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Jai Arjun Singh: Tone twister

The fun thing about discussing Gangs of Wasseypur is that nearly every intelligent viewer I know has expressed some ambivalence about their own reactions

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The question of how to assess a film’s tone has rarely been more fraught than in the context of Anurag Kashyap’s widely discussed Gangs of Wasseypur. Much of the early conversation about GoW – including by those who hadn’t seen it – centred on a very narrow definition of authenticity; some people assumed it was going to be a documentary-like representation of life in the hinterland, and words like “gritty” were hurled around. But authenticity and realism are always ambiguous concepts in cinema, subject to oversimplification. A backlash of sorts followed when the film was revealed as an (often brilliant) exercise in style.

Personally I loved many things about GoW — it is wonderfully performed, with many imaginative Kashyapian set pieces and a superb, versatile music score by Sneha Khanwalkar. But given that this is a multi-generational epic involving layers of personal tragedy, I was a bit thrown off by its constantly clashing tones; specifically by the way in which some of the violent scenes (even the ones where bad things happen to the people we might be expected to root for) became pretexts for Tom and Jerry-style laughs.

To clarify, I have nothing against dark humour, or with essentially tragic situations being given comic treatment. Last week I saw Marjane Satrapi’s Chicken with Plums, a film that manages to be funny about such subjects as death and depression as it chronicles the last days in the life of a melancholy violinist. And I’m currently reading Manu Joseph’s The Illicit Happiness of Other People, a chuckle-inducing novel the plot of which might be summed up thus: a man has been trying obsessively for three years to understand why his 17-year-old son killed himself. Both these works recognise that the profound and the ridiculous constantly coexist in human lives; they encourage the viewer or reader to laugh, but also retain our emotional investment in the protagonists.

There are a few scenes in that achieve this effect. When a sleeping Faisal – son of the small-time gang leader Sardar Khan – is woken and told that his father has been killed, he jumps up and dashes down a stairway and out of the frame, looking very much the purposeful hero about to assume a responsibility; but the shot is held, and a second later he scampers back sheepishly because he has forgotten to put on his shoes. It’s a nice touch, a pointer to the mundane things that can interfere with the playing out of the dramatic “scenes” in our lives. However, this careful integration of two conflicting tones is not generally maintained over the film. What happens, much more often – especially in the second half of the saga – is that we are simply told, “This is how you're supposed to feel about these people” in one scene and then “Now you have to feel this way” in the next scene.

One of the notable things about GoW is how its characters are influenced by cinema: personalities and relationships are shaped by celluloid fantasies; the romance between Faisal and Mohsina is full of endearingly kitschy nods to the tropes of 1980s Hindi movies; many other scenes contain fascinating meta-commentary about how people relate to their films. But this also means that these characters sometimes seem as fleshed out as movie-star posters.

The question, though, is: are they intended to be that way? The fun thing about discussing this film is that nearly every intelligent viewer I know has expressed some ambivalence about their own reactions, and wondered if they misread the tone of a crucial scene. Someone even raised the possibility that Faisal’s big emotional moment near the end – the one where he laments having been drawn into a life of crime – may be an inside joke: just another meta-reference to how the hero of a “typical” mainstream movie might behave in a certain situation. In this view of things, the characters are not meant to have the interiority that so many viewers seek; it doesn’t matter if we don’t care for them; this is the sort of post-modernist cinema where it’s enough to revel in the cleverness of individual sequences.

This can make it difficult to take anything in GoW at face value, and at times it feels like the only way to discuss the film is through subtextual analysis, playful speculation and guesswork: perhaps we even need the evolution of a new mode of criticism to deal with a new type of film. Accordingly, I propose to treat it as a ganja-fuelled version of the Mahabharata. Did Faisal’s addiction remind anyone of Yudhisthira’s gambling? Did Perpendicular’s activities put you in mind of Bheema’s appetite for random, cruel violence? Is the sutradhaar Farhan – participating in events, lusting after generations of women but also ultimately staying detached and surviving in the end – a version of the randy sage Vyasa? See where I’m going with this? Weigh in with more suggestions, please.

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