Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 by Anurag Kashyap has a charming quality that makes it effortless and addictive to watch. The episodic nature of the film does not make it very different from a soap opera, and its director Anurag Kashyap perhaps realized this point during filming. That’s why his movie starts with the opening credits of Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi (Because a Mother-In-Law Was Once a Daughter-In-Law), a very popular TV series that aired in the 2000s about three or four generations of a family that lives under one roof. Fortunately, Gangs of Wasseypur doesn’t have the overbearing melodrama that Indian soap operas do; The film is about gangsters, guns, gore, gaalis (profanity), and revenge. Also about making a lot of babies, which is perhaps when the movie comes closest to being a soap opera.
This film, combined with its sequel, would have made a fantastic four-part TV miniseries, but Kashyap chooses to split his five-and-a-half-hour masterpiece into two feature films, giving both theatrical releases. This is perhaps why I thought Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 was like a tome with no major turning points to translate well to the big screen. The movie plays out like the missions in the latest Grand Theft Auto games but, unlike the video game, it doesn’t allow us to rest when we need to. One guy I knew was a speed reader who could finish a volume in one sitting; to watch Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, perhaps one needs to be a “fast viewer” to see the film in its entirety. The film is made up of too many expositions that stretch to the end, and there are times when you feel like your hard drive is loaded with far more information than your storage capacity. The biggest turning point in the film for me came just with the entrance of Nawazzudin Siddique, which happens much later in the film; until the flurry of excellently written, well acted, and impeccably choreographed scenes blew me away, but I found myself a bit lost and confused as to where the film was headed.
Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 spans six decades, beginning in the 1940s where our narrator Nasir tells us the story of Wasseypur, a region located in Dhanbad in the state of Jharkhand. The place is dominated by Sunni Muslims, with the Quereshi sub-caste of animal butchers being the most feared in the area. We learn that British trains passing through the region were robbed by dacoits, mostly Quereshi Muslims led by Sultana Quereshi. When word spreads around town that someone is posing as Sultana to rob trains using her name, the Muslims of Quereshi become suspicious of Shahid Khan after they discover that his business is suddenly booming. One night, while Shahid Khan’s men are planning to rob another train, the Quereshi attack them, killing everyone except Shahid and our narrator Nasir.
The two men are banished after this incident and Shahid finds work in a coal mine. His pregnant wife dies during childbirth leaving him with a child and Shahid then kills the muscle man at work who denied him a license the day his wife died. He is later hired by Ramadhir Singh, an industrialist entrusted with some coal mines after the British Raj, as the new muscle man in the coal mine. Their alliance develops until Singh overhears Khan’s plans to kill him in the future; Khan is later shot dead by Mr. Yadav, an ammunition supplier, on Singh’s orders. However, his son Sardar escapes along with Nasir, resulting in a twenty year jump in the story. Sardar Khan, now a grown man, vows to avenge his father’s death and slowly gains control of Wasseypur. His enemy, Ramadhir, is now a blatantly corrupt politician who forms an alliance with Sultan, a feared butcher in Wasseypur who belongs to the same Quereshi who banished Shahid Khan, to prevent Sardar from taking revenge.
What’s interesting about the cinematography in Gangs of Wasseypur is that the film doesn’t have many close-ups, and when it does, it’s certainly for the best scenes in the film. Consider the scene where Ramadhir Singh summons Quereshi to confront him about lying about killing the young Sardar. We first have a static shot with Ramadhir to the left of the screen, and Quereshi enters the door on the right and sits down, taking a quick look around Ramadhir’s office as guests often do. It then cuts to middle shots (covering head to torso) of Ramadhir and Quereshi as Ramadhir asks if he remembers Shahid Khan. After this, the camera takes close-ups of their faces as Singh talks about having seen the ‘ghost’ of Shahid’s son and asks Quereshi to dig up the bones of the ‘dead’ boy, as they are to be used for a ritual to drive away to the ghost Quereshi nods uneasily and the camera lingers on his face for a second before Ramadhir slaps him. The rest of the time, Anurag Kashyap allows cinematographer Rajeev Ravi to capture the panorama of Wasseypur, with outdoor scenes interspersed with onlooker shots and evocative landscapes like the dormant lake at dawn or mining sites. The offbeat music and narration seamlessly tie together the various scenes that take place over six decades, and the lighting works fantastically, especially during shooting sequences that take place at night, where streetlights act as the only source. of lighting.
Despite all the praise I’ve given, I still think that Gangs of Wasseypur, due to its episodic nature, would work better as a TV miniseries. On the big screen, the saga feels stretched out and you feel a bit stressed.