The astonishing Hindi actor Manoj Bajpayee has his best role in years in Anurag Kashyap’s “Gangs Of Wasseypur,” which is Tuesday’s kick-off gala presentation at the 11th Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles (IFFLA). A five-hour epic mob drama in two parts depicting a decades-long intra-Muslim vendetta (Part II screens at the IFFLA tomorrow), “Gangs” is headlong, hand-held, violent entertainment. It manages to keep a dozen major characters and their agendas clear while rarely pausing to take a breath.
It is also one of those rare movies that acknowledge the influence of movies and other forms of pop culture in shaping the values and motivations of its characters.
“Gangs” is partly modeled upon, and at key moments knowingly refers to, the culture-shifting revenge melodramas of “Angry Young Man” Amitabh Bachchan that upended Bollywood cinema in the 1970s. The explosive opening moments of the late Yash Chopra’s mega-hit Bachchan vehicle “Trishul” (“Trident,” 1978) play out in a theater for several of this film’s characters, who afterwards earnestly discuss the fine points of a life dedicated single-minded to revenge. Thanks to Bachchan, this is behavior that, the mob guys realize, their culture now expects of them.
In the movie’s’s main storyline, Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpayee), a bandit whose career has been converging on flat-out organized crime, comes to realize that his coal-miner father was ordered killed decades earlier by a mine owner, Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia), who is now a strutting bully of a local godfather, with several sleek politicians in his pocket. Sardar’s plan to take Singh down one peg at a time — “Not by killing him but by making fun of him” — seems to be modeled closely on “Trishul,” in which Bachchan’s Vijay works out a years-long step-by-step plan to destroy his hated father’s business empire.
The pop culture references in “Gangs” are not tacked on, post-Tarantino-style, as smug winks to an audience of fans, though they may have played that way in India. And they are not evidence of “reflexivity” in the academic sense. They are simply an accurately observed characteristic of the milieu in which the story unfolds, an environment saturated with stories advocating forms of heroism and honor, models that have got to be an influence on the way these people tell their own stories, the first-person narratives they are improvising on the fly, as they race feverishly from crisis to crisis, followed by a SteadiCam.
Kashyap, the writer-director whose hot-wired Bombay police procedural “Black Friday” (2007) was famously an avowed influence on the run and gun shooting style Danny Boyle adopted for “Slumdog Millionaire,” has in pictures like “Dev D” (2009) and “Mumbai Cutting” (2010) become a leading representative of a new, tough-minded Hindi-language independent film scene that is anything but fastidiously arty. The young auteurs of this new school are comfortable with pop culture and are not above using all the resources of Indian popular cinema to get its sharp points across, up to and including its use of song and and dance as integral tools of storytelling. (Sneha Khanwalkar’s fabulous folk-flavored songs for “Gangs,” which number 25 over the course of the two films, deserve an essay of their own.)
Kashyap is good at the basics of good filmmaking, too, such as casting. Bollywood fans who still recall with amazement Manoj Bajpayee’s breakthrough role as the amped-up gangster hothead Bhiku Mahatre in Ram Gopal Varma’s “Satya” (1998), or his virtuoso turn as a serial killer in Rakeysh Omprakah Mehra’s underrated horror thriller “Aks: The Reflection” (2011), will not be surprised by the textured ferocity of his work here. It would be hard imagine the movie working half so well without him.