[Warning: none of this will make any sense if you haven't seen Gangs of Wasseypur, and possibly even if you have]
Looking at my GoW post again, I realised it came across as more negative than intended, perhaps giving the impression that I didn’t like the film – which is very far from the truth. Part of the reason is that the post wasn’t a consolidated “review”, it was a specific attempt to discuss some things that didn’t work for me – and so, the tone necessarily leant in a particular direction. (I could have written a piece twice as long gushing about the many things I loved in the film, but that wasn’t the intention here.)
It’s always a good thing when a movie can provoke impassioned, well-articulated conversations, and GoW has certainly been doing this. I’m not about to quote all my email chats with friends on the subject, but here’s an example of a discussion of a relatively minor plot point. My friend Shougat has already written three separate pieces about GoW for Tehelka (not entirely of his own volition, but I won’t elaborate on that). In the last of these, he notes:
An arresting image, Kashyap should be told, is not the same as an idea. For instance, in GoW1, a consigliere (one of two, like everything in this film) of the Khan family crime syndicate self-flagellates in the manner of Shia Muslims to punish himself for his lust. There are other scenes of collective Shia self-flagellation in GoW1, and in GoW2 the same character once again cracks the lash against his back, his face set in stoic denial, while listening to Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Huma Qureshi’s extended post-nuptial frolicking. This must mean something, you think, must reflect something about this man’s character, or perhaps make some general point. But, no, Kashyap just likes the sight and sound of a man whipping himself.
My response to the above passage:
Actually, I think Farhan's self-flagellating was intended to make a point about his character (whether it's made convincingly is another matter). His inability to control his sexual drives in the first film plays a big part in defining Faisal's life trajectory, and one gets the impression that from this point onwards Farhan is on a relentless, self-conscious mission to detach himself from the material world in the face of his baser instincts. (His role as the sutradhaar lusting after successive generations of clan women reminded me oddly of Vyasa's ambiguous role in the Mahabharata.) Perhaps there is some sort of moral point intended in the fact that, all those namaazes and self-flagellations later, he is essentially the sole survivor at the end (and looking after Mohsina and her child the same way Vyasa was lingering about at the epic’s end as preceptor for the heir-apparent Parikshit after the Pandavas fucked off to Heaven). Or perhaps nothing moral is intended.
To which Shougat tersely replied:
Sounds plausible to me... except that two scenes of the chap whipping himself followed by a last scene in Bombay is very little on which to hang an elaborate but interesting analysis.
Indeed, so rushed is the pace of GoW and so hard is it to take anything in it at face value that at times it feels like the only way to discuss the film is through subtextual analysis, playful speculation and guesswork. Which might simply mean that we need the evolution of a new mode of criticism to deal with a new type of cinema.
[Speaking of the Pandavas, did Faisal’s ganja addiction remind anyone else of Yudhisthira’s gambling? Did Perpendicular’s activities put you in mind of Bheema’s appetite for random, cruel violence? No? Well, then.]
The fun thing about discussing this film is that nearly every intelligent viewer I know has expressed some ambivalence about their reactions, and wondered if they misread the tone of a crucial scene. On my post and elsewhere, the possibility has been raised that even Faisal’s big emotional moment near the end may have been an inside joke – another meta-reference to how the hero of a “typical” mainstream Hindi movie might be expected to behave in a certain situation. It has also been suggested that the characters of GoW – or at least the characters of GoW 2 – are not meant to have the interiority and roundedness that so many reviewers have been seeking; they are meant to be nothing more than hollow constructs of the movies they watch.
At risk of getting “meta” and self-indulgent myself, I want to again clarify something about my main objection to the film. I can’t do better than to simply quote a poster named Ami, who (in the comments thread of this blog) articulated my position better than I did. Here goes (bold marks mine):
I don’t think he is criticizing the film for its tragicomedic humour but for the fact that it cannot decide whether it wants the viewers to be emotionally invested in its characters and view them as real people or whether it wants to present its characters more as archetypical composites of popular culture living in a cardboard universe that is playfully derivative of gangster films and masala movies.
[...] He’s objecting to the uneven emotional engagement that the film provokes – not the fact that it is both serious and playful but the fact that it is both emotionally superficial and emotionally deep.
To reiterate: I respect any work that recognises the possibility of playfulness/levity in a tragic moment, and vice versa. (The scene where Faisal stumbles back to wear his shoes is one of a few scenes in GoW where I thought this was done quite nicely.) But I also think that in the really successful examples of such juxtapositions, those apparently contradictory moods are integrated within a given context. And in GoW, there were too many cases of the film simply telling us “This is how you're supposed to feel about these characters” in one scene and then “Now you have to feel this way” in the next scene.
Anyway, like I said in the earlier post, I look forward to watching the whole 6-hour shebang a second time and quite possibly changing my mind about it completely. Maybe a second viewing will reveal that the entire story is a ganja dream along the lines of the hallucinatory opium den scenes in Once Upon a Time in America.