Why you should care
There’s a lot more to Indian cinema than song and dance.
The two-part, five-hour-long Gangs of Wasseypur premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, where it received spirited plaudits but no American distribution deal. As the next year and the next passed, stateside cinephiles who’d grown entranced at the prospect of Anurag Kashyap’s crime saga gracing American screens eventually resigned themselves to the reality that it wouldn’t be happening anytime soon.
Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Cinelicious Pics acquired the film in July 2014. They released both halves at select AMC theaters across the country nearly three years after Gangs first saw the light of day: Part 1 on January 16th, Part 2 on the 23rd. And it’s a movie event worth celebrating.
There’s a sense of inevitability to the endless strife, which continues for a full seven decades.
The film tells of two families in the coal-mining mafia of India who wage war with one another all throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. The intermingling of two different kinds of family across several generations makes comparisons to The Godfather inevitable, but a more apt point of reference may be East of Eden. Vendettas are all but hereditary in Gangs of Wasseypur, and they never skip a generation or fall by the wayside when pragmatism demands peace. “I never wanted to get into Father’s business,” one man laments near the end of the film. “How did all this happen?” There’s a sense of inevitability to the endless strife, which continues for a full seven decades and claims numerous victims on both sides. (One child is even named Definite because he “has a definite purpose in life:” the death of his family’s arch nemesis.)
Gangs of Wasseypur bears little resemblance to the kind of Bollywood fare Western viewers tend to associate with the country. “Classic Indian cinema of the 1950s to 1970s wasn’t really known for producing world-class crime movies,” explains Dennis Bartok of Cinelicious Pics, the distributor of Gangs. “Somehow the song-and-dance format didn’t mesh well with the dark tones and themes of noir.” Since the early 2000s, Bartok notes, there has been a wave of high-quality Indian crime thrillers that take their cues from New Hollywood-era directors like Scorsese, Friedkin and Coppola as well as Tarantino and Leone.
Kashyap’s film obviously falls into this group, but that isn’t to say there are no songs. There are plenty. Musical interludes in Gangs of Wasseypur give us a chance to compose ourselves between bouts of violence while also giving voice to the female characters who spend a tragic amount of time mourning their lost brothers, husbands and sons. Kashyap’s fusion of seemingly disparate genres and moods is most impressive. The black of coal and red of blood mix to nauseating effect in one scene, while the song which follows is so transporting it temporarily makes the audience forget what’s in store for both us and the characters whose fates were sealed long ago.