Gangs of Wasseypur: A metaphor for all that went wrong in India
Coal evokes criminality, violence, corruption all in the name of public good. Bollywood evokes desire. When they come together in Gangs of Wasseypur we get the ballad of coal - a duet of modern India's two greatest myths.
A friend of mine once told me, when India has Dhanbad, it does not need a gulag. Dhanbad as a city is a metaphor for all that went wrong with modern India. In an ironic sense, Dhanbad is a guarantee that every wave of reform is only a new pretext for corruption. Dhanbad is a scenario that shows how socialism, nation state and democracy could all be subverted. The story of Dhanbad is the story of coal.
There is something about coal that strikes deep into the public unconscious of India. Coal evokes criminality, violence, corruption. The mafia colonises not just coal but democracy. It shows it is the real future of modern India. Coal, as a canvas, captures every major dialect of violence.
The question one then asks is how does a filmmaker capture the ballad of coal?
Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur creates a motley cast of characters which captures every nuance of violence. Kashyap realized that the first rule of violence and Bollywood is the same. The greater the number of side characters, the greater the power of violence. Cameo performances outline the diversity of violence.
In Gangs of Wasseypur the battle is between Querishi and Pathan. The Pathan reflects the open violence of the frontier, the Quereshis as butchers reflect the fragmentation of the body. It is their very life and occupation that sets the scene of battle.
The visual power of the movie depicts the violence of coal. Everything from its extraction as it rips open nature to its organization reflects violence. Kashyap creates the foils to coal as humour, Bollywood style, mixes with it. If Wasseypur is violence, Bollywood is desire, each likes to be laced with the other. Kashyap skill lies in realizing that this is the confluence of two great myths, the myth of violence and the myth of desire plays out in two ways. Gangsters acquire a touch of humanity in Bollywood style encounters of boy meets girl. The sexuality of one domain resonates in the violence of the other. Kashyap makes the point that the gangster in Dhanbad finds his double in the Bollywood hero. One does not know whether Amitabh adds to Surya Deo Singh or vice versa. In creating this duet of two of modern India’s greatest myths, Kashyap shows he understands the ballad of coal.
Kashyap is a storyteller of violence and its philosopher. What he shows both about coal, the mafia and the feud is that all of them see the body as dispensable. What is valued least is life and power is power over life. The power of violence lies in the casualty rate. It is almost as if no one seems to care. Violence needs violence to conduct the conversation of the feud. Violence is the normative frame within which life conducts itself. It is as if revenge creates the spine of the story and love, sexuality, family are merely ribs jutting out from it.
In Gangs of Wasseypur violence becomes the narrative, each subplot being an act of violence. The storyteller is overwhelmed by violence. Violence destroys the plot of the story by becoming the only plot. In an indirect way Kashyap shows that violence cannibalizes life and colonizes it. Losing the plot of the story becomes a symptom of the violence Kashyap is trying to understand.
Kashyap shows the violence unfolds like a chain. What coal does to men, men in turn do to women. The asymmetry is sustained. Women as nature evoke desire, but like nature women get strip mined and abandoned. Kashyap understands the language of violence, its body, its technology. A knife for all its brutality is an extension of the hand. As one graduates to a gun or a bomb, violence becomes more impersonal. By the time the automatic machine gun arrives, death is industrial. The impersonality of violence adds octaves to its power as automatic becomes a desi word.
With coal around, democracy and socialism never stood a chance. Coal subverts every key word in a well meaning universe to mean the opposite. So trade unions become the mafia. Democracy is subverted. Public good is exploited as private enterprise. Coal in fact is hero and villain of the movie. Kashyap knows violence is an epic and his work needs a sequel to capture the full power of a story. It is an admission that violence rarely achieves closure and what is true of violence is true also of narratives about it.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.
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Zeishan Quadri, who penned Anurag Kashyap's two-part Gangs Of Wasseypur series, says the latter wants him to write as well as direct the film's third part.