Sunday, 12 August 2012

How cheap is human life? - on Gangs of Wasseypur

First of all, the confession: I enjoyed seeing both parts on Gangs of Wasseypur, the second half more than the first. I admire the craft that went into the film - the flawless lighting and cinematography, the uniformly good acting from the cast, how it plays around with music and countless other details. Yet I find it problematic to accept. Or perhaps, because of it.

Kashyap has always been some sort of a prankster: whenever he can, he'll hold up the narrative for a while to deliver a joke, an ironic detail or something to break up dramatic tension (e.g. the haldi gag in Dev D). This works brilliantly for me when it is balanced with a genuine emotional core - as in Dev D - or when the world within the film is sufficiently outre to suspend expectations of reality, as in No Smoking. But with Gangs, he's made the only film in his career where the explicit intention is to blow up narrative continuity with a series of jokes.

I don't find this anarchic tendency problematic in itself. Bunuel did the same thing in his later films with Jean Claude-Carriere (for example in The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) and I love him precisely for this subtle demolition of audience expectations. The trouble with Kashyap is that he's using humour in the same amoral way as Tarantino, only without the edge.

To elucidate with an example: the murder of Sultan, which recalls something of the Bunuel spirit. Kashyap sets up the scene as a joke - the coordinator of the hit job is having trouble tying his pyjamas while he's on the phone line with three different people - and for a moment we assume that Sultan is going to slip by in all this chaos. But the plan falls into place just in time and Sultan is murdered viciously - a sudden change in tone which ends up implicating the audience for forgetting that we're ultimately laughing about murder. This unease is why Tarantino works in films like Inglourious Basterds, the self-awareness that violence is fantasy.

By contrast, most of the other killings in the film are played out rather routinely without any emotional investment of the audience in what's going on (and Yashpal Sharma is always at hand to suitably play the ironic brass band troubadour). We enjoy the spectacle but don't feel anything at all - something which reaches its apotheosis in Ramadhir Singh's climactic death. The whole thing is pulled off so bloody impressively that you want it a second time. The difference in this and the Sultan scene is that there is nothing in Kashyap's attitude which indicates that he doesn't share the let's-have-fun-shooting-some-more feeling. It's this invitation to witness full-blooded revenge in glorious slow-motion with accompanying hip techno music that repels me (coincidentally Jim Emerson recently wrote on why he doesn't consider revenge a good plot device). A sort of shirking away from taking a moral and emotional ground, as if that's too hip and uncool. Lest anyone forget, this is the director of Gulaal we're talking about - a political film considerably drowned in pathos.

Which brings me to my theory. The only way GoW makes sense to me is as Kashyap's own vengeance saga. It's like he wants to take us on for completely ignoring That Girl in Yellow Boots (his most emotionally honest film) and show that he can make a blockbuster hit - by twisting and playing around with Bollywood's prized conventions - delivering the ultimate abstruse masala film.

So far so good. Now that he's had his field day, will he get back to the Yellow Boots zone again? Or at least the Dev D one?