In a weird way, using the word “epic” in regards to Anurag Kashyap’s sprawling gangster film Gangs of Wasseypur feels too small a word. The film is an ambitious undertaking that spans the course of six decades in one family’s violent history. One would assume that six decades would provide more than enough stories to tell. However, this merely serves as the first half of the saga for Kashyap. Gangs of Wasseypur is a story told in two parts with each film clocking in around 156 minutes. If Part Two of Gangs of Wasseypur has already been compared to the violent and energetic works of directors such as Quentin Tarantino and Johnny To, then Part One clearly has its feet planted in the same vein as Francis Ford Coppala’s Godfather saga.
The film begins in 2004 with a group of armed men attempting to gain access to a locked house with the intention of killing the family inside. The men spray the house with bullets and bombs but cannot seem to gain access inside the house. As there is seemingly no sign of life inside the leader of the group proudly proclaims that Faizal Khan is dead. Who was Faizal Khan? Is he really dead? What did he do to deserve such an assault on his household? In order to answer these questions, you need to know about his family’s history.
The story of Khan’s family starts back in the 1940s when the fearsome Qureshi clan, known by other Muslims as “The Butchers”, ruled Wasseypur. During this time the British where using the land for coal mining. In order to rob the British trains of their goods, Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat) pretended to be the gang leader named Sultana, a Qureshi whose face was not known by many. After several successful robberies, the Qureshi find out about Shahid’s actions and banish him and his family from Wasseypur after killing most of his men. Shahid and his family settle in Dhanbad where he takes a job working in a coal mine for Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Shulia). Shahid’s role is that of an enforcer, terrorizing locals and miners into letting Ramadhir gain both their land and contracts.
Ramadhir is very pleased with Shahid’s work at first. This changes when Ramadhir unexpectedly stops by Shahid’s home and overhears him taking to Nasir (Piyush Mishra), Shahid’s cousins and the film’s narrator, about wanting to take over the coal mines one day. Furious, Ramadhir sets plans in motion to have Shahid killed while away on business and for Shahid’s only son, Sardar, to be murder as well. Fortunately for Sardar, Nasir figures out what Ramadhir has in store and quickly flees with Sardar. Believing that Sardar is dead, Ramadhir spends his time in the 1950s and 1960s gaining political power and wealth by creating a trade union as a front for his mobster ways. By time the 1970s hit, Sardar (Manoj Bajpai) has grown into a young man with only one goal…revenge!
Though clearly influenced by gangster films like The Godfather, one scene is even reminiscent of the Sonny Corleone’s death scene in that film, Gangs of Wasseypur does manage to create its own unique experience. This is due to the way Kashyap laces the film with a surprising amount of humour. The humour is most notable when viewing the character of Sardar who, for all his machismo, is far from the feared man his father was. Kashyap emphasizes this point often in the film. In one scene Sardar has a considerably hard time killing a person who just will not die. Another scene finds Sardar, after a surprise attack by Ramadhir’s people, instructing a doctor to perform emergency surgery on one of his men despite the power being out. After a brief argument between the two, the matter is resolved minutes later in an amusing sight gag.
What may turn off some people from the film is that there is just too much history and too many character arcs to follow. For example, the film literally takes time to document every woman Sardar sleeps with and what happens to the children they produce. Granted some of these scenes are amusing, such as the sexually charged clothes washing scene for example, but not really need in the grand scheme of things. Sardar’s constant courting of women gets rather repetitive and Gangs of Wasseypur ends up feeling much longer than its running time.
The key to enjoying Gangs of Wasseypur is to embrace the humour and ambition of it all. There is much that Kashyap’s film has going for it. Tighter editing in regards to the number of characters, and an overall focus to streamline the plot, would have allowed Gangs of Wasseypur to rival some of the great gangster films in cinematic history. Unfortunately, as it stands, Gangs of Wasseypur is merely an enjoyable film that bites off a bit more than it can handle. If nothing else, Gangs of Wasseypur will have you curious to see what Anurag Kashyap has in store for the grand finally in Part Two.