On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 2) — the brilliance of Gangs of Wasseypur 1


First, I highly recommend you read my initial post on subversion as a storytelling technique in Dibakar Banerjee’s Shanghai.

Previous Disclaimer applies: This is not a review, but a detailed critique like I did with ‘Shanghai’. I will analyse several aspects of the films which will include spoilers so please do not read if you haven’t watched GoW1 yet.

Also, this was meant to be about both GoW films, but after I finished drafting the post for the first part, it was already over 3000 words long and I thought, screw it. There can never be too much of a good thing. So expect a Part 3 to follow up when GoW2 releases. 🙂

When I think of bald Bollywood actors, the first name that comes to mind is Shetty, whose gleaming head and meancing glare often made Dharmendra flex extra muscle in numerous 70s flicks. The second name that comes to mind is Shakal of Shaan, whose eccentricities extended to owning an island, having a shark for a pet, and wearing ridiculous costumes.

So it’s an obvious conclusion to look at Bajpai’s fully shaved head through most of the film and wonder whether he is protagonist or antagonist. You realise early enough that protagonist and antagonist are really just matters of perspective, and that Kashyap has already subverted our very idea of what a Bollywood hero is.

Of course, anti-heroes in Bollywood have been a factor since the 70s, but never has there been such an anti-hero who is very clearly a villain — someone who enjoys killing but for the sake of poetic justice, who shamelessly lusts but with such seduction and who loves but with such selfishness.

If you recall the definition of subversion I quoted from this article by Łukasz Ronduda,

The etymology of the word (from the Latin sub “from below” + vertere “to turn”) suggests that criticism can be a physical act: overturning an object, transforming it – even destroying it – in the process of appropriation. Subversion in this sense can be understood as a method or technique for creating a work of art through the decontextualization and recontextualization of existing images from art or from the broader visual culture.

Bajpai’s Sardar Khan is exactly that, an overturning of a traditionally urban Bollywood hero, recontextualising him in the dry, unkind landscapes of Bihar/Jharkand’s coal mines.

And GoW1‘s very first scene sets the mood with a subversive joke. Tulsi Veerani of the epic TV soap Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi welcomes us through her title riff not into her banal joint family home, but into a dark and bullet-ridden family saga. This is the joint family politics of rural Jharkand, not urban bourgeoise, and the petty manipulations of a TV soap have much larger, darker ramifications as implied by the bullets and havoc.

But even before we can shuffle up to the edge of our seats, the gangster leader tries ringing the phone of the man he’s trying to kill (by hiring goons to fire endless bullet rounds into his home) and the strains of another Bollywood gangster theme is played as ringtone — Nayak nahin khalnayak hoon main. Half the audience in the theatre cracks up. It is as unexpected as Tulsi Veerani was, and there is a delicious layering of humour and menace on top of one another.

In fact, if I could describe GoW1 in one line, it would be just that — a subversive spaghetti western set in North India that layers humour and menace over layers and layers of characters, to make the ultimate Bollywood puff pastry.

AND it has Muslim protagonists and antagonists. This is essentially a Muslim gangster story, and when has Bollywood allowed Muslim characters to be the centre of a narrative, and not painted them in stereotypes??

The result is just fabulous. Reviewers have mostly praised the film, only criticising the number of characters one has to memorise, and the arduous length of the first instalment. Well, I say boo to you all. Give me more characters, more story and plot and MORE MASALA anyday.

When I talked about subversion in my last post with Shanghai, I was referring to a number of ways in which realistic characters and situations were subverted to make morals and our emotions ambiguous. But where Banerjee indulged in a political commentary, Kashyap takes it out of the ballpark and makes it the most intense type of politics yet — those of person to person, man to woman, family to family. Every moment in the film feels like the characters of GoW1 manipulate people, situations and events to suit their own ends. This is by far the most political film to come out of Bollywood in my opinion, being about electoral politics only at a miniscule level.

And all the politics is profoundly personal. Even though it begins as a revenge saga and progresses as a power struggle, the characters act for their own emotions and egos. This is about personal gratification, not so much about a familial vendetta. Kashyap’s genius lies in how he portrays even the most personal relationships as politically fraught.

And despite all that, it is a beautiful ode to Bollywood and what cinema represents of India.

Let’s start with Shahid Khan (played by a luminous Jaideep Ahlawat). Shahid Khan of Wasseypur (in pre-independent India) is so bereft of employment and money that he decides to pretend to be a train dacoit Sultana Daku, steal his grain and re-sell it to a profit. Unfortunately, Sultana Daku figures this out and in a murderous spree, kills all of Khan’s co-conspirators. Shahid Khan is forced to flee to nearby city Dhanbad with his wife and brother, and find work in its massive coal mines. The mines are still owned and operated by the British in appalling conditions, and its workers treated even worse. Soon, Shahid Khan’s pregnant wife, who sends for him one day from the mines, dies while giving birth to his son. Aggressively reasoning his way out of the mine, Khan makes it too late to save his wife or see her one last time, and buries her, even as he grasps his newborn son with tepid joy.

Several moments of this initial storyline reflect the themes of 1950s cinema. Raj Kapoor’s Awaara, for example, depicts a young, decent man forced to a life of crime to make ends meet. Do Bigha Zamin shows how a rural man is forced to the city to earn enough money to pay the mortgage on his land and the excellent Balraj Sahni, even has a pregnant wife to take care of and a son. The scene where Shahid Khan climbs a tanga at one point in GoW1, felt like such a Do Bigha Zamin moment, which is made all the more poignant by Sneha Kanwalkar’s Ik Bagal Mein (the music is so reminiscent of 50s Bollywood, it is uncanny). But the lyrics of Ik Bagal Mein echo that sense of striving for the impossible in 50s India and 50s Bollywood. This was the time of that Nehruvian sentiment of nation-building, of hard work and dreaming for the impossible. Piyush Mishra is nothing less than  a legend in this song.

Shahid Khan then avenges the death of his wife by bludgeoning a mine henchman to death, the one who refused to let him leave the mines to be by her side. This attracts the attention of the mine owner Ramadhir Singh who offers to make Shahid Khan a bouncer of sorts against other workers’ protests.

Awaara (1951) Poster

50s Bollywood 

In one swoop, Shahid Khan goes from becoming protesting mine worker to mine owner’s lackey — the first anti-hero becomes a villain — and when questioned about his switching loyalty, he burns down all the labourers’ shacks. A classic Mother India-style act of evil, or for that matter that of V. Shantaram’s Do Aankhen Barah Haath. This is another act of subversion by Kashyap. While our initial sympathies are all with Shahid Khan and his distress, there is no clean, hard-working salvation for our protagonist, nor any of that criminal-becomes-reformed sappy moment. All his good work only bring misery like Birju in Mother India, so overnight, he becomes the bad guy like Birju. But Birju is depicted as the brash arrogance of a young, new India scolded and finally killed by the symbol of a timeless India – a mother who embodies sacrifice, hard work and values. Shahid Khan though, is the victory of the grim 50s India, where hope did not lie in the good things, but were snatched from the bad. This Birju/Shahid Khan demonstrates decided patricidal tendencies.

There are also such subtle nuances of anti-imperialist socialism here, of Khan’s anti-establishment involvement with the labourers, of a stark ‘God Save the Queen’ still painted on the walls of the mine, India becoming free, but the people hardly becoming so and the idea of free enterprise becoming corrupted and self-gratifying.

Also, that gory moment of Shahid Khan’s death in the quaint holy town of Benares is all the more shocking for the way it is depicted. A small but impacting subversion is the kind of assassin who kills him, a silent, unassuming erudite-looking Yadavji, who dressed in khadi and starched cotton coolly closes windows, loads a gun and moves out of the frame to to shoot  a stunned Shahid Khan. Murderousness lies in his orderliness. Subversion.

So begins the story of the next protagonist, Shahid Khan’s now orphaned son, Sardar Khan who has been brought up by his father’s relatives, who nurture the seeds of vengeance in his heart. Sardar Khan grows up in no time to a bald and baneful Manoj Bajpai. There is an unholy glee to Bajpai’s face as he hacks and slashes his way to brute power, but there’s equally a boyish charm to his attitude as he cracks jokes, swears and seduces with equal aplomb. His complicated relationship with his wife Naghma (fabulously fabulous Richa Chaddha) underscores all his better and worse traits — he loves wholeheartedly, he lusts with his whole body and he fears her most in his mind.

Another moment of subversion — at a moment where we’re meant to see Sardar Khan show his evil side, he is chased at the whorehouse by his wife, who loudly and aggressively voices her displeasure. We are made to sympathise with the man caught with his pants down and be awed by the round-bellied foul-mouthed shrew of a wife. And again, just as we sympathise with Naghma’s fate with an unfaithful husband, there comes a moment where she doesn’t just submit to his infidelity but encourages it saying, “Baahar jaake apni beizzati mat karna”, implying his sexual performance shouldn’t be found lacking. Never has the traditional Indian wife been so untraditional.

Were we supposed to laugh? Lots of men in the audience did, approvingly it seemed, but again, with Kashyap’s direction, you get the feeling it was meant to be double-edged. We laugh at Naghma’s frustrated irony as much as we laugh at the fact that she boldly taunts his virility. Even the humour in GoW1 is so nuanced.

And yet, curiously, Naghma’s rebellion in kicking her husband out of bed for his second marriage causes Sardar Khan to abandon her, leaving her to fend for herself and her two sons, in a very Mother India-like twist. In other words:


who then becomes

Kashyap seems to suggest that the Mother India effect on womanhood lasted long beyond its time, that the emotionally empowered woman was still a victim of the politics of her time.

Sardar Khan on the other hand, represents several 70s tropes bundled up together. First, is his own aggressive brand of justice — there is no law and order system in place in GoW1. The police come and go briefly in a scene at a butcher’s graveyard, where they’re warned off by one group of thugs that Wasseypur is in the hinterland of law and order. Immediately, Wasseypur brings to mind another place that had its own brand of justice outside of police rule — Ramgarh, of Sholay. Ramgarh was an enclosed, insular world far away from the ordered city that pitted a village and a villain against one another, and Wasseypur echoes that sense of anarchic law and order.  But where Ramgarh had its saviours in Jai and Veeru, we’re convinced that Wasseypur has no heroes. All the characters are in it for their own purposes.


In fact, I think GoW1 is a throwback to all the realistically unpleasant aspects of Sholay — the villains are not Gabbar-like caricatures but true-to-life mafia; the women who start off as objects of desire have complex needs and manipulations of their own; the anarchic law and order, which is tempting for a sense of self-administered justice, becomes a tool in the hands of the greedy and power-hungry; and the Muslims discriminate against each other on the basis of class and caste as much as the Hindus.

Sardar Khan’s character also develops in shining little tributes to filmdom — like the jail escape scene is quite reminiscent of Sholay‘s own jail scene, where Jai and Veeru dupe a mole of the Jailer into thinking they will escape… except in GoW1‘s scene, the prisoners do escape — 21 of them — as the lackadaisical police watch other prisoners raucously perform Bhoos ke Dere. And Khan’s seduction of Durga (a reasonably good Reemma Sen) — who he charms in his own rustic manner (O Womaniya is an ode to rustic Indian village life, if there ever was one) — echoes Veeru’s clumsy courting of Basanti in Sholay. But again, the tropes are subverted. The comic aura of the jail scene (with the vertically challenged inmate dancing to the folksy tune) is underlaid with the tension of a will-it-won’t-it-explode bomb question. And while Veeru and Basanti depict a sweet, innocent relationship, Khan’s relationship with Durga has undertones of sexual violence.

The story arc of GoW1 also traces India’s left-wing politics from the 50s and 60s socialism to a 70s rebellion and anarchy so wonderfully through Shahid Khan’s and then Sardar Khan’s characters. Sardar Khan, in particular, vents all his anti-authority swagger on Ramadhir Singh, who is forced to helplessly watch this rebel take over a town and a mafia he has painstakingly constructed for his own political ends.

Soon enough Sardar Khan’s sons grow up, and echo the feel of the 70s  Bollywood hero. I direct you to this blogpost by Aniket Alam who discusses some very interesting elements of the 70s ‘angry young man’, and raises questions whose answers Kashyap illustrates so accurately in this film. And I’d like to quote one point Aniket makes here:

Interestingly, most film reviewers and writers have identified the angry young man with the anger of the young and restless generation which was born after independence and was unhappy with the system, with the continuing poverty and with a failing, corrupt State. The secret of the angry young man’s popularity has been analysed in the semi-proletarian urges of the youth. While this is surely important, I have a feeling that the deep resonance of the angry young man with his audience was founded on his being an orphan – the hero who had no real ties with family or caste. In fact, this hero persona – orphan with no real ties to family or caste, goes back much before the emergence of the angry young man. Most of Raj Kapoor’s abiding heroes were similar orphans – his global all time hit being Aawara (vagabond). Other popular heroes too were similar orphans. It may not be an exaggeration to state that the orphan-hero is the most abiding screen persona of the Bollywood hero.

Faisal Khan (a marvellous Nawazuddin Siddiqui) can be entirely viewed through this lens. The dissatisfaction with his father’s ‘other’ family, and subsequent abandonment, his identification with Amitabh Bachchan’s patricidal impulses in Trishul , his emotional distance from his mother and brother, are all heightened in the latter part of GoW1. But in an interesting twist, it is Faisal — the grandson of Shahid Khan — who avenges his death with the deceptively normal-looking Yadavji. Their first encounter, loaded with a tension that is palpable passes by innocuously, subversively as we expect the worst and nothing happens.

Until Faisal discovers Yadavji’s sly tactics in his gun business and performs his first act of familial revenge — probably not recognising it was one. This idea of a fated revenge — kismat mein likhi hui maut —  is such a 70s Bollywood trait that Kashyap manages to sneak in almost innocently. The idealism that the 70s anti-hero would right the wrongs of the previous generation was a strong undercurrent in most of Amitabh’s biggest 70s hits — Zanjeer, Deewar, Muqaddar ka Sikandar, Trishul, Don and of course, Lawaaris (though this last one slid into the early 80s). And Kashyap taps into this image beautifully in Faisal’s story arc.

Towards the  end of GoW1, the emotionally subversive moments become so routine and commonplace, you can hardly predict what direction the film will take. Khan’s older son Danish gets shot at in a comical scene where his father’s depth of affection is made visible, Danish marries his sweetheart in another tense wedding sequence where nothing ultimately happens, Faisal and Mohsina’s courtship takes off with such flavoured dialogue, it’s hard not to be entertained. Mohsina (Huma Qureshi) has a certain Rekha-like appeal, as depicted in the only “dream sequence” the film has — at Danish’s wedding. The “dream sequence” (through the Salaam-e-Ishq song) is another of those late 70s-early 80s tropes that makes an appearance aptly here, particularly echoing the Amitabh-Rekha on-screen (and maybe off-screen?) chemistry.

Sneha Kanwalkar deserves the best of India’s awards for her musical score in this film. In particular, Bhoos ke Dere subverts all our expectations of traditional Hindi cinema music — the folk style dominates; instead of professional singers, Kanwalkar picked roadside kids and men for the tone of their voices and coarse singing style and the lyrics are peppered with irreverence and inside jokes. It is a fitting score.

I have one final comment to make on the last scene of GoW1. While Durga’s betrayal of Sardar Khan could be predicted, the chilling scene at the petrol pump works on one particular idea that the anti-hero/villain does not die so easily. The rousing cheers and whistles Sardar Khan got in the theatre I was in, followed by the subversively joyous Jiya Ho Bihar ke Lala dims our horror and makes us want to celebrate his slow-motion fight-back — this is an emotion Bollywood filmgoers crave, and I think Kashyap’s agenda would not be complete if he let us walk out of the theatre feeling like this was a sad ending. Bollywood is meant to either end happily, or end with a feeling of moral validation, and neither purpose would be served by Sardar Khan’s death (at least not in the final scene of GoW1).

The symbolic act of the gun going off on its own is also indicative that perhaps the film is going to take a turn from anarchy to a nihilist violence (I don’t know what’s going to happen in GoW2, so it’s an assumption here).

As in the last post, I want to reiterate here that Kashyap is not an artist who produces an ‘art object’, but one who manipulates familiar signs and symbols to plough out new images and perceptions. Bollywood in GoW1, is one such sign that is subverted and turned on its head to become symbolic of the many Indias that are underneath the obvious India.

And I do want to say that a film that manages to be about both Bollywood and about a Bollywoodised India is a rare, special treat. Kashyap doesn’t delve too deep into the “about Bollywood” area — which is structly Farah Khan’s milieu in Om Shanti Om. But on “Bollywoodised India”, this film manages to capture India’s post-independence story with such heart and cinematic glory that I am optimistic GoW2 will not disappoint.

Come on July, hurry up already for Part 3 of this series.

3 responses »

  1. Brilliant ! I’d definitely want Anurag Kashyap to read this review. I loved it. So far, of all the reviews I had read about GOW, this is the best! Keep writing Pallavi. As usual, I’m gonna send this link to all my friends.

    About the nuances you’ve explained here, I couldn’t agree more. Especially, when you wrote about the personal politics of the characters and the egos and clashes, I could relate this characterization to that of Game of Thrones (although they both are poles apart and couldn’t be compared, as GOW comes out as a winner hands down). The characters of both sagas are in a way, similar in trying to satisfy their egos and ideals, and we cannot bind them in a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ kind of a verdict. I dunno why I remembered GOT here… That’s nothing compared with GOW. I again loved the characterizations of each of those carefully built characters Kashyap had created. I would die to lay my hands on the screenplay of GOW – and I personally think that it must be published (Anurag – in case if you are reading this review – pl make a note)>>> 🙂

    The songs – again, I remembered SD Burman’s voice – especially from Aradhana – ‘Saphal hogi teri Aradhana’ – and the moment I saw the song, it filled my heart.. . I have a lot more to tell.. But going off now, as I have a lot more to work :-)…

  2. I might consider ‘subversion’ in this context as ‘contrarian’. More in the manner of standing against a common perception of a villain to deliver his villainy.

    And I sometimes wonder if the ‘dry, unkind landscapes of Bihar/Jharkand’s coal mines’ are so because of the people who made them that. Just a thought.

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