On subversion and masala Bollywood (Part 3) — GoW2 and why masala endures

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https://i1.wp.com/www.hindustantimes.com/Images/Popup/2012/7/gangs-of-wasseypur-2-poster.jpgFirst, Part 1 and Part 2, for some reference. And major spoilers will be discussed ahead, do be warned. I’ve had a long month of work, work and more work, so I’m aware this critique is very late.

I’m also under quite a bit of pressure. My previous posts on Shanghai and GoW1 have attracted far more readers than I’d dreamed of, publicised by heaps of people, and Anurag Kashyap has himself admitted he read it. Many times. So now I have performance anxiety. ūüėź

Plus, I’ve been avoiding all the mainstream reviews of GoW2 because I’m convinced they’d jinx the film for me. No, I wanted to keep Sardar Khan’s gleaming head in my mind when I start watching this film, because if anyone could top that first part, it would be Nawazuddin Siddiqui in a pair of Ray-Bans.

A friend on Facebook said this after watching GoW2: “I used to be ashamed of all those afternoons I spent at home watching ridiculously, bizarrely, brain-fryingly random Hindi movies on Set Max. Now I know that Anurag Kashyap — someone the world considers an artist — also watched them. I feel validated.” This was my exact reaction to the film.

I said in my last post that GoW — more than the Dhanbad coal fiasco, the reality of Bihar/Jharkand/Chattisgarh or anything else — feels like an ode to the best of Bollywood. When you have central leads like Faizal and Mohsina punch-drunk on cinema, who embody its swagger, its glamour and its sheer joy, a Bollywood tribute like Om Shanti Om pales as a shallow parody of cinema instead. Kashyap celebrates his Bollywood in the places of his youth, and in many ways this film layers tribute upon tribute.

But rather than all of Bollywood, I got the feeling that¬†GoW2 narrows down its appreciation to a particular era and a particular style of filmmaking — that of the 70s. And to hone it down even more, I believe GoW2 is a subversive tribute to the most masala, dramatic, joyful scriptwriters of Hindi cinema — Salim-Javed. And towards the end, it works comprehensively at becoming the anti-Deewar of postmodern Bollywood.

There are three critical pieces of dialogue in this film that tell you exactly how GoW follows-yet-repels the trajectory of the 70s masala Salim-Javed. I will come to each of them shortly.

At the very beginning of GoW2, when Faizal is woken up to the news that his father has been killed, he runs downstairs, before running back upstairs again, to put on some shoes before heading off to find his father. Contrast this with his brother, Danish, who is all righteous angst and channelled fury, and you see the build-up to the first critical statement made by Faizal to his friend: “Hum toh sochte thhe ki Sanjeev Kumar ke ghar mein Bachchan paida hue hain. Pata chala ki hum toh Sashi Kapoor hain.” This reference to¬†Trishul¬†is key to how Faisal sees himself — as a son avenging himself on an absent, hopeless father. But when he’s beaten to the chase, and the father now becomes the reason for more vengeance, Faizal it seems to me, embarks on a critical challenge to become Amitabh Bachchan, to become Vijay (the many Vijays of 70s cinema, in fact). Every act of his is borrowed from Amitabh filmlore, from the donning of the dark glasses to the wooing of his glamorous beloved, to the violence he has to use to exact vengeance. A vengeance he does not choose for himself, yet has now become his life’s mission.

In fact, Richa Chadha’s Nagma is pointedly portrayed as the anti-Nirupa Roy. The critical scene in Deewar where mother and son, Ravi move out of Vijay’s house disgusted with his moral bent, Ma tells Vijay, “Woh aadmi jisne tere baap ka sign liya woh tera kaun tha? Koi nahi. Woh aadmi jisne tere maa ko gaaliyan deke nikala tha, woh tera kaun tha? Koi nahi. Woh aadmi jisne likh diya tha ki tera baap chor hai, woh tera kaun tha? Koi nahi. Magar tu, tu toh mera apna beta hai, mera apna khoon. Tune kaise apne maa ke maathe pe likh diya ki uska beta ek chor hai?”

Nagma on the other hand pulls a knife on her son and asks him, “Kab khoon khaulega re tera? Tumre haath se kab chalegi goli? Kab lega badla baap bhai ka?” And Faizal, steeped in his ganja and celluloid fantasies of being the noble son, obliges. Even as we observe his softer filmy side when he romances Mohsina, a spitfire who has little hesitation in goading him sexually, the fiery wedding night implied leaves little doubt this is a man fuelled by earthy passion. And Sneha Kanwalkar’s excellent¬†Kaala re, saiyyan kaala re¬†highlights Faisal’s descent into darkness, ‘tan kala re, man kala re’ (black body, black heart), ‘kali batua, paisa kala’ (black wallet, black money) and ‘bairi coal coal, chheene whole sale tol,¬†rang paani aur pichkari’ (this hateful coal, coal, snatches in whole sale weight, the colours, the water and the sprayer).

One of the most interesting scenes in the film is in fact the buildup and replay of the famous opening scene to¬†GoW1 –– the shootout in Faizal’s house and his dash upstairs. Kashyap shoots Faizal’s ascent and descent in extended slow motion, detailing painful moments of breathlessness, ¬†crawling along stairs and ¬†terraces and a hard landing on his ankle twisting it. This sequence left me baffled. What exactly was it meant to portray? It’s much longer and slower than it needs to be, and runs almost entirely with no music, just the barrage of bullets in the background, and Faizal weaving in and out of stairwells and corridors. The only interpretation I could come up with was an analogy to the climb and descent from a ganja high — and symbolically, Faizal’s becoming human and descending into a black apathy. In fact, that might be exactly it. From this moment onwards, Faizal is less emotionally invested in the idea of revenge and instead begins to coldly strategise about doing what needs to be done. But he is ¬†just a man, a very fallible, human man, and this scene underscores it as nothing else in the film.

Incidentally, ‘Kaala rey’ jolted my memory about another under-appreciated Salim-Javed gem,¬†Kaala Patthar, which has Amitabh as yet another Vijay, and Shashi Kapoor as yet another goody-goody fraternal figure and a deliciously grey Shatrughan Sinha who is first a foe, and then a friend. But the real connection comes from the fact that¬†Kaala Patthar¬†is set in the coal mines of Dhanbad and deals with issues of coal miner safety and unions. My favourite dialogue from¬†Kaala Patthar has Vijay actually saying ‘Pain is my destiny and I can’t avoid it!’ (in English) to a doctor trying to treat him, and it’s a dialogue eerily reminiscent in Faizal’s unfolding behaviour in GoW2. If Faizal is intoxicated with his ganja and cinema, his next level of intoxication comes with Mohsina, ¬†whose obsession with cinema is reflected in her love of make-up, clothes and handbags.¬†Mohsina and Faizal are meant to mirror of Vijay and Anita in¬†Deewar. If it’s anyone who can understand Faizal’s need for drugs and filmic vengeance, it’s Mohsina, and she stands by him throughout.

Faizal is an extension of the 70s Vijay — where Amitabh has a lifelong tattoo telling him of how the system failed his father, Faisal sees his childhood and past played out on a cinema screen like a visual diary. Where Vijay chooses to avenge Anita’s death with deadly intensity, Faisal after an attack on his family, reaches a dangerous state of apathy. Where Vijay sees Anita’s pregnancy as the potential for a new beginning, Faisal tells Mohsina, “Bachche ko bolna uske Abbu ne hello bola.”

“Bachche ko bolna uske Abbu ne hello bola.”

Also worth noticing is the make-up-loving Mohsina who, when she declares to Faizal she’s pregnant, is bare-faced, nude, almost as if a veil of illusion has been lifted from her. At this point, no one, not even the mother of his child can reach Faizal.

The Salim-Javed Angry Young Man films of the 70s were a political statement that questioned whether decent people who slipped through the system could subvert the law and find their own justice outside a corrupt, failed system. But it was still the upper-class, upper-caste disenfranchised man who was the protagonist forced to find  an alternative justice. Kashyap now puts forth the lower-class, low-caste empowered man as an anti-hero, a product of the same system that has failed him.

And in this case,¬†Faizal very early on confronts his nemesis. And finds that instead of any roots in justice/injustice or law/crime or even filial loyalty, what drives Ramadhir Singh is just pure survival. This is the second crucial dialogue of the film. “Agar hum unko na maarte, toh woh humein maar dete,” Ramadhir Singh says on the murder of Faizal’s father and grandfather.¬†Deewar is about how essential social structures broke down in the 70s, and¬†Kashyap takes the¬†Deewar ideology embodied by Vijay — of the dog-eat-dog world and survival — and gives it a postmodern twist. Vijay did not have an actual enemy apart from the system until Anita’s murder, which leads him to hunt down Samant, just as Faizal did not have a revenge until Danish, the de facto avenger dies, and he is trapped by circumstances. Uncannily, fate shapes Vijay and Faizal’s likely destinies.

Another significant similarity from Deewar is the theme of brotherhood. Ravi and Vijay are separated by a wall of morality. Ravi sees the badge as salvation, Vijay as nothing more than show. In¬†GoW2, the extensions of this are Faizal’s brothers Definite and Perpendicular and his friend Tangent, who certainly have no moral fibre of their own, but even so are often caricatures of violent Wasseypur goons. Their guns don’t fire when they should and chase sequences include everything from traffic jams and fuel stops and exploding water tanks in alleyways, the ¬†brother Definite swaggers around with a cobra around his neck (you can’t make this stuff up, seriously), while Perpendicular swirls around razor blades in his mouth as he robs shops in broad daylight. There are moments of sheer farcical comedy, and Kashyap alternates these with Faizal’s more intense, broody moments. And in contrast to¬†Deewar‘s¬†Vijay, who refuses to sign off his guilt and do jail time, Faizal has no qualms about going to jail as a sort of time-out before he returns to his ¬†business. And he equally has no qualms about askin Definite to also do time on his behalf.

There are moments of sheer comic brilliance in these moments, that capture the absurdity of the Bihar-Jharkand social fabric and violence, of how ordinary schoolboys can be thugs one moment, and who then go watch Munnabhai and are chased down and murdered in cold blood.

The murder of Perpendicular confused me. It seemed like Kashyap was sticking too close to reality’s script (the character Perpendicular was inspired by is supposed to have died very young in Wasseypur) and wanted to suddenly stick to the events as they occurred. This jarred me because it had little narrative value and broke the momentum of brotherly ¬†tensions.

Anyway, to come back to the third and final piece of dialogue that is a crucial piece of the puzzle, when Faizal’s enemies approach Ramadhir to find a way to handle him, Ramadhir mocks all of their puny efforts and says something essential: “‚ÄúHindustan mein jab tak cinema hai, log chutiya bante jayenge.‚ÄĚ

This, this line here, is the sum total of all the points Gangs of Wasseypur tries to make — that perhaps all our thieves and thugs and criminals that Bollywood has made into towering icons and heroes are no more than mere chutiye. Because they are as drunk on cinema as Kashyap clearly is, and are therefore incapable of being evil in a truly ‘real’ way. All of their evil is a projection of filmic evil, not something inherently malicious. In fact, are any of the goons truly malicious? This is why they have unintentionally-yet-intentionally funny ringtones like ‘Nayak nahin, khalnayak…’, or ‘Koyal si teri boli’, and why they are confounded when a mark meant to be killed goes buying fruit instead of buying meat.

But my real question is, at the heart of GoW¬†is that elephantine analogy to¬†Deewar — why? In a plethora of Salim-Javed’s hits of the 70s, Kashyap could have mirrored any number of plotlines, like¬†Trishul,¬†or¬†Sholay¬†or¬†Don, or¬†Muqaddar ka Sikandar,¬†but it’s the specific references to¬†Deewar¬†that abound. And that is because GoW explores¬†the one over-arching question of¬†Deewar¬†that was never resolved in¬†Bollywood — can the end justify the means? Can abandoning all sense and order ever bring about resolution?

The brilliance of Salim-Javed’s¬†Deewar¬†was that in the end, when Vijay confronts the truly evil Samant, he ignores his gun and in a fit of fury, heaves an alive and kicking Samant off the top floor of a hotel. Vijay uses his bare hands for his final revenge. In¬†GoW, Faizal confronts Ramadhir in an equally undignified toilet in a hospital, and his Vijay-like rage has disappeared into an almost detached, curious sense of fatefulness. He empties his gun into Ramadhir’s body.

And it’s not enough. So he has to get another gun and empty that too. And that too, is not enough. So he sends Tangent to get more guns. And in the midst of an intense gunfight, Tangent runs to get even more guns so Faizal can empty even more ammo into Ramadhir’s very-dead body. And it’s still not enough. ‘Keh ke lunga’ is beyond fulfilled, and yet…

What we are left with is the sort of cinematic resolution that Bollywood has delivered for over decades now. Good guy kills bad guy, avenges his khandaan and is barely injured in the process. And yet Kashyap’s insight is to show us that this is not ¬†enough. In cinema, as in real life, it will never be enough.

So in the penultimate scene when brother guns down the brother, the appearance of Definite’s mother is almost something we expect. After all, the ¬†question of ‘Kiske paas maa hai?’ is only to be expected in a tribute to¬†Deewar.

In the end,¬†GoW leaves very little room for theorising. It’s a film for Bollywood-lovers, for those who spent a lifetime watching impossible films about brothers separated at birth reuniting, reincarnated lovers, reformed villains, one man killing a whole army, shape-shifting snakes — the triumph of a happy ending, always. This was the audience that sustained entire generations of filmmakers and films, and that Salim-Javed came into and revitalised in the 70s with enduring stories of heroism.

In many ways, Kashyap has proven that there is no better heir to the Salim-Javed tradition of storytelling than himself, to celebrate the best of that era — the quoteworthy smart one-liners, the complex protagonists, their strong women and gritty, emotionally heavy sequences with political undertones.

In a television interview, Kashyap said that films past a certain time — around the time of¬†Himmatwala¬†— stopped moving him, and that 90s cinema left a void that needed to be filled. I believe he has finally found his place in that void and¬†Gangs of Wasseypur, for all its flaws and absurdities and nonsensical twists, sits in that enviable place of a film that’s a box-office housefull hit, and at the same time a critical commentary on Bollywood in our times.

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5 responses »

  1. I was talking to a friend who saw GOW -2 yesterday, and Bollywood Subversion was one of the themes that came up . I did a search and your wonderful blog showed up. I have to read your post again, and probably see the movie once more, to comment on it. For now, I wanted to share some thoughts of my own.
    I think, Bollywood is an implicit character in GOW, and therefore, if there is Bollywood subversion , it is not an extrinsic stylistic choice that has a meta-existence, but it is intrinsic to the plot; it has its own logic.
    As per a school of thought, Kashyap is thumbing his nose at Bollywood tropes – the use of the song teri meherbaniyan, the song frustiao nahi mooora etc. have been used to create a one big subversion I do not see the amount of “film” in this film as a post modern choice, to create a meta movie for the purpose of mindfuck. I believe it is because these gangsters, who live the lives of assumed heroics, they draw a lot from Bollywood , and what we see as a subversion is the so called “real-life” colliding with the “bollywood-life” that is playing in the minds of these gangsters.
    Roberto Saviano talked about this beautifully in his novel Gomorrah. See below –

    • Thanks for your comment, Rahul. That same thought – the idea that people in small town often live a Bollywood-life alongside real life was what made me consider several motifs from the GoW films. The more I watch Kashyap’s other stuff, the more I realise he really understands that inseparability of Bollywood culture from our day-to-day actions. Gulaal has a lot of this subtlety too and it’s marvellous.

      The Saviano video is so perfectly apt. And telling, don’t you think of techniques that work across culture and archetypes. I’ll have to see if I can get his book, though mafioso epics are not really my thing. But I’ll give it a shot. Thank you for that. ūüôā

  2. I remembered an Amitabh Bachchan interview I saw long back – now, I am not a big fan of his work, but he said something that has stayed with me, for some reason.
    The question was, are there any drawbacks to working in films?He could have responded with something mechanical, like lack of privacy etc. but he came up with something very insightful. He said, in films, we have to emote a situation as if its happening to us in real life. For eg. birth of a child, death of a father- etc. So when it actually happens to you, you realize that the purity of that emotion has been compromised. The memory has a copy of that event, and so, the thrill, or even the pathos, of it happening first time in real life is forever lost. I felt this was so very poignant. ūüôā

    Anyway, coming back to GOW, i think that situation has been turned on its head(or subverted, using your favorite word:)) . Lets ignore the fact that GOW is a movie, for a bit. The people of Wasseypur, just like the people of Campania in Italy from Saviano’s book, have stitched together a mythical consciousness from the cinemas, and even the most banal of events are colored in cinematic motifs . The Amitabh of real life feels that death is a second hand emotion , that he has already emoted in a movie. The People of Wasseypur also feel that death is a second hand emotion, because for them the Amitabh of the movie is real, he is a part of their life. The poignancy of vacuousness is similar in both the instances ūüôā

    Oh, by the way, Saviano is not a writer in the mould of Mario Puzo. He is dead serious, he does not write fiction. He names actual people . He has been living in hiding since the publication of his book . Gomorrah is a brilliant book.

  3. Just got to this site while searching for Salim-Javed. Very nicely done! The juxtaposition of Deewar and GOW was terrific. I am huge admirer of Salim-Javed’s works. In my opinion, they are the best writers…ever. Of course, that is just my view. I would love to see your write-up on Salim-Javed specifically.

    • Hey, Altaf, thanks for your comment.

      Yes, a Salim-Javed post is long overdue – I might have to rewatch a whole heap of their films first, which will make for a very enjoyable November-December. ūüôā

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