywood film, some familiarity may be helpful in appreciating how Kashyap uses that staple that characterizes the popular Indian film, the use of song. In the past few years, films have been using songs in the background as commentary, cutting down, if not always eliminating, the song and dance numbers that break up the dramatic portions of the film. The songs are a combination of original work created for the film, some folk songs, and songs from older Indian films. Most of the songs are heard as background commentary, although there are scenes with a singer performing "live" as part of street rallies. Where Gangs of Wasseypur songs make a significant break from other Bollywood films is that they are not designed for music video play, and the lyrics are sexually more frank than what is found from a film industry that has historically shied away from onscreen kissing.

Kashyap also makes clear that most of his characters are Muslim, making the taking of a Hindu woman from Bengal as a gangster's mistress a point of contention. In one scene, when a dinner is to be set up, a wife asks if the "meat plates" should be used. There is also reference to the remnants of the caste system, with one of the extended families noted as historically working as butchers.

Almost unbelievably, the story, though fictionalized, is based on the very real rivalry between two families in Wasseypur. Most of the film is about the Kahns, with the descendants more brazen in their predecessors. It's as if being a criminal is in the DNA. We go from mere bludgeoning, shootings and stabbings, to the beheading of a drug dealer, and one of the younger generation holding a double edged razor in his mouth, while another walks around threatening others with a live cobra. The bloodshed is not only between the crime families, but between family members. Pride and power trump everything else.

The Blu-ray comes with a booklet, with an essay by journalist Aseem Chhabra, that provides some helpful information on the making of the film, and the work of Anurag Kashyap. There are also two family trees, valuable in keeping track of the characters and their relationships.

Posted by peter at July 16, 2015 10:06 AM