Gangs of Wasseypur is a Hindi film directed by Anurag Kashyap and released in 2012 as a two-part series (the movie is 5 hours long undivided) about the coal mafia in Dhanbad (a mining town in India) and the underlying power struggles, the cycle of violence and revenge between three families all seeking to control the town and the nearby Wasseypur. The movie covers the ups and downs of each family from the 1940s to the mid-1990s and the end of the license-raj. The entire movie is shot as a narration of the events by Nasir, one of the players in the chaos of Dhanbad and Wasseypur. The village of Wasseypur has been historically dominated by the Qureshi Muslims, a sub-caste of animal butchers who are feared by the non-Qureshi Muslims living there.
During British colonial rule, the region was a hotbed of the local dacoit Sultana Qureshi who robbed British trains in the night and thus held some patriotic value for the locals. However, in 1941, Shahid Khan, a Pathan, takes advantage of the faceless dacoit and also begins robbing trains. This creates friction with the local Qureshi overlords who attack his men and hound Shahid Khan out of the village who settles in Dhanbad and begins working in a coal mine. In a tragic set of events, Shahid Khan’s wife dies at childbirth, as he is delayed by the muscleman at the coal mine, giving birth to his son, Sardar Khan (played magnificently by Manoj Bajpayee). He later takes his revenge by killing the muscleman, where he is noticed by the owner of the mine, an Indian industrialist, Ramadhir Singh who hires Shahid Khan as his new enforcer.
Shahid Khan’s role as an enforcer goes to his head and one day, Ramadhir Singh overhears Shahid Khan telling Nasir, a cousin of his, his plans to remove Ramadhir eventually. Ramadhir Singh sends Shahid on a task and has him assassinated by a local hitman. He also sends goons (including Ehsaan Qureshi, a member of the Qureshi gang who drove Shahid Khan out) to kill Nasir and Shahid Khan’s son. However, Nasir, finding Ramadhir’s umbrella with his initials near the door concludes that Ramadhir eavesdropped on their conversation and escapes with Sardar Khan.
Ehsaan, after not finding Nasir and Sardar, lies to Singh that Shahid’s family has been murdered, burnt, and buried. Under the care of Nasir, Sardar grows up along with Nasir’s nephew Asgar. Sardar learns the truth about his father’s death, upon which he shaves his head and vows not to grow his hair until he has avenged his father’s murder beginning the entire chapter of revenge. This begins a cycle of revenge and brutal violence, that envelops the towns of Wasseypur and Dhanbad – violence perpetrated not due to the differences of religion but rather greed.
New generations are introduced throughout the movie and revenge envelops each generation with Sultan Qureshi murdering both Sardar Khan and his elder son Danish Khan and himself being murdered by Faizal Khan, the younger son of Sardar Khan. He later manages to kill Ramadhir Singh as well, but is later shot by Sardar Khan’s illegitimate son Definite Khan. The chaos of the different characters is sometimes hard to track as new characters are introduced during the movie and are killed soon after.
The movie shows the seed of violence ingrained with some individuals, nurtured by greed and lust, which destroys generations as the vendetta grows over time. Even a marriage alliance between the Qureshis and the Pathans cannot ensure peace, as Sultan Qureshi continues to kill and begins including women and children in the violence.
Ultimately, Gangs of Wasseypur shows the poorer areas of India in stark contrast to urban India. It shows the downtrodden state of the coal miners, their exploitation by the British and then the rich Indian masters. It shows the differences between people belonging to the same religion and customs and their capacity for extreme violence against their own kind. But Gangs of Wasseypur, manages to show this with flair. Anurag Kashyap’s bold style of depicting the story, reinvents the Indian mafia dramas, which had been dominated by Ram Gopal Varma’s gritty tales on the Mumbai underworld and did not capture the violence and the crime in the Indian heartland – regions dominated by poverty, hunger, corrupt politicians and policemen.
There is a lot of justified criticism for the level of violence in the movie but that is the whole point. It shows the capacity within people, normal people like you and me, to indulge in gruesome violence over pointless vendettas driven by ego and revenge. Several generations of three families are destroyed by revenge and ultimately no one is truly victorious. Wealth gained by violence is also destroyed by it.
There is a saying by Francis Bacon – “This is certain, that a man that studieth revenge keeps his wounds green, which otherwise would heal and do well.” This quote is the essence of the Gangs of Wasseypur, generations of families obsessing over revenge – vengeance for a dead father (Sardar Khan), vengeance for a dead father, mother, uncle and brothers (Faisal Khan) and vengeance for supposed insults (Sultan Qureshi). None of these emerge victorious – they get their revenge but end up losing their lives and ensuring the destruction of their families.
Smaller stories of other individuals seeking to profit from this cycle of violence merge into the larger tale. Anurag Kashyap keeps this long tale of Wasseypur, entertaining and engaging, through brilliant dialogues, a diverse array of characters and a story that keeps the audiences on their toes. The interlocking conflicts and ever-changing allegiances never cease to fascinate throughout the course of the movie.
The performances, across the movie, are magnificent, with Manoj Bajpayee (Sardar Khan), the Khan family matriarch Richa Chaddha (wife of Sardar Khan), and her second son (and star of the second part of the film) played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui whose work and character arc in “Gangs of Wasseypur” defy superlative.
Watch the movie as any list regarding the best Indian mob movies, actually mob films in any language, going forward has to mention “Gangs of Wasseypur,” or it will be incomplete. The word “epic” has been devalued by overuse, but in Gangs of Wasseypur one is reminded of what the term truly means. It is Anurag Kashyap’s entry into a league of extraordinary film-makers. It is a violent, terrifyingly intense work of art with humor interspersed in between.
As far as crime dramas go, this gritty tale of vengeance in the Indian heartland doesn’t disappoint.