Gangs of Wasseypur, Anurag Kashyap's epic about the titular town and its violent history, is a 320 minute film, split into two for a commercial release. I watched them re-united as one cinematic experience, spanning over five hours of my time and over 60 decades of fictionalized Wasseypur history. It was quite a ride, to put it mildly. In five hours, you meet a lot of characters and part with some of them too early, and others not as early as you would have liked. In five hours, you get to think a lot of things, and also feel a lot of things. In five hours, you ask tons of questions, some which get answered, many you're left to ponder over on your own.
The plot tells a fairly uncomplicated story of how revenge fuels decades' worth of violence between two camps. In some ways, the story in all its turns and roundabouts is secondary to the feeling of living in this world of Wasseypur: the somber narration by Nasir bhai (Piyush Mishra) walks us through it, and there are always certain constant realities to be found, like blood spilled or the greed of people. If you can stomach the very violent genre of the film, complete with unabashed and frequent, uncensored cussing, then the film is definitely among must-sees of Hindi cinema overall, and one of the best of last year, easily. It's got some flaws, like some confusing sequences (which I may have to blame on lacking DVD subtitling in part I), or certain characters being rather underwritten (more questions than answers about why they do what they do), but overall, it's a great effort.
From hereon, the review will get more specific and will contain SPOILERS for both parts.
To me, Gangs of Wasseypur was really crystalized in two scenes. Among the many characters, the main protagonists are Sardar (Manoj Bajpai) and his son Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) - they're in focus throughout most of the film, and yet they're very different characters. The revenge tale that frames the film is one things that simultaneously unites and divides them. Sardar is very much in touch with the idea of avenging his father, but the actual deed he can set aside for later. Faizal is only vaguely connected with the revenge mission, and occasionally shows signs of thinking it's pointless, and yet he inadvertently ends up killing the very man who killed his grandfather.
While Sardar wins none of my sympathies, Faizal gets a surprising amount. He's not much better than his father - he kills mercilessly, without blinking, without thinking twice. Yet he's somehow more human, more at a loss at everything he's doing, and his part in this cycle of violence he finds himself in. Sardar is at ease with his mission in life, and pursues it with ruthless precision. Faizal escapes reality to drugs. He can also be cold and calculating, and selfish, but not in the way his father is.
Unsurprisingly, perhaps, the scenes I'm about to talk about both deal with their treatment of women.
Sardar has left his wife to hide from the police, and ends up lusting after Durga (Reema Sen, who apparently now wants her name spelled as Remma), a young woman. I'd say they share a couple of meaningful looks, but this would be a lie - he stares at her, while she gives him a peek or two from a safe distance. When he finally approaches her, she is silent, and doesn't react to him, apart from trying to wrangle her arm from his grip. While the implication is that she wants him, as we later see her slipping into his bed out of her own volition, it was hard to watch these scenes and not read something predatory into the way he was looking at her. Even the eventual sex scene is far from romantic - it's fast, and on his terms, and his hand muffles whatever noises she makes. The unfortunate side effect of seeing this film after India has begun to publicly deal with its women being victims of rape and sexual harassment is that Durga's consent is almost not there at all. Most of all, Sardar's seeming lack of interest to whether she says no or yes is what really disturbs me.
He doesn't improve much after, abandoning his family for the new wife, at least for a while, and by the time he eventually gets killed, I found myself not caring particularly much.
Faizal, on the other hand, ends up approaching his childhood crush Mohsina (newcomer Huma Qureshi) after seeing her at the cinema. Their romance develops slowly after Danish, Faizal's brother, ends up marrying Mohsina's sister, putting them temporarily under the same roof. In a key scene, Mohsina scolds Faizal for holding her hand without asking for her permission. This shocks him into retreating but she assures him it's fine, as long as he asks her for her permission, and he accepts this. The contrast to the previous scenes I described were so stark, I was a bit in awe. Their relationship continues rather delightfully into a happy marriage, where they both seem playful and content with one another. In probably the best scene of the film, she comforts him (and sings to him), after he wonders what the point of all that he's accomplished in life, and in crime is, as he didn't really want any of it. It's one of the few moments in the film where everything stills and we're treated to a simple, gorgeously acted character-centric scene.
Their story ends up being the most human part of the film for me, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui is so compelling in his performance, his character becomes the only character besides the female ones (none of whom get an entirely fair deal in my eyes) who I genuinely root for. The complexities the film presents in its morality mean that this is by no means an obvious choice, nor is it the "right" one. Like I mentioned, Faizal kills a lot, often without reason. And yet, the acting makes him so relatable in a peculiar way, so interesting to watch that I cannot help but want him to make it.
I think Gangs of Wasseypur makes it onto my favourites list for the cinematic world it creates for itself. The beautiful cinematography, the music infused to it, all the performances that make up a solid ensemble cast and the real stand-outs among them, it just seems that a lot of things Kashyap and his team got so precisely right. It's gory, but compelling, and it doesn't meander much for such a long film - if anything, I think it could've used a few more character-building sequences.