SFF 2012: Gangs Of Wasseypur

The word 'epic' gets thrown around a lot in these hyperbolic times but there really is no better word to express the scope and ambition of GANGS OF WASSEYPUR - a 5 and a half hour, Indian gangster film that spans 70 years and follows one crime family through 3 generations.
Opening with a sensational De Palma-like long take following a group of men as they raid the home of crime king-pin, Faizal Khan, the film then flashes back to 1941 introducing us to Faizal's grandfather, Shahid Khan. In these days of pre-independence India, power is maintained through the command of resources such as coal and grain. As the country gained independence in 1947, families jostled for control of these resources and businessman Ramadhir Singh, steps up to administer some of the mines. Impressed by Shahid's brute force, Ramadhir hires him to act as his muscle man, keeping the workers in line but Shahid has greater ambitions. When Ramadhir learns of Shahid's plans to take control of his wealth he sends a hit man to kill Khan and his family, but Shahid's son Sardar, escapes vowing revenge on Singh.
As the story progresses we follow Sardar's reign (and then his son, Faizal), the film is relentlessly episodic but in a remarkably fluid way that emphasises the causal inevitability of each consecutive violent retributive act. It really is stunning to watch how effortlessly director Anurag Kashyap moves through his narrative maintaining a sense of energy that constantly threatens to tip into repetitive tedium but never does.
Kashyap wears his influences openly, apeing Scorsese and Coppola frequently but the mere novelty of these familiar tropes being translated into an Indian milieu never wears thin. Sure, all the classic genre scenes are ticked off from a big gangster wedding to several, brutal drive-by assassinations but the local details painted onto each scenario add a freshness and vitality that is always entertaining. It is of particular note to watch how chaste the film is when dealing with issues of sexuality. It's quite odd to watch a film with R rated violence play with PG scenes of sexuality.
Possibly the cleverest aspect of GANGS OF WASSEYPUR is how it manages to simultaneously place itself within the stylistic canon of Bollywood and western gangster films while also commenting upon how these films ultimately created a 'life imitating art' type of criminal. Kashyap fascinatingly morphs his style as the film progresses moving from Sergio Leone-style spaghetti western in the early stages to Scorsese and Peckinpah in the 70s and 80s before finally culminating in Tarantino-styled theatrics for the 21st century. It's this breathless progression through styles that belies Kashyap's sophisticated knowledge of the genre and one of the primary reasons why GANGS OF WASSEYPUR is so consistently watchable over such an extended running time.
Near the end of the film, our big bad guy, Ramadhir Singh, is asked how he managed to survive this extended back and forth of retribution that has lasted almost half a century and he replies by saying that most of these gangster kids simply watch too many Bollywood movies. Full of empty posturing, they don't understand the nature of true power and this is the reason they inevitably have died while he continues to pull strings and maintain a faceless form of control. It's a bitingly sarcastic stab at, not only Bollywood culture, but also the idea that young kids live their lives as if it is a movie.
In the final two hours of GANGS OF WASSEYPUR (the film markedly gets better as it goes along and the second part, covering the Faizal Khan years, is significantly stronger than the opening hours), things get satisfyingly insane. We meet some new characters who are literally named, Definite & Perpendicular and the film climaxes with a seriously loud, John Woo-style shootout. It's a hectic end to an exhaustingly entertaining story that feels like a 10 part HBO series shot with amphetamines and jammed into 5 and a half hours.
GANGS OF WASSEYPUR is not without its problems. Inevitably with a tale like this things do get slightly repetitive at times; the first hour is clunkily paced to say the least; and the ageing makeup on some of the actors is barely existent (a couple of characters who span almost the entire 70 year arc are aged by simply adding some grey to their hair) but these are minor complaints that feel a bit nit-picky when you have such an exuberantly ambitious enterprise as this.
I know it feels like an ominously large undertaking to spend over 6 hours (including intermission) in a cinema but if you are even slightly curious then I urge you to give it a go. The film would play well in instalments at home but if you are a fan of gangster films or simply up for a genuinely unique, super-violent, blackly funny, cinematic experience then take a punt on GANGS OF WASSEYPUR.