A landmark departure

BY ANAND VARDHAN| IN Opinion | 05/07/2012
Reviewers in the Hindi press have exposed the lack of reality in the"realistic" Gangs of Wasseypur.
The voices of dissent have come out admirably, says ANAND VARDHAN. Pix: Director Anurag Kashyap

Anand Vardhan

Critically evaluating the portrayal of Hindi heartland in popular culture, particularly in Hindi cinema, can reflect a distinct intellectual identity and cultural sensibilities of the Hindi press. Of late, there have been signs that Hindi press is increasingly conceding such autonomy of perspective to the terms of critical discourse set by mainstream English media. However, the critical reception of Anurag Kashyap’s latest release Gangs of Wasseypur in a section of Hindi press vis-a–vis English press can be seen as a point of departure and, though in a limited sense of the phrase, this could be an instance of the Hindi review coming into its own.

The insights offered by some quarters of the Hindi space also become interesting in face of the veritable unanimity with which English press has showered high praise for the “realistic” and avant-garde treatment of the coal belt of Dhanbad (earlier forming a part of the southern boundaries of undivided Bihar, now a part a Jharkhand). It’s important to note how some voices in the film review pages of Hindi newspapers have challenged Anurag Kashyap’s cinematic narrative on the mafia one-upmanship tussles in the coal-rich region.

Writing in Dainik Bhaskar (Goliyon se jyada ghatak gaaliyan, filthy words are deadlier than bullets, 26.06.2012), Jaiprakash Chowksey has incisively attacked the film for the shallowness of its so-called realistic narrative, the hypocrisy of the path-breaking tag being attached to it and the way in which it has reinforced the stereotypes about a part of the Hindi heartland. Demolishing the experimental edifice of the film, Chowksey has remarked: “Anurag Kashyap tamam filmy formulon ka upyog karte hue bhi swyam ko alag batane ki chesta mein haafne lage hain” (Anurag Kashyap is running out of breathe in his effort to appear different while using all the formulae of film- making). Such observation is in sharp contrast to the post-Gangs of Wasseypur assessment of the director made by Anupama Chopra in her piece published on the edit page of The Hindustan Times (Poster Boy of Hindie, HT, 28.06.2012), as she wrote: “Anurag  Kashyap is redefining Indian cinema. By mentoring others, he’s also making sure it isn’t a one-man movement.”

The words “redefining” and “movement” are certainly associated with avant-garde art whereas Chowksey has dismissed Kashyap’s approach to cinema as formulaic.

It’s interesting to note that the “pathbreaking, authentic, and realistic” is the running thread in the accolades that the movie has received from reviewers in other major English dailies also: Shubhra Gupta in The Indian Express (23.06.2012), Madhureeta Mukherjee in The Times of India (22.06.2012) and Anuj Kumar in The Hindu (24.06.2012). But what’s even more important is to know the areas of departure for some reviewers in the Hindi space from their English counterparts. Three such points are easily identifiable.

One, contrary to the English press unanimously raving about the regional authenticity of the film, the Hindi press had its voices of dissent. Using filthy lingo of a region is the easy way out to cover up for the lack of nuances in portraying the socio-cultural milieu of a region and even its subtle lingual sensibilities.

The review in Dainik Bhaskar (26.06.2012) trashed such claims of realistic portrayal and has sarcastically commented: “Yeh ‘yatharthwadi’ filmkaar film ke title me hi kahta hai  ki Dhanbad ya Wasseypur mein shooting nahi huee hai!” (This “realist” film-maker says in the titles of the film that the film has not been shot in Dhanbad or Wasseypur!). In fact, Dainik Bhaskar published a photo essay on its website showing the real-reel divide of Wasseypur, a suburban settlement in Dhanbad district.

The “reality check” on the movie could also be done with the reports about Wasseypur residents protesting against the gross distortions of the history and culture of their place in the film. Expressing anguish for being grossly misrepresented in the film, a group of Wasseypur residents formed the Wasseypur Ekta Manch which not only burnt the posters of the film but is also dissuading the residents of the area from watching the film. The Telegraph (22.06.2012) quoted Parwez Akhtar, a member of the Manch, as saying, “Wasseypur has nothing to do with the coal mafia, which is the main subject of the movie. Why is the image of our locality being tarnished?” The paper also quotes Nisar Alam, president of Wasseypur Chamber of Commerce, as he points out, “An actress in the movie is shown abusing somebody, but girls in our locality are very well-behaved.” The group plans to continue its legal battle against the makers of the film.

Two, the reinforcing of the stereotypes about the region has also caused concern to some reviewers and they have evaluated such restricted view of the region in terms of a cliched narrative that can keep cash registers ringing. Arshana Azmat (Hindustan, 23.06.2012) questions the narrative relevance of such grotesque drama ignoring the seminal undercurrents that are shaping the contemporary realities of the region. It is a region which has everyday engagements with- burgeoning cottage industry, school-going children (mostly, IIT and IAS aspirants), some visible signs of infusion of huge funds for infrastructure, paradox of poverty among plenty that characterises this mineral-rich region, and continuing failure of the state delivery systems to address the concerns of the working class in organised as well as unorganised mining.

Unfortunately, in the name of  “realistic film-making”, some of the recent forays of Hindi cinema into Hindi heartland have only tried to extract the juice of spicy abnormalities in the region, for instance Prakash Jha’s Gangajal and Apharan (on themes of police brutality, political corruption, and the kidnapping industry) and more recently, Sushil Rajpal’s Antardwand (on theme of groom-kidnapping). These abnormalities are as abnormal for the region as for any part of the country. And in any case, they don’t constitute the “exclusive realities” of the region. Chowksey puts it succinctly: “Aaj har filmkaar bhrashtrachaar aur kameenepan ki katha kahne ke liye Bihar ya Jharkhand ko chunta hai, jabki poore desh ka Biharikaran ho chuka hai aur Bihar Jharkhand me vikas ho raha hai’ (Today every film maker chooses Bihar or Jharkhand to tell stories of corruption and crookedness, although there has been “Biharisation” of the whole country and Bihar and Jharkhand are progressing).

Three, the film’s flawed strands of the historical and political narrative of the coal mafia region has also come under scrutiny of reviews in Hindi papers. Dainik Bhaskar views the desperation in the director to weave a larger political tale through gang wars as a juvenile understanding of politics of the region. The evolution of nineteenth century feudal fiefdoms into the inhumanly skewed labour-capital relations of the modern coal mining sector has many complex historical strands to it. The mafia rivalries can only be a footnote to this complex history, not the expansive leitmotif.

Though some voices in Hindi press too (as the reviews in Dainik Jagran and Jansatta) have joined the chorus of English press in extolling the merits of the film, it’s insightful to see a section of the Hindi media willing to engage with the multiple realities of a region in which most of its readers live. Film reviewers of the Hindi press might not be getting the cosiest seats in multiplexes, but they should have the most coveted vantage point – the ear to the ground, in the Hindi heartland.

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