Save for the two-part Nymphomaniac, there are few, if any, Hollywood or semi-mainstream Western films I can recall that exceed five hours in length. Even by Bollywood standards, Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur is lengthy, with the official run-time clocking in at 319 minutes, nearly 100 minutes longer than domestically well-received Lagaan.
Gangs is a tale of three generations of ruthless gangsters, merciless cutthroats and muscular extortionists, narrated by the observant Nasir (Piyush Mishra) and beginning in the British colonial-era just prior to independence. The central narrative is of the rivalry between one family, the Khans, and a corrupt politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia). Singh’s desire to maintain his reign over the Dhanbad coal mine region of eastern India leads him to kill his former muscle-man, the potential usurper Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat). After the demise of the Khan patriarch, his survivor’s machinations against Singh become a decades-long pursuit for revenge.
The run time allows for narrative depth for each Khan and many others, but its functioning mostly accommodates action. It is possible that a few minutes pertaining to some tangent players could be shaved off; given the sheer number of characters involved, sons, uncles, wives, associates, friends and rivals, there arises the occasional difficulty following every relationship. But the richness of the world allows each major player’s motivations to be fleshed out by their experiences or through the exposition of classic Bollywood songs.
Unfortunately for the characters, the vibrant underworld never seems to change. On a simple visual level, the urban environment hardly develops with the passage of 70 years. Modernity barely reaches Wasseypur. Technology, like pages and mobiles do factor into gang activity later in the game but the primary struggle here tends to rely on physicality and bullets, lots and lots of bullets. The cycle of violence proves timeless in spite of a developing India.
Fortunately, here the violence is very compelling. One character, Faizal Khan, just a youth in Part I, becomes one of the core characters of Part II, along with several of his brothers. He is played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, an impressive actor displaying effortless intensity during each of adult Faizal’s perpetually-stoned, violent acts. His half-brother Definite (Zeishan Quadri) is even more callous, with his one-upmanship believing he has more to prove. But Definite’s destructive deeds, including participating in comical scooter chase after an assassination attempt, allow for a few laughs. The tumultuous action thrives because of relentless and iconic characters like them.
With a little patience and a stomach for a fair bit of violence, Gangs of Wasseypur proves to be an engrossing drama that pushes the boundaries of Indian cinema, splattering some bleak humor into the torrents of blood.
Gangs of Wasseypur opens 16 January. A list of screenings can be found at Cinelicious. Director Anurag Kashyap will be at Lincoln Center in New York to do an introduction at the 6:15pm show on 16 January and to do a Q&A at the 5:15pm show on 17 January. More information can be found at the FilmLinc site.