It’s hard to believe Gangs Of Wasseypur turns 10 this month. Anurag Kashyap’s film still feels a step ahead of Hindi cinema today, just as it did when it released. There hasn’t been a Hindi film in the intervening time with its mix of ambition, energy and cinephilic appetite. The five-and-a-half-hour film premiered as part of Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival on 22 May 2012. It released in India in June and August, split into two parts.
Fledgling screenwriters Zeishan Quadri, Akhilesh Jaiswal and Sachin K. Ladia drew from longstanding feuds between gangsters in the Wasseypur neighbourhood of Dhanbad city in Jharkhand. Inspired by the kinetic Brazilian gangster film City Of God (2002), they turned this into a story of rival clans vying for control of the coal mafia, intertwined with one family’s decades-spanning quest for revenge against politician Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia): first Shahid Khan (Jaideep Ahlawat), then his son Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee), and his son Faizal (Nawazuddin Siddiqui). This was woven into a dense tapestry of shady businessmen and gun-runners, wives and lovers, everyone wisecracking and desperately trying to emerge with the upper hand.
The crew was a mix of unknowns and cannily selected veterans. The biggest name in the cast was Bajpayee, whose career had stalled. The other leads had, at best, one notable credit to their name: Nawazuddin Siddiqui was the inspector from Kahaani (2012), Rajkummar Rao the young man from Love Sex Aur Dhokha (LSD, 2010), Richa Chadha the girl from Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! (2008). Tigmanshu Dhulia was a well-regarded director but had hardly acted in films. Pankaj Tripathi and Jaideep Ahlawat weren’t known at all. Composer Sneha Khanwalkar and editor Shweta Venkat were just a couple of features old.
It‘s not difficult to make a case for Gangs Of Wasseypur as the most influential Hindi film of the 2010s (see our story on the ‘children of Wasseypur’). With its dense sprawl, the film pointed the way towards the long-form storytelling that would kick off in a few years with the arrival of streaming platforms. It gave the industry a couple of cricket teams’ worth of talented actors and technicians. It hastened the already ongoing relocation of the gangster film—and much of Hindi film in general—to non-metro north India. Mukesh Chhabra’s work was a watershed in casting. Khanwalkar’s eclectic, earthy soundtrack made pioneering use of samples and found sounds. The film’s profane flow has been imitated by countless other films and series, though no one has managed to do it with the same hip self-awareness and humour.
Kashyap has returned to gangsters (Bombay Velvet, Sacred Games) and small-town north India (Mukkabaaz) in his subsequent work. But he has been wary of repeating Wasseypur, even as Bollywood remains hell-bent on finding someone who can. Lounge catches up with the director over Zoom and asks him about the antecedents, chaotic production and legacy of Gangs Of Wasseypur. Edited excerpts:
What was the run-up to Cannes like?
In my head I was not even looking at Cannes. I was coming off That Girl In Yellow Boots (2010) and I really needed to make a commercial movie. We were pitching The Lunchbox (2013) at Berlin. (Former director of the Venice, Rotterdam, Locarno film festivals) Marco Müller literally forced me to show him Wasseypur. I was surprised they liked it.
Did it screen as one film at Cannes?
It was screened together. I remember I was very nervous when the film was playing. I just sat outside for five hours, drinking. I didn’t think this is the kind of movie that plays at festivals. Only once in my life I made a film keeping in mind a festival, to figure out how the selling and marketing works—which was Yellow Boots.
The reception was crazy. They showed the movies back-to-back, with just a 10-minute break, but everyone stayed. There was total madness. The actors were getting stopped on the street. We were dancing late into the night.
Is the film more personal than it might appear at first? You shot a lot of it in your childhood town.
It is a very personal interpretation of the real story. We could not shoot in Wasseypur. The budget was very controlled. The only way I could maximise everything was to go back to where I grew up. I used all my father’s goodwill he had accumulated over the years to make the film. People opened their houses because of my dad, and because of them feeling I am one from amongst them who’s now making movies.
I shot in the house I grew up in. The house where Richa Chadha gives birth is where my brother was born. The imagery is from my childhood: the mountain I used to sit on, the mines, Tashkent Colony. The powerhouses my father worked on are there in the film. The sequence with the first fridge, the way the family sits together, the way the singer adopts male and female voices—those things I grew up with.
You've said that when the screenwriters first approached you, the film sounded like ‘City Of God’.
That’s a first-time writer thing, using a famous gangster movie as a template. What I read was City Of God set in Dhanbad. Zeishan was offended when I said that. He brought a bunch of newspaper cuttings and footage to show me it was all true.
I told Zeishan, I want the whole story. Where did Fahim Khan start from? Sultana daku was a great place to begin, because this figure is omnipresent across north India and every village has a story about him. He went off and wrote a 150-page novella (which became the basis of the film).
I was very affected by a six-hour movie called The Best Of Youth (2003), which chronicled the history of Italy. I thought, this is an opportunity to tell the political history of Bihar. We shot a lot of material that we later took out—I got carried away with the politics of the land and the history of the mines.
You dedicate the film to the “Madurai triumvirate” of Bala, Ameer Sultan and M. Sasikumar. What about their work influenced you?
Watching Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram (2008) made me realise, this is how I have grown up. I thought, why am I not telling these stories? The opening of Bala’s Naan Kadavul (2009) is shot in Banaras (now Varanasi). I grew up there, and some other film-maker is shooting that. (The 2010 Hindi film) Udaan did the same thing to me. When (Vikramaditya) Motwane wrote the draft, I was like, this is supposed to be my film, how dare you write it.
I was also watching a lot of Ken Loach movies then. My father worked as an engineer; that world of powerhouses I had not seen in the cinema. Somehow it also came together with this story.
I was averse to making a gangster film. After Satya (1998) and Black Friday (2004), I thought, what is left to be told? But I found these gangsters to be very funny and childish. What arrested me was Zeishan’s story about how Fahim Khan brought guns from Kolkata to Dhanbad by marking the outside of the train, then standing on the platform for days waiting for it to arrive.
It marked a decisive shift for the genre. The gangster film largely moved out of Mumbai after this.
I was very excited about making what I thought would be a commercial hit. I was genuinely not thinking about anything else. I just wanted to tell a very north Indian story, with north Indian humour.
We wrote the first film before shooting; the second was written while shooting the first. UTV backed out three days before the shoot. We were there with little money and little time. We couldn’t have gone and just come back. When you are working with a controlled budget, you come back with a finished film, otherwise it will never get made.
In telling the larger story, we realised the problems with the real story. The Ramadhir of the film is a mix of three characters. The main guy died of a heart attack—but you can’t have a film where a villain dies of a heart attack. So we had to combine this guy, his brother and his son to make one Ramadhir Singh, and keep him alive longer than he actually was.
We assembled the cast based on the promise of how the real-life characters panned out. But some characters in the film didn’t pan out that way. It was like a promise unfulfilled. I had this guilt, which is why I kept pushing Hansal (Mehta) to take Rajkummar Rao in Shahid (2012).
Would you have made it with bigger stars if you could?
No. That’s the reason UTV didn’t work out, because they wanted bigger stars. They had talked to some. What happens with a bigger star is you have to have a definite story, a heroic ending—and you can’t have them play an idiot. Everyone comes with a sense of entitlement. It wouldn’t have been the same.
I was so fixed on Nawazuddin and Huma Qureshi. I didn’t see anyone else but Nawaz. On the first day of shooting, there was a massive problem because he decided to play Faizal like a gangster. I had to stop shooting. Nawaz and I went back to the hotel and had green tea and a long discussion. I said, this man knows he’s a gangster, he doesn’t have to act like one.
The two casting ideas that really worked were Tigmanshu Dhulia and Pankaj Tripathi. Pankaj, I think, was working on (the TV series) Powder around the same time. (Director) Atul Sabharwal used to talk about him a lot. And Manoj Bajpayee was the one who said, do you know Tigmanshu is a very good actor? He told us that Irrfan imbibed Tigmanshu to play the character in Haasil (2003).
A lot of the cast came from (Bedabrata Pain’s) Chittagong (2012). Manoj Bajpayee recommended Jaideep Ahlawat, Nawaz was already on my mind, Rajkummar I liked from LSD. Richa Chadha gave the most brilliant audition for Chanda in Dev.D (2009). A lot of actresses turned down the role of Nagma because no one wanted to play Nawazuddin’s mother. But Richa said yes.
They really don’t look like mother and son.
They don’t. In the “baap ka, dada ka, bhai ka” scene, I got so scared because they look like a couple. Right after shooting that, I wrote the sequence where Nawaz and Huma talk (about Faizal looking older than he actually is).
There are these interludes in the film which give a real sense of time and place. I am reminded of how you accompanied Gerard Hooper when he shot the street footage that was later used in montages in ‘Satya’.
If you look at it, it actually comes from there only: the shots of Paharganj in Dev.D, even Mukkabaaz—using city as a landscape, as a set. That learning has come from the sets of Satya with Gerry. So you are spot on, because that is ingrained in me. Right from the beginning, I have always had a second unit director on my films. And their job is to shoot the atmosphere. During the shoot, if there’s a festival, a ceremony, even a procession, the second unit director’s job is to go and shoot that.
As a young writer, you couldn’t digest the way Manoj Bajpayee’s Bheeku was suddenly killed in ‘Satya’. In ‘Wasseypur’, you give Bajpayee the most long-drawn-out death.
(Laughs) We wanted to end with Jiyo Ho Bihar Ke Lala, it’s such a beautiful song. The thing is, it had to play out on Manoj Bajpayee—I didn’t want to shoot anything more. You know, that shot that became iconic, where the gun jumps and goes off when the wheel goes over it—you can’t do that, it doesn’t happen. It just jumped by chance. The gun going off we added in CG.
I have to ask—was the goat in the ‘permission’ scene planned?
Happenstance. That goat just appeared in the background. (Cinematographer) Rajeev Ravi is very instinctive. The actors weren’t ready, the lighting wasn’t done. We were like, the goat is there, let’s shoot, let’s shoot. That’s the advantage of having good actors—there’s this moment going on, and there’s only one take.
Is there anything you would re-do?
Just the climax, with blood pouring out of Ramadhir’s body... oh god. When I watch it, I want to kill myself.
Was it always planned as two films?
At one point it was almost a three-parter. Then Motwane cut it down. It was Shweta’s first big feature film; she was also pregnant at the time she was editing. Nitin Baid and Neeraj Ghaywan practically lived in the editing room. I wouldn’t listen to anyone. They were so happy when Motwane took over the editing room for a month when I was in Brazil.
When I came back, I was aghast to find a stripped-down, four-hour version. I asked them, were you all here when he destroyed my film? I started putting things back. Everything I liked went back, and still my film was down from seven hours, 10 minutes to five hours, 40 minutes.
There’s a real pace and energy to the montages.
That is exactly what Motwane did. He took the soundtrack of The Dark Knight (2008) and cut the montages to that (Motwane remembers editing to the score of the 2009 film Moon).
It’s altogether rare today to find a Hindi film like this, where all the primary characters are Muslim.
Yeah. I don’t think you could make a Wasseypur today. I don’t think even Mukkabaaz would be easy to make.
(The censors) did not cut anything in Wasseypur. Only one sequence where Danish knifes a man in the eye, they asked to mute the sound because it was too gruesome. Kudos to (censor board head) Pankaja Thakur, who said, this film is an authentic representation and it will not be cut. Even with Yellow Boots, she had told me, you need to go to therapy, but she did not let anyone cut the film.
What effect do you think ‘Wasseypur’ has had on Hindi cinema in these 10 years?
I don’t know if it’s a positive or negative effect. There’s so much north Indian gangster stuff now—a lot of it is nowhere close to how it is (in real life).
Unfortunately, what people borrowed from Wasseypur is abuses. The whole idea of getting the pehlwaan to say “chal bhosdike” the right way to Manoj Bajpayee—that’s not really abusing, it’s like dismissing someone. But what I see now is people abusing for the sake of it. And what bothers me is people saying, this is what Anurag has taught everyone.
If you made ‘Wasseypur’ today, would it be a series?
Definitely. I like the long format, and there was much more story to be told. There are a lot of my movies I would have done as series if OTT had existed then.
A decade later, how do you regard the film?
I know why I made the film but I don’t understand why people go crazy about it. I don’t understand why “Beta, tumse na ho payega” is such a massive thing. “Chaabi kahaan hai” was improvised. The only line in the film with which we consciously wanted to make a statement was, “Hindustan mein jab tak cinema hai, log chutiya bante rahenge.”
I still can’t understand how Wasseypur became what it did. I don’t think any of the actors except Manoj Bajpayee got paid, it was made for such a low cost. It did not stay at the box office, it was pushed out by a Salman Khan movie. Viacom still calls it a flop. People keep expecting me to make the same film. It has derailed me in a way. Everything I do is compared to that. It confuses me, because I do not want to make another gangster movie.