The portentous bibilical adage about the sins of the father being visited upon the children doesn’t come close to describing the circular patterns of generational revenge depicted in Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur. This 320-minute crime opus covers over 70 years of carnage perpetrated by warring factions in a muddy, blood-drenched, coal-rich town in eastern India, and its narrator, a stoic, self-flagellating bystander, Nasir (Piyush Mishra), witnesses it all with deadpan clarity. In the flash-bang of an opening, Nasir describes this place as “a seemingly innocent-looking town full of insidious, rotten bastards.” He’s never proven wrong.
Gangs of Wasseypur is a portrait of 20th-century Indian history viewed through the vibrant, reference-heavy lens of Bollywood cinema. Beginning in colonialist India circa 1941, the film introduces nefarious characters at a furious clip. In order to protect his newfound power as an industrial mogul, Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) decides to kill his closest competitor, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), an enforcer and former grain thief. This one decision sets into motion a decades-spanning feud between their two families, one that will evolve and morph with the country’s changing political tide, cultural strife, and technological advances.
Split into two separate but equally stirring segments, Kashyap’s saga of betrayal and deceit weaves together overlapping stories connected by sloppy, heinous acts of murder. The first part focuses on Khan’s son, Sardar (Manoj Bajpayee), who vows revenge for his father’s demise, trading assassination attempts with Ramadhir during the 1960s and ’70s. Each of these criminal acts carry with them ample blowback for both families.
During Gangs of Wasseypur’s wonderfully gonzo second half, Sardar’s four sons get entangled in further disputes with Ramadhir and Sultan (Pankaj Tripath), an enraged butcher who belongs to the disenfranchised group of Qureshi Muslims. As in the Godfather trilogy, the black sheep of the bunch becomes the criminal figurehead by necessity. Faizal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) takes up his father’s profession, monopolizing the iron trade during the late 1980s and vowing to end his family’s suffering by killing Ramadhir once and for all. His drugged-out narrative carries us into the postmodern age, an environment that dizzyingly abounds in automatic machine guns, pagers, and displays of the unprecedented degree of connectivity the Internet has allowed. By this point ,the archetypes and conventions have turned revisionist in nature; the barrage of gangland killings become extravagant, reactionary, and ballsy, often ending in lengthy chase sequences and gunfights that are absurdly large in scale.
In contrast to the near-suffocating display of bloodshed on the streets, weddings and funerals offer Gangs of Wasseypur a chance to examine the “rise-and-fall” arc from within more subtle context. During these sequences of celebration and sorrow, the magnitude of this epic battle hits home, especially for the film’s female characters, whose perspectives throughout the story are often pushed to the periphery. During one colorful bridal ceremony, Faizal’s mother, Nagma (Richa Chadda), sings gleefully to the procession before suddenly turning melancholic. The weight of all her loss has finally become too much to hide in public, and Kashyap lingers on her suffering in a gripping long take. This moment signals a shift in mood and tone, from the breathless pace of the male experience to a somber longing felt by the women who’ve watched their husbands and sons die from the sideline.
Which isn’t to say that Gangs of Wasseypur is a feminist tract. Multiple matriarchs are equally culpable at fanning their neighborhood’s culture of retribution; young sons are taught to hate the family name with the hopes they will one day become a weapon against their derelict absent fathers. These impressionable youths often retreat to the cinema to reconstruct their lost identities and confront the cycles of revenge through wish-fulfillment fantasies. This affords Kashyap ample opportunity to flood the frame with images and songs from Indian cinema, both past and present. Lyrics from the Bollywood-heavy score almost always mirror the action on screen, connecting the omniscience of star personas with their human counterparts on screen. Eventually, these characters get so lost in the artifice that they can’t distinguish where cinematic fantasy ends and reality begins, providing them with the perfect camouflage from morality and compassion.
“Every fucker’s got his own movie playing inside his head,” Ramidir warns during the film’s final act. His wise words confirm why the greatest set pieces in Gangs of Wasseypur are so outrageous. Whether captured in long take or frenetic short cuts, characters brazenly disregard the strategy and surprise normally associated with assassination attempts in the gangster film, mostly because they feel invincible, not unlike a movie star. It’s all about making a statement, efficiency be damned. The most crazed example comes during a three-way hospital shootout that echoes the virtuoso action kinetics of Hard-Boiled. It ends in a massive slaughter with a death so over the top it makes Tony Montana’s demise in Scarface seem downright verité. Darkly funny and electric, Kashyap’s insane masterpiece shows the self-destructive properties of myth making and how they overlap with the downfall of a community damned from the beginning of time. It’s historical record and national cinema as fire and brimstone. The Old Testament has nothing on it.