India has a huge cinema industry, as everyone knows, but my exposure to it has been almost nil (aside from one or two films over the years). So I come to this film (actually the first part of a two-part epic) with very few expectations. I’m aware that the mainstream of “Bollywood” may involve romance and dancing, but I’ve only picked that up in passing from such ersatz hommages as Bride and Prejudice (2004). In fact there is a little bit of dancing here, but mostly this is a gritty, generational, historical epic focusing on the entanglements of a number of families. It has the scope of The Godfather trilogy or one of Sergio Leone’s latter-day epics, with a name presumably referencing Gangs of New York (2002), and at times it feels like all of those films, or like Olivier Assayas’ great multi-part film of Carlos (2010), though without quite the same budget.
It takes a little bit of time to get underway properly, but once we’ve moved past the present-day shootout (clearly filmed on a studio backlot) to skip back to scenes set around the time of Indian independence, it starts to find its feet and introduce its key antagonists. These are Sardar Khan, the poor son of a local heavy and small-time criminal, and the rich industrialist Ramadhir Singh, responsible for the father’s murder. Sardar (at this point, in the 1940s) is a child, and swiftly vows to take his revenge upon Singh. He shaves his head and pledges to leave it shaven until his revenge has been taken, which also has the effect of making him easy to identify as a grown-up when we flash forward to the 1970s and 1980s, which is the time period when the majority of this film is set.
I’ve just written a review of To the Wonder (2012), and I saw those two films back-to-back on the same day. Whereas that film was evanescent and impressionistic, leaving such encumbrances as plot and character by the wayside, this film feels solid and traditional, built on a firm foundation of mostly well-drawn characters and a lot of plot. It’s cineliterate and (as mentioned above) certainly references other works — the shootout at the end of this film seems lifted almost directly from The Godfather Part II (1974), and captures its 1970s period look rather nicely — but not in the geeky, flashy way of Tarantino, though there are flashes of humour in the violence. And while it doesn’t revel in the gore as Tarantino would, it also doesn’t feel coy about showing violence and earthy swearing (the coyness is confined to the romantic subplots, though even here there’s plenty of suggestiveness).
In short, it was an immersive and enjoyable experience. I only hope part two will screen over here at some point, before I forget all the intricacies of the plot so far.
Director Anurag Kashyap अनुराग कश्यप; Writers Akhilesh Jaiswal अखिलेश जयसवाल, Kashyap, Sachin K. Ladia सचिन लाढ़िया and Zeishan Quadri ज़ीशान कादरी; Cinematographer Rajeev Ravi राजीव रवि; Starring Manoj Bajpai मनोज बाजपेयी, Tigmanshu Dhulia तिग्मांशु धूलिया; Length 160 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 24 February 2013.