Gangs of Wasseypur (Part 1)

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India (2012).  Dir: Anurag Kashyup, Scr: Akhilesh Jaiswal, Anurga Kashyup, Sachin Ladia, Zeishan Quadri

This could never be Chicago, Miami or New York.  It could only be India.  But this is a story, an epic story, spanning 50 years, of familial rivalry, murder, power and revenge, of establishing an economic and organizational base by mostly illegal means.  So, there are nods to The Godfather – there has to be.  But we don’t see crime lord alt-royalty.  The smell of isn’t of money.  It’s of scrap metal, steamy monsoon, fish-farming in lakes in amber light at dusk, old jeeps, dirt floors and low-tech tools: knives, meat cleavers, home-made bombs and guns.  And it’s riveting.

In case we were to worry that Kashyup takes himself too seriously, the opening shot is of solitary tv set showing a soap.  It’s a flash-forward to Part 2 and he shatters the domestic quiet with a breathless sequence to the opening credits.  A quick geography lesson takes us back to 1941 and local tensions, “This wasn’t a battle between Sunnis and Shi’ites, it was a battle between Qureshis and the rest of the Muslims”.  Shahid Khan holds up British supply trains, terrifying the drivers by impersonating a more powerful man, Sultan Qureshi.  Qureshi attacks Khan’s gang, killing most of them and driving Khan from the village.  He becomes the foreman, the “muscleman” (bully), at a mine that the owner, ambitious Ramadhir Singh, had purchased when India became independent.  But, in a fit of paranoid pique, Singh orders the death of Khan, his brother and son, Sardar, and hires a Qureshi as one of the hitmen.  Khan is killed, the brother and Sardar escape.  Sardar vows to avenge his father’s death.

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It’s a tapestry of many characters, all given depth by the writers and made real by the actors.  Singh, played impressively by Tigmanshu Dhulia – who rises through the ranks of trade union leadership into politics – is calculating and ambitious, but his insecurity aches.  Sardar, is driven and a risk-taker.  He is more id than ego.  He provokes Singh cockily and struggles to control his libido.  He visits prostitutes while his wife is pregnant and, in a creative interpretation of the Koran, marries a second wife.  He is weak, selfish and simple-minded about the women in his life, underestimating their significance to his own story: their strength and depth, their loyalty or potential to betray.  Then there are the two sons.  Faizal, drug-taking, dark and dark-skinned – played scarily amorally by Nawazuddin Siddiqui – who jumps two-footed onto the wrong side of the tracks after misinterpreting a bedroom scene between his mother and uncle.  He has murder in his eye, but is capable of falling in love.  And there’s Danish, the apparent diplomat, who negotiates a truce (is it just the audience that sees its fragility?) between the Khans and the Qureshis, but only because he falls for a girl from the Qureshi family.

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There are some comic moments and also an Indian wedding with traditional costume and some dancing.  The film is shot through with references to Bollywood, not to trivialize but to reference time and place.  And there are moments of gritty, raw violence.  It’s all carried along effortlessly by a fabulous soundtrack with lyrics as blue as the script.  It could only be India.  In a wonderfully visual scene, when Faizal leaves prison – into the bustle and brightness of the lights of the city at night, we know that he is thinking that anything is possible here. We want to see more of him.  And I’m sure we will in Part 2.  We look forward to it eagerly.

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