I was getting worried about Anurag Kashyap as I thought he needed to reach another level. Now that I have been knocked out (cheesy pun intended) by Mukkabaaz, I can see that my fears were unfounded. For those of you who haven’t yet explored the work of one of the most significant figures to emerge in Indian cinema over the last ten years or so, my introduction might need some explanation. If you don’t know Kashyap yet, that is understandable as his films struggle for a release in the UK/US.
Anurag Kashyap first came to industry attention as one of the main writers on Satya (1998), a Mumbai gangster pic from Ram Gopal Varma. His contribution was to ‘dirty up’ the standard conventions of a Hindi genre pic alongside one of the more innovatory directors of the period. Satya was very successful and won several awards. By the start of 2018 Kashyap had over 40 writing credits. He directed his first film in 2003, but Paanch struggled to get past the Indian censors (CBFC) and never achieved a proper release. Black Friday about the 1993 ‘Bombay Bombings’ was completed in 2004 but refused a certificate by the CBFC until 2007. Despite these distribution/exhibition problems both these two films screened successfully at festivals. Kashyap has gone on to build a career as a writer/director and producer with a sideline in acting. His relationship with mainstream Hindi cinema is still unclear – he moves towards and then away from it from picture to picture. But he has become for many commentators an important leader of Indian Independent Cinema. Much of this is down to his producer role and his enthusiasm for presenting films at international festivals – something Bollywood generally fails to do.
Kashyap has founded two production companies, each of which have made partnerships with major production outfits. The second of Kashyap’s companies is Phantom Films, actually a partnership with other producers and a director. The Indian ‘major’ Reliance took a 50% stake in this company in 2015. Phantom was a production partner on Mukabaaz with Colour Yellow, a similar company founded by producer-director Anand L. Rai. At Cannes in 2013, Kashyap was involved in all three of the Indian films being screened during the celebrations of ‘100 Years of Indian Cinema’ as director or producer as well as general cheerleader. Kashyap’s companies have helped other young directors at various times. The arthouse hit in the UK, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) was another film on which Kashyap was a co-producer. Kashyap’s own mainstream breakthrough as a director came with the mammoth 2-part 320 minute gangster epic Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012. Since then I think we have been waiting for another film to match Gangs and Mukkabaaz feels like that film.
The story behind Mukkabaaz is as intriguing as the film itself. Vineet Kumar Singh from Varanasi (Benares) travelled to Mumbai at 18 like so many before him to follow a dream of becoming a success in the film industry. Eighteen years later after completing a medical degree on the side and writing his own sports-based screenplay, he hawked his script around while working in a range of film crew posts until he met Anurag Kashyap (also from Uttar Pradesh). Singh is now the star of his own story. To tell the story of an aspiring boxer he drew on his own experience as a teenage basketball player in the state competition in U.P. and to play the role he had to train as a boxer.
Outline (no spoilers)
The title ‘Mukkabaaz’ appears to refer to the distinction between ‘brawling’ and ‘boxing’. If so, it’s a good title since these are both activities Shravan Kumar needs at various times and he has to recognise the distinction and know how to handle complex situations. When the narrative begins, Shravan has been an aspiring boxer for several years and is part of a group under the coach Bhagwan Mishra (Jimmy Shergill) in Bareilly. One day he enters Bhagwan’s family courtyard and sees Sunaina (Zoya Hussain), Bhagwan’s niece. It’s an immediate attraction but one fraught with problems. Bhagwan is the villain of the story whose prejudices about caste are married to an obsessive control syndrome in which he dominates the state boxing system, exerting influence even on the national system. The vivacious and talented Sunaina is mute and kept in the background (alongside her parents) by Bhagwan who hopes to marry her to a local businessman. Shravan breaks away from Bhagwan and eventually seeks out a new coach in Varanasi. He wants to marry Sunaina but Bhagwan stands in the way – just as he does if Shravan is to progress to regional and national status as a boxer.
This bare outline might make Mukkabaaz sound like any other sports hero story – even if it acknowledges the family melodrama. But this is India and sports narratives have a unique flavour in a country of 1.3 billion which outside of cricket has so far failed to produce the champions its vast pool of talent and collective wealth might be expected to deliver. In boxing, for instance, there are no Indian successes to match the legendary Cubans or the professional fighters of Mexico or Philippines. Part of the problem lies in the labyrinthine system of state level competition structures and the opportunities for corruption and political interference. Shravan is part of a system in which sporting success is also a means of fast-tracking into a government job, so at one point in the narrative he finds himself burdened with work at a railway maintenance depot (railway employment in India is still a secure form of employment in the public sector). Coupled with the need to support his extended family and a punishing training regime as he heads for the state finals in Lucknow, this stretches his resources almost to breaking point. Bhagwan’s influence in the state boxing world means that he has several ways to block Shravan’s progress.
The film’s narrative is concerned with both the corruption within sport but also the persistence of caste prejudice and the violence of extreme Hindu fundamentalist groups. Shravan is seen as ‘inferior’ by Bhagwan who loudly proclaims his own Brahmin status – marriage within the same grouping is still practised and Bhagwan believes Shravan is lower caste. However, Bhagwan’s ferocious attitude towards Shravan is arguably more concerned with the younger man’s resistance to Bhagwan’s authority. Caste also surfaces in more complex ways at the railway depot. On two occasions in the film we are witness to an attack by ‘Cow Protection Vigilantes’ – armed groups attacking anyone in their homes allegedly eating beef. These two issues in Anurag Kashyap’s film mark it out from the Hindi cinema mainstream, although in other ways Mukkabaaz looks back to earlier forms of the masala film. The family melodrama includes the fate of parents and the romance and sports stories rely on Shravan having the kind of best friend who will always be there to help him escape threats and pursue the villains (Bhagwan and his goons). At 154 minutes it is actually longer than many contemporary Hindi popular films – but it breaks the convention of Indian mainstream cinema by not having an intermission. It has 42 minutes of music, most of which is woven into the narrative. It does, however, have a cameo appearance as a wedding performer by Nawazuddin Siddiqui, the current star of the ‘crossover’ world of independent and mainstream Hindi cinema whose career has been helped by his roles for Kashyap. Most of the music is written by Rachita Arora and I was pleased to see that all the lyrics of the songs are translated for the English subtitles.
For me, Mukkabaaz works in every way. I was completely engaged in the narrative and I loved the music (always a strength with Kashyap). I was expecting an intermission and suddenly realised we were nearing the end of the narrative – a sure sign that my engagement was total. Jimmy Shergill is a genuine melodrama villain and the central pairing of Vineet Kumar Singh and Zoya Hussain, perhaps because they were both approaching a major cinema role for the first time, works terrifically well. Singh is completely convincing as a boxer – and the camerawork by Kashyap regular Rajeev Ravi and his collaborators makes all the fights feel genuine as well as exciting. Many commentators have noted the symbolism in making Sunaina mute but the intelligence and wit in her performance is in some ways even more important. The film’s ending works very well – it is both unexpected in genre terms but seems ‘right’ for the narrative.
This will be one of my films of the year – I haven’t enjoyed a new release as much for a long time. In the UK this Kashyap film was released by Eros International, one of the biggest distributors of Bollywood films. Even so, in Bradford the film lasted only a week and in my screening there was just one other patron. Meanwhile the Bollywood blockbusters in the other screens carry on week after week. Why doesn’t Mukkabaaz draw the crowds? Is it just too ‘Indian’ for the diaspora audience?
There were just the two of us in Screen 15 of Bradford Cineworld for a lunchtime screening of Raman Raghav 2.0, the latest from Anurag Kashyap, the doyen of the ‘new’ Indian Cinema. But then, a release during Ramadan in Bradford is always going to be tricky. When the trailers for upcoming Bollywood and Punjabi blockbusters had finished my companion remarked: “I see that Indian cinema makes crap movies too.” I assured him that an Anurag Kashyap film was a different proposition – but then remembered that Kashyap’s earlier film, the 1960s noir with a starry cast Bombay Velvet (2015), which I didn’t see, had been an expensive flop at the Indian box office. But I needn’t have worried. Kashyap’s new film, for the ‘directors’ company’ Phantom Films (Kashyap is one of four partners along with director Vikramaditya Motwane) approaches some similar material with a much more realistic budget (around US$600,000). This time the film is being distributed by the major Indian company Reliance which has taken a 50% stake in Phantom Films. Again this raises questions about Kashyap’s ‘independent’ status, but the film looks and feels like an ‘Indian Independent’ film.
Raman Raghav was a serial killer who murdered 41 people, mainly ‘street-dwellers’, in Bombay in the 1960s. We are told this in the opening titles for Raman Raghav 2.0 – but then told that: “This film is not about that case.” Instead, Kashyap has constructed a modern-day story about a Mumbai killer which uses some of the ‘real life’ 1960s story elements. Bombay Velvet was so expensive partly because it sought to recreate Bombay settings from the 1960s. In the new film Kashyap restricts himself to a limited number of locations, several using specific run-down or abandoned areas in the conurbation. The camerawork by Jay Oza (who IMDB lists as coming from a TV background) uses shallow focus on several shots allowing Kashyap to stylise scenes and make more of his limited range of locations. Kashyap also reduces costs by sticking to a relatively small number of characters and, apart from Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, actors with limited exposure.
Siddiqui has become a major figure in independent cinema following his roles in earlier films directed or produced by Kashyap and he is mesmerising in this new film, ‘holding’ the screen with his portrayal of the killer Raman. This character displays what might be typical traits of working-class Indian characters – an obsequiousness towards police interrogators masking a terrifying hardness beneath which we eventually recognise the cold calculating mind. The narrative includes several sequences where Raman has either given himself up or been arrested but for various reasons the police interrogation fails to uncover/comprehend/accept what has happened. With little more than a few props (a facial scar, requests for cigarettes) Siddiqui takes control. The police officer in charge of the investigation is Ragav, played by Vicky Kaushal, a handsome young actor who also appeared in Bombay Velvet. Here he spends much of the time with a beard and dark glasses, shielding himself and his drugs habit from his colleagues. As his character’s name suggests, Kashyap and co-scriptwriter Vasan Bala have turned the hunt for a serial killer into a psychological thriller in which ‘Raman Raghav’ has become ‘Raman and Raghav’. This takes us into a discussion of references, sources, influences.
The narrative is divided into chapters with titles that refer to either a character or a distinct narrative action. The Sister, the Hunter, the Hunted etc. are offered as chapter titles in presentation which resembles street signage – like white chalk on a black background or whitewash used for grocer’s display boards. For some critics this has recalled Tarantino, but it is also a nod towards classical storytelling of different kinds. The presentation of the titles reminded me of Se7en and Siddiqui does have the same kind of presence as Kevin Spacey. The Se7en parallels can be traced further but for me the Hollywood influence seemed to be Hitchcockian, especially around that idea that the investigator is locked into a relationship with the criminal. The detective may be becoming like the killer and that the killer is able to control the detective because of his weaknesses. The classic Highsmith/Hitchcock Strangers On a Train comes to mind as well as the ambiguous hero/investigators of Rear Window and Marnie. However, I stopped thinking about Hollywood during one interrogation scene in which Raman seemed to refer to the Ramayana. I’m grateful to the New Indian Express review by Aditya Shrikrishna which provides the way in to the analysis I was struggling to make. Shrikrishna actually begins by linking Raman Raghav 2.0 to Mani Ratnam’s Raavanan/Raavan (2010). Ratnam’s Tamil and Hindi versions of the same script met with a similar rush of uncomprehending social media comments which failed to grapple with what was a much clearer take on the Ramayana myth with contemporary characters in a contemporary setting. Now Kashyap might be suffering in the same way – with a genre film that offers much more than the thrills and chills, sex and violence offered by the mainstream.
If, like me, you have only a sketchy notion of what the Ramayana is about, it involves Rama and his wife Sita in an epic story that at one point involves Rama in a battle with Ravana in which Sita is threatened. Kashyap’s script is an inverse of this so that Sita, in the form of Simmy (former Miss India 2013, Sobhita Dhulipala), is the girlfriend of Raghav and a potential target for Raman. Shrikrishna in the New India Express review reads one scene in the film between Raghav and Simmy in an illuminating way and it occurs to me that two of the best sequences in the film are those in which Raman visits his sister Lakshmi who he hasn’t seen for years and the bedroom scene described by Shrikrishna. Dhulipala and Amruta Subhash, who plays Lakshmi, both do very well in difficult parts.
I’ve seen one review which describes the film as ‘vile’ and others that describe the women as ‘submissive/passive’ and criticise the lack of background given to the characters. I’m not sure the latter criticism is important in this kind of story which has no claim to realism or sociological treatise. It uses banal genre conventions but it is delving into dark questions about corruption. The scene in the sister’s apartment is genuinely terrifying but most of the time the actual killings are not shown. Instead we hear the sound of a heavy wheel wrench being dragged along the pavement and then the horrible sound of metal hitting flesh and bone. Hitchcock again? The film does have a soundtrack of techno music with some very strange lyrics at times. I would need at least one more viewing to say more about the music and overall sound design. I would tend to agree with Shrikrishna again in thinking that Kashyap’s quickly shot low-budget film has all the benefits of vitality – but perhaps it is sometimes just too clever? There was one moment in a chase sequence when I groaned out loud at one over familiar trick. Perhaps it was a joke. Even so, I would very much recommend Raman Raghav 2.0. Along with Suburra which I saw the next day, it helped me to find genre films with enough intelligence to restore my faith in popular cinema.
This is quite a useful trailer demonstrating some of the points made above. It refers to the film’s appearance at Cannes 2016 – Kashyap has found this useful in developing an international profile:
That Girl in Yellow Boots seems to me very much a ‘gamechanger’ movie. It isn’t perfect and in the final scenes there was a moment when it didn’t seem to work, but overall I was riveted by this glimpse into an Indian world that I haven’t seen before on screen. I was a little taken aback by some of the very negative reviews, but heartened by the equally positive ones.
Anurag Kashyap has been called the ‘Godfather of Indian Independent Cinema’ and this film, which he directed from a script he co-wrote with his partner Kalki Koechlin (the ‘girl’ of the title), is certainly a good example of what an Indian ‘independent film’ might be. Koechlin is herself an Indian woman born to French parents who were then living in Ootacamund in Tamil Nadu. Educated in a school following the British system and subsequently at Goldsmiths, University of London she speaks French, English, Tamil and now Hindi. She plays the central character of Ruth – a British young woman who has come to India to find her father, ‘Arjun Patel’, who left the family’s home in the UK when she was a baby. He’s written her a letter but he doesn’t seem to want to be found. As a tourist, Ruth is struggling to get a visa to allow her to stay and in the meantime she earns money illegally as a masseuse in Mumbai, offering what she euphemistically describes as ‘handshakes’ for an extra Rs1,000. She appears to have a live-in boyfriend with a coke habit and she has hired a private detective to look for her father.
The narrative of the film is, to be honest, quite sketchy. Ruth seems trapped in a circuit between the visa office, her apartment, the massage parlour and meetings with people who might be able to help her – including trips to Pune where she is pursuing a possible connection in an ashram. At one point a gangster from Karnataka turns up searching for money that her boyfriend owes. Much more important than the story, for me at least, is the presentation of this world. Kashyap has said that he was inspired to become a filmmaker after seeing Bicycle Thieves and he has worked with Michael Winterbottom and has in turn inspired Danny Boyle. His work on Trishna with Winterbottom was after he made this film, but I’m wondering if he’d already seen Winterbottom’s A Mighty Heart (partly shot in Pune) and some of his British films. There are a couple of shots of Koechlin moving through Mumbai streets that reminded me of Gina McKee walking through London’s Soho in Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999). Winterbottom was in turn influenced by Wong Kar-wai’s films such as Fallen Angels (HK 1996).
Koechlin herself is wonderful, whether she is on her own, trading lines with a ‘parallel cinema‘ great like Naseeruddin Shah, or sparring with one of the much less experienced talents on show. The opening scenes are terrific (Koechlin is reported to have written these herself). If you’ve never been a tourist in India, these scenes give an accurate representation of waiting for Indian bureaucracy at work, but what they really offer is a sense of what it might feel like to be a young woman with white skin who speaks a little Hindi and who is vulnerable in the face of police and visa controls.
As in Kashyap’s other films that I’ve seen, the music is very good. The sources of music material seem to range over several genres and regions. Kashyap also seems to employ the same cinematographer on most of his films – FTII graduate Rajeev Ravi. Extravagant camerawork is common in Bollywood but this is controlled and uses locations very well. It’s amazing to think that the entire film was shot in 13 days.
This 2-part, 320 minute gangster epic is notable for many reasons. It’s a well-crafted film telling a universal story of two extended families engaged in a long-running feud and it’s enjoyable and provocative at the same time. For film scholars what is most interesting is that it uses all of the elements of Indian popular cinema developed over at least the last forty years and yet it isn’t a ‘Bollywood’ film in the normal sense – in other words the popular Indian film audience knows that the film is ‘different’.
Produced, co-written and directed by Anurag Kashyap for his own company with backing from Viacom 18 and its ‘Tipping Point’ brand, Gangs of Wasseypur is based on true stories about gang warfare in the North Eastern state of Jharkhand (previously part of Bengal and then Bihar). It begins in the early 1940s when Shahid Khan, a Pathan in a Muslim village decides to improve his family’s chances by robbing goods trains in the guise of the local gangleader from the dominant Qureshi family in the village. The Qureshis are not amused and a feud begins, quickly to be complicated by the intervention of a third party, a Sikh businessman/politician who runs the local coal mine and who becomes a powerful figure when control of the mining industry passes into Indian hands after the end of the British Raj. Over the next seventy years or so, this three-cornered fight continues sporadically and we get to know more about the principal characters.
I’d argue that the two main ‘differences’ about the film as popular Hindi cinema are firstly in its ‘realist’ representation of a very specific region – quite unlike the idealised India of much of mainstream Hindi cinema – and secondly the refusal of a conventional narrative drive with clearly defined ‘good’ and ‘bad’ characters. The story is linear, except that it is told mainly in flashback from 2004 – from when it will eventually move forward to 2009. There is an ending, but it isn’t a complete resolution as the possibility of some kind of continuation is left with the audience. This in itself is not that unusual. Having noted both these points, the same elements could be discerned in Kashyap’s first work for Hindi cinema, the script he co-wrote for Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya in 1998. The focus on families and the ruthless rise of specific male characters in settings like this is there in much of Varma’s work and in Tamil cinema in the form of Mani Ratnam’s Nayakan (1987) and Thalapathi (1991). As far as I can see (i.e. I haven’t seen enough), Varma remains largely within a Bollywood context whereas Ratnam has a much wider range and includes more gritty and locally-defined backgrounds – but both Varma and Ratnam use major stars in their gangster stories. The link for all three directors inevitably seems to be Coppola’s Godfather in terms of characters, relationships and story elements.
Kashyap recognises the Godfather influences but he himself refers to Goodfellas, possibly because of the basis in documented gangland activities – and also the use of narration, which in Gangs comes from Nasir, the last survivor of the extended Khan family from the 1940s. This character is rather like the Robert Duvall character in The Godfather – accepting his place in the clan and looking out for the family as a whole. It’s not unusual to see these kinds of nods towards Hollywood in popular Indian films, but I wonder if Kashyap has seen Gomorra (Italy 2008)? Or the films of Johnnie To and John Woo? I would expect so and it would be good to place Gangs of Wasseypur alongside those films (plus City of God) as an example of international crime cinema. So Gangs is ‘global’ and ‘local’ – it is very much an Indian film and its street scenes are the most ‘authentic’ or ‘real’ that I have ever seen in an Indian film. The locations include the cities actually mentioned in the text: Dahnbad, Wasseypur, Varanasi and also Kolkata, Ranchi, Allahabad etc.
The long film works because of the strong characters, played mainly by a group of ‘character actors’ in Hindi cinema or by relative newcomers. Part 1 is dominated by the standout performance of Manoj Bajpayee as Sardar Khan, the son of Shahid Khan. Bajpayee is actually from Bihar and he is completely believable. The character is interestingly vulnerable in terms of his sexual weakness (“led by his dick” as his wife tells him) as well as ruthless as a gang leader. Part 2 is dominated by Nawazuddin Siddiqui as Faizal Khan, Sardar’s second son. Siddiqui appears to be on the cusp of star status in Hindi cinema – he’d already had thirty film and TV appearances by 2012, some in parallel cinema. The actor at the centre of both parts of the film is Tigmanshu Dhulia as Ramadhir Singh, the politician businessman. A well-known producer/writer and director, Dhulia had barely acted before and his performance is excellent. He is the most affected by the very long ‘story time’ of the film since he has to play a character from his early 20s until his mid 80s. It’s impossible of course but Kashyap manages to keep the audience hooked on action long enough not to worry about this.
Gangster films like this tend to push the female characters to the edge of the frame but at least in Gangs there are strong performances for the three principal female roles. Sardar Khan’s sexual appetite means that despite marrying Nagma, he also sets up a home with Durga, a Bengali Hindu woman. Richa Chadda and Reema Sen are both very good as the strong women the script demands. In a very different role (I suppose it’s the Diane Keaton role in The Godfather) Huma Qureshi is equally good as Mohsina, wife of Faisal Khan. The long running time of the film means that we get to see courtship, seduction and weddings as well as marital discord. These three actors are each either relatively inexperienced or in Sen’s case coming from mainly Bengali and Southern Indian cinema productions.
For me, one of the most entertaining aspects of the film is the music. There is a great range of songs across the five hours plus from folk songs and a reggae mix (or is this ‘chutney’?) through atmospheric scoring from Sneha Khanwalkar to frequent use of Hindi filmi songs, especially from the 1980s and 1990s. Some of these are performed live by a singer who turns up at weddings, political rallies etc., others are heard on the radio or in one of several visits to cinemas. There are five or more ‘song sequences’ but these are not much like traditional choreographed dance sequences, involving instead people working or celebrations (like weddings) with a performer. The ‘presence’ of Bollywood as a popular film institution is everywhere, especially in Part 2 with posters on walls and constant references in dialogue. Most pointedly, Ramadhir Singh claims that his longevity (survival) is because his head is not filled with film heroes who might cloud his judgement. At the crucial moment in 2004 (when the film narrative begins in flashback and when we return to it layer on) the Khan family are watching a TV soap opera.
One aspect of the film that has infuriated some Indian critics are the narrative digressions. One critic picks out Sardar’s seduction of Durga – which I thought was one of the highlights of the film since it is important in establishing a sub-plot – and because it strengthens the representation of both characters. More understandable and, I assume, deliberately provocative is a ‘Tarantinoesque’ discussion over mobile phones about buying different kinds of vegetables when three gang members are stalking their prey through the market. One of the scriptwriters, Zeishan Quadri, actually appears in this scene as ‘Definite’, Durga’s son. I have to conclude that there is a real sense of play here. But perhaps there is also a real point in the scene where Faisal is puzzled by the name Definite for his step-brother. What does it mean he keeps asking (his own younger brothers are ‘Perpendicular’ and ‘Tangent’, but these are just nicknames. Definite is Definite! The point here is that unlike Bollywood, the characters in Gangs don’t speak English. At least not until the post 2002 period when the formation of Jharkhand as a new mineral rich state draws in ‘chancers’ from further afield. These references to politics and economics enrich the film for me and it is the gradual accretion of elements like this that takes Gangs of Wasseypur away from mainstream Hindi popular cinema and help to create whatever it is we wish to call it – Indian independent cinema, ‘New Bollywood’ etc. or as one actor described it in an interview “a blurring of the boundaries”.
Gangs of Wasseypur is very bloody and full of subplots with a huge cast of characters. It’s also 320 mins long, but I think it’s worth the effort. I’m not sure about the distribution policy of Mara Pictures in the UK – a couple dates here and there – but there are still showings up to late April/early May and you can check them out on the Mara Pictures website.
Trailer (no English subs, but it gives the flavour of the film and its music):
And as an example of the music track, here’s the reggae-inspired ‘Hunters’: