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The children of Wasseypur

Gangs of Wasseypur’s influence runs deep. In the decade since its release, there have been affectionate tributes and a number of outright imitators

Ali Fazal in ‘Mirzapur’. Photo courtesy Amazon Prime Video
Ali Fazal in ‘Mirzapur’. Photo courtesy Amazon Prime Video

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In Prashanth Neel’s Kannada movie K.G.F: Chapter 2 (2022), hired-killer-turned-robber-baron Rocky (Yash) has a chance encounter with an American steel CEO called Jimmy Carter. During the repartee that follows, Rocky claims to be a CEO as well and upon being asked, “Which company?”, replies “India”. It’s a typically bombastic moment for Neel, who, alongside RRR director S.S. Rajamouli is the current toast of the town (KGF: Chapter 2 crossed the 1,000 crore mark last week).

This self-conscious blending of mercantile and nation-state histories telegraphs one of Neel’s big influences—Anurag Kashyap’s 2012 gangster epic, Gangs Of Wasseypur (read our interview with Kashyap). The 321-minute film, chronicling 60-odd years of the warring Khan and Qureshi clans of Wasseypur (an actual neighbourhood in Dhanbad, Jharkhand) premiered 10 years ago.

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Gangs Of Wasseypur’s success led to a number of Hindi movies across the next few years that were essentially inelegant variations on the “hinterland gangsters” theme. Zeishan Quadri, who wrote Wasseypur and played the key role of Definite, wrote and directed the underwhelming Meeruthiya Gangsters (2015) starring Jaideep Ahlawat (Shahid Khan in Wasseypur). The Kangana Ranaut-starrer Revolver Rani (2014) was hardly better, and Piyush Mishra (the narrator, Nasir, in Wasseypur) looked quite lost playing a thinly-sketched supporting role. Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who played the stoner-turned-stone-cold-killer Faizal Khan in Wasseypur, sleepwalked his way through Kushan Nandy’s hackneyed Babumoshai Bandookbaaz (2017).

Over the last six-seven years, the most impressive and original Indian gangster movies have all been in south Indian languages. Slivers of Wasseypur’s influence can be spotted in many of them. Rajeev Ravi, cinematographer on Wasseypur (and a bunch of other Kashyap films), directed the riveting Malayalam film Kammatipaadam (2016), about the real-estate mafia forcing Kochi’s Dalit community out of their land. There’s more than a hint of Wasseypur in the way Ravi uses a hyper-local story to address the larger patterns of power. Kashyap himself compared the film to Sergio Leone’s late-career triumph Once Upon A Time In America (1984), a film that several critics had invoked while writing about Wasseypur in 2012.

A still from 'KGF Chapter 2'
A still from 'KGF Chapter 2'

Vetrimaaran’s Tamil-language gangster epic Vada Chennai (2018) piled character upon character, history upon history confidently, channelling some of the manic energy of Wasseypur Part 2 in particular (rapid voiceovers, era-summaries; this same briskly efficient style can also be seen throughout both parts of K.G.F). That it did so while also sticking to its non-linear structure throughout speaks volumes about the director’s craft. And while Dhanush’s carrom whiz Anbu is a very different character from Nawazuddin’s Faizal Khan, their accelerated inductions into gang violence hit the viewer hard because we know who these people used to be.

There have been quite a few others, across Tamil- and Malayalam-language cinema especially, like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries (2017), whose single-shot, 11-minute climax involving over 1,000 artists remains one of the most thrilling sequences shot in recent memory. All these outstanding films have their own inimitable voices; Gangs Of Wasseypur’s influence on them isn’t first-degree or simplistic engagement. As artistic phenomena go, it’s something far subtler, like Spike Lee both referencing and “correcting” Apocalypse Now in Da 5 Bloods.

Unfortunately, this inventiveness is nowhere to be found in the many post-Wasseypur streaming shows clearly inspired by Kashyap’s magnum opus. Practically every streaming network today has produced one of these “children of Wasseypur”. Zee5 has Bicchoo Ka Khel (2020) as well as Rangbaaz (2018-19); the latter is set in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh, and co-stars Tigmanshu Dhulia, who played the politician-villain Ramadhir Singh in Wasseypur. Netflix has Jamtara (2020), set in the eponymous Jharkhand town that became the epicentre of phishing scams in India. Amazon Prime has perhaps the most popular and gleefully lurid entry in this subgenre: Mirzapur (2018-present), starring Pankaj Tripathi (Sultan Qureshi in Wasseypur) and Ali Fazal. MX Player has both Bhaukaal (2020-present) and Raktanchal (2020-present), sprawling, hyper-local gangster stories set in Uttar Pradesh that go all in on style but ultimately fall short on substance.

These shows are all enjoyable in parts and feature some strong performances; the enhanced screen-time offered by the streaming medium gives actors like Tripathi much more room to flex their muscles. But the writing and the direction are uniformly formulaic. Gangs Of Wasseypur was inspired by (among other things) a specific and long-running strain of Tamil-language masala movies often called “3M films”—Murder, Mayhem and Madurai. For the aforementioned roster of formulaic streaming shows, I would suggest the neologism “3H”—Hindi, Hinterland, Haraamkhori (that delightfully broad Hindi-Urdu pejorative that can mean anything from “criminal” to “thief” or “cheat”; basically a person with unlawful means of income. The word is used in the Wasseypur song Dil Chhi Chha Ledar).

A still from 'Jamtara'
A still from 'Jamtara'

The problem with the 3H brigade is that from every carefully-thought-out sequence in Wasseypur, they seem to have extracted only the most broad-strokes commercial elements—the “desi” femme fatale, the communally-tinged family feud, the evil real estate-politics-police nexus, the phallic observations about gangsters and their weapons. Mirzapur, for example, has one of its gangsters’ sexual exploits clearly inspired by Danish Khan’s libidinous ways in Wasseypur. It also has a castration-as-revenge scene, echoing a similar sequence in Wasseypur Part 1.

Some of the most egregious scenes in this context come from Bhaukaal. In one sequence, the Dedha brothers (Siddhant Kapoor and Pradeep Nagar), Muzaffarnagar’s most dreaded gangsters, lead a song-and-dance procession to the house of the man they are about to kill, complete with a crony holding a cassette player aloft and doing a little jig. This is blatantly derivative of a scene from Wasseypur Part 1 where Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) hires a sound system and a dancing Mithun Chakraborty impersonator to intimidate Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia). Moreover, Bhaukaal even uses the same song that Sardar did—the title track from Chakraborty’s Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki (1984).

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It’s all the more frustrating because for Bhaukaal, this element becomes little more than window dressing, an accessory in service of a borrowed “aesthetic”. But for Gangs Of Wasseypur, the choice of song and the actor/film being impersonated is subtly significant—“kasam paida karne wale ki” is literally “I swear upon she-who-birthed-me” and the scene works as a kind of foreshadowing of the obsessive Faizal Khan (Sardar’s son) who idolises Amitabh Bachchan and just before he commits his first murder, refers to the Bachchan-Shashi Kapoor classic Deewar, perhaps the most mother-fixated of the superstar’s films.

Wasseypur references aren’t limited to the gagster genre, however. In last year’s Bunty Aur Babli 2, Rani Mukerji’s Babli declares, “I’m from UP, I can look up at a flying bird and tell you its gender”, a line that echoes Pankaj Tripathi’s classic taunt from Wasseypur: “This is Wasseypur; even the pigeons fly on one wing here while using the other to protect their modesty.” In the Varun Dhawan-John Abraham kidnapping thriller Dishoom (2016), Junaid (Dhawan) tells Kabir (Abraham), “This is not Wasseypur”, as a punch-line after a shooting. Vasan Bala’s Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota (2018) references Faizal Khan’s “sabka badla legaa” dialogue during its climax. Indian television has also given us soaps called O Womaniya (2014; Channel V later changed the name because of copyright issues) and Guddan Tumse Naa Ho Payega (2018-21 on Zee TV), named after a Wasseypur song and dialogue, respectively.

A poster for 'Revolver Rani'
A poster for 'Revolver Rani'

Before Wasseypur Part 1 begins, Kashyap thanks three Tamil film-makers: “the Madurai Triumvirate: Bala, Ameer Sultan and M. Sasikumar, who encouraged me to go to my roots”. Bala’s Sethu (1999) was remade in Hindi as the Salman Khan-starrer Tere Naam (2003)—Definite’s look in Wasseypur was modelled on Salman’s character from that movie, Radhe Bhaiya. Of the three, however, Sasikumar’s role is the most significant—his directorial debut, Subramaniapuram (2008), has been singled out by Kashyap as one of the inspirations for Wasseypur. In 2019, Sasikumar joined Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Rajinikanth in the cast of Karthik Subbaraj’s Petta. This hard-core masala film achieves a more affectionate and respectful Wasseypur tribute than all of the “3H” streaming shows put together. Petta features Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Sengaar Singh, the main villain of the story, a corrupt and ruthless politician originally from Uttar Pradesh who, we are told, is involved in illegal coal and sand mining. In essence, therefore, he is playing both Ramadhir Singh and Faizal Khan.

As if this weren’t enough, Sethupathi plays Jithu, Sengaar’s illegitimate son, who feels insecure because his father favours his other child when it comes to political inheritance (like Sardar Khan favours his son Faizal over the latter’s half-brother, Definite). In the second half of the story, Jithu is induced to rebel against his father out of jealousy and revenge, just like Definite’s late rebellion against Faizal Khan. Petta has several charming meta-touches reflecting its connection with Gangs Of Wasseypur, like the “koyla-chor” slogans hurled at Sengaar by an irate public, echoing the Coal Bazaari song from Wasseypur.

The difference between Petta and the 3H shows is the difference between affectionate tributes and cynical, cash-grab mimicry. It’s a reminder that much like the fates of the actual children featured in Wasseypur, most notably those two merry pranksters, Perpendicular and Tangent, not all these onscreen children of Wasseypur can be salvaged.

Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based writer.

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