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    South Asia
     Jun 29, 2012

India's gangster nation
Gangs of Wasseypur, directed by Anurag Kashyap, 2012
Reviewed by Dinesh Sharma

Anurag Kashyap has made history by offering a "socially realist" view of feudal and communal structures from colonial times to post-modern India, playing to standing room applause at film festivals in Cannes, New York and London with his critically acclaimed film about the gangster families of India.

Gangs of Wasseypur (Gangs) is a testament to what sociologists and anthropologists have called the stubborn persistence of archaic social structures rooted in caste, race, ethnicity and gender. These structures remain intact despite India's post-independence legal reforms, social mobility from rural to urban areas, and the rapid pace of Westernization.

Of course, portrayals of traditional India on the big screen stretch


all the way back to the film Mother India and classic images of Nargis Dutt as the Indian "Maa", who fights the feudal landlords to protect her honor, land and izzat(honor).

However, there are no archetypal mother figures in this film. This is a movie by, for and about men, ardent feminists included. Women are portrayed as strong, gritty, and wise to the"ways of men". Since this is not a regular staple of Bollywood dance and drama, the faint-hearted should not mistake it for a date flick.

The film is about India's gangster mind in all its raw and unadulterated form, laced with raunchy language, muscle, music, blood, gore and sex. The formula of the movie works because it shows India's hard-headed social reality, with sardonic humor and penetrating insights.

Gangs might pass as a visual ethnography of perennial issues India has struggled with - hierarchy, communalism, violence, corruption and sexism. At times the movie takes on the documentary form to cover the history of land reforms, labor rights, and exploitation of natural resources; here it begins to sound like a treatise on Indian psyche by Sudhir Kakar or Ashis Nandy.

It will be debated that Gangs is an amalgamation of various other genres reminiscent of Spaghetti Western, Coppola's The Godfather trilogy, Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, Scorsese's Gangs of New York and other Bollywood gangster capers. But this is not your usual underworld movie, most of which are shot in and around the seedy world of Mumbai, the maximum city.

Kashyap has presented an original narrative in an explosively Indian form. The plot and structure are situated in a small town in Bihar, North India, revolving around one neighborhood and essentially two streets of Wasseypur and its dark, narrowing gullies.

At a London Indian Film Festival, Kashyap said, "I wanted to make the film about the world I know well. I grew up on these streets ... The script is based on a collection of news stories compiled over many years, chronicling the family history of a blood feud animated by revenge".

The story revolves around two Muslim clans, the Qureshis versus the Pathans, and how the conflict between them is fueled and exploited by a Hindu landlord to control natural resources consisting of coal, water, fisheries and scrap materials.

The driving tension in the film is between the Pathan clansmen, Sardar Khan (played by Manoj Bajpai), who wants to avenge his father's murder by a Quereshi leader (Vipin Sharma), which was orchestrated by the Hindu landlord Ramdhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia),the owner of large coal mines in Bihar. The blood feud is passed on from one generation to the next, pushed forward by Sardar Khan's two sons: Danish Khan (Vineet Singh) and Faisal Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), who plays the leading role in the second part.

The scenes of killings and mayhem seem to mirror the communal violence that has erupted in India during times of ethnic tensions. Kashyap, whose earlier film Black Friday about the1993 Mumbai bombings was also critically acclaimed, knows how to handle the material with great skill. When he explores the genesis of the violence in the life histories of the various characters, the viewer feels compelled to follow along with the narrative, even though the epic is five hours long, shown in two installments. The first part of the film was released on June 22 and the second part is due out next month.

The Hollywood Reporter has described the film as "a dizzying explosion of an Indian gangster film, whose epic structure and colorful, immoral killers capture the imagination for over five hours".

Kashyap suggests that what appear to be communal tensions are instead the struggle for natural resources orchestrated by landlords and their army of thugs spilling over into everyday politics. There are two kinds of individuals in the world, the film suggests at the outset: the strongman and the idiot. The strongman knows how to take things,while a herd of idiots simply follow as victims.

As a theory of conventional morality it might not go a long way towards explaining everyday life in India, but it does show how in contemporary India competing interests are always vying for limited resources while innocent bystanders lose out in the process. In totality, however, the film makes clear that Kashyap's vision of today's India is complex, nuanced and rigorous.

As India powers towards an economically developed future, there is an ongoing struggle for sustainability, where participatory democracy is supposed to lift all the boats. Recently, successive elections in India have turned on whether the ruling parties have been able to provide economic relief to the poor, the minorities and the tribal populations in villages and urban cities. While Gangs does not offer any prescriptions for how to fix the huge deficits India faces today, it does show on the Technicolor screen some of the impediments that are keeping it from advancing further.

India has "a tryst with destiny" indeed, as the black and white, grainy news footage of Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India reminds the audience in the film. In this over-the-top portrait of an emerging power, Kashyap shows us why the stars have not been able to fully align India's tryst with its destiny, thus far.

Dinesh Sharma is the author of Barack Obama in Hawaii and Indonesia: The Making of a Global President, which was rated as the Top 10 Black history books for 2012. His next edited book, Psychoanalysis, Culture and Religion, is due to be published with Oxford Press.

(Copyright 2012 Asia Times Online (Holdings) Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us about sales, syndication and republishing.)

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