An auteur who made subversion an art form. Not an ivory tower intellectual, but a market savvy adventurer who managed to convert Bollywood moguls who really matter. Patron saint of a nascent indie cinema, or should it be godfather of cinema of the underworld, its crime and grime? All these labels fit Anurag Kashyap, who could have been the enfant terrible of Hindi cinema, but turned out to be an unlikely energiser who helped alter the millennial taste for a new kind of entertainment that had a disconcerting cutting edge, and yet, is rooted in Indian soil. It was the soil ignored by mainstream films that either catered to the lowest common denominator — sentimental, formulaic narrative that was more anodyne than entertainment — or chased the NRI dollar dream. The big, fat NRI films drew the Indian diaspora, who flocked to see superstar-studded films like Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham in the spirit of a sworn act of collective tribal loyalty.
Kashyap spoke to, and of, a woke audience that wanted Hollywood flair, with an Indian sensibility. This audience rediscovered India of the hinterland, that spoke in an authentic un-bowdlerised language, had both a desi sensibility and international vision of where cinema was headed. Hindi cinema could head that way too. A promise of what could be done hereby, a film-maker who was willing to take risks. Kashyap fits the bill of inchoate, but very real demands. Subverting the prevailing formulae was the means to do this.
Subversion does not come with a bang, band baaja baaraat in tow. It can sneak in like a stealth bomb scouting the terrain for vulnerable fissures to erupt from. Anurag Kashyap, who is now 48, came to films from writing for TV, not the Ekta Kapoor saas-bahu sagas, but episodes of crime series that took the lead from sensational headlines. Did he sense the simmering discontent under the consumerist rush felt by globalising India? He saw the other India: the antithesis of feel good family stories and new age romances with a twist. Satya was a contrarian trendsetter. It differed in tone and pitch from the angry young man of the ‘70s. It spoke the brutal truth of Bombay’s unwashed underbelly, where locals and hopeful newcomers converge on crime and crime lords as the only means of sustenance. Ram Gopal Varma’s best film was co-written by Kashyap. Crime was Kashyap’s chosen to beat. In doing so, he stripped the romantic halo, from the anti-hero seeking vengeance.
Violence is a way of existence in Kashyap’s oeuvre. Of expressing a man’s machismo, without which he was impotent, metaphorically. It was not a lone wolf’s pursuit — that too, came later in Raman Raghav 2.0 — but a cohort of men viscerally bonded by gnawing disaffection with society, the “system” (a sturdy crutch for all kinds of narratives without defining it beyond a symbol). Well, that is another besetting sin of our cinema. His first film, Paanch (2003), drawn from the horrific Abhyankar-Joshi murders, remained unreleased. It prowled the underground video trail, and a limited festival circuit. Kidnap escalating into serial murders, by a band dominated by the self-styled leader and united by drug dependency, was shocking, but did not have the persistent recall quality of his later consummately finished films.
Paanch adopted grunge when it was not in fashion here. Black Friday (2007) was a superb thriller that infiltrates the minds of men who were on the run after being part of the bombings in 1993. Gulaal (2009) missed the sense of completion we felt in Paanch, and yet exploded in a few scenes like a guerrilla sharpshooter hitting the bull’s eye. Kashyap’s vision was too large to fit into the narrative, the attempted layering resulted in fragmentation. Right from the beginning, “moments” — arrestingly original and blindingly impactful — lingered and whetted one’s anticipation for the complete realised film. That came soon enough. Dev.D (2009) did the unthinkable for Indian cinema. An untouchable classic, both cinematic and literary, got the insurrectionary reworking that radicalised subversion. It was audacious in its reach, and explosive in impact. Dev.D transposed the self-destructive, self-pitying hero from the idyllic Bengal countryside and Calcutta kothas, to the verdant abundance of Punjab, and its boisterous zest for life. The idea for this modern Dev came from Abhay Deol. The treatment is all Kashyap: transitions from pastoral Punjab to seedy Delhi joints do not conform to standard expectations of fluidity, but are disruptive and disturbing.
The hallucinatory world, that claims the lost Dev as its newest denizen bent on self-destruction, is startlingly surreal where music does not just complement mood swings. So many songs (not sung by the characters), and supplant dialogue with such grace and fluidity, beguiled is into a strange enthrallment. Each character had its signature musical theme. It made emotional atyachar a state of being. Kashyap took a calculated risk. People would either love or hate his film. Somewhere between the diehard purists and exulting fans lurched confused viewers who could not make out what hit them. No one could remain indifferent. What is most remarkable is how Kashyap transforms the women in his telling of a familiar story, and its characters that were set in stone. Women were marginal in his first three films.
Kashyap is alive and sensitive to the needs and strengths of women caught in situations that threaten their very survival. He gave women agency and independence, along with emotional intelligence, without idealising them. Mahie Gill’s Paro is a lusty lass who sends topless photos — going to the nearest town to risk printing compromising photos — to her frustrated childhood sweetheart. She is the proactive partner arranging assignations, and when Dev rejects her (a spurned suitor spread news of her insatiable sexual appetite), she does not dwindle into a lovelorn maiden. She pragmatically settles for marriage with a well-off, steady widower, and is an affectionate mother to his small children. Paro spurns a repentant Dev’s overtures, and disappears from the film after washing his dirty clothes, and admonishes him to clean himself up — physically and emotionally.
Chanda now takes centre stage as Dev’s unlikely guardian angel. Kashyap has taken the Delhi Public School MMS scandal to create a woman like no other in our cinema. Both Chanda and Dev share the guilt of driving their fathers to death. Dev wallows in the lower depths of addiction and self-pity, and Chanda puts herself through college, while fulfilling men’s sexual fetishes in a brothel where her part-white, upper-class background, makes her the prize attraction. Kalki Koechlin gets her due as an actor of exceptional range. She knocks sense into the totally down-at-heel Dev, cleans him up and report to the police for his drunken driving that killed a couple of pavement dwellers. A parasite who had lived off others. Dev.D’s final insistence on admitting truth to oneself is the message, if one is looking for it. Koechlin co-wrote That Girl in Yellow Boots (2011), and played the white girl in search of her father. Talking about it, Kashyap said, “Most people can’t digest my film”. Friends warned him it was professional suicide to delve into a new kind of underworld of seedy massage parlours thriving in Mumbai, a lot of them run by women. Snippets of news stories are woven, with our assumptions about white women and their availability. A thriller that also forced us to face our hypocrisy. This film made him an adventurous producer, looking for an international audience open to new stories. Even while finding an international distributor for That Girl…, Kashyap talked of newer audiences for digital streaming content. And then he went on to Sacred Games, and made it a must watch on many viewers’ (not just in India) list.
A film-maker works towards his definitive opus. And that is the epic Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). By definition, an epic traverses a large time scale to tell the main story, and the interweaving subplots that enlarge the scale. GOW teems with characters — good bad and ugly — and emotions, deep rooted motives that drive them to scheming and violence. The voiceover that introduces the time and place — the coal fields of what is now Jharkand, in pre-Independent India — calls the saga, the Muslim Mahabharat. In a strange way, it is a secular Mahabharat of India on the cusp of freedom, because the Muslim ambience is minus overt religiosity. Or preachiness. It is our own Godfather, without its enveloping Catholicism, its rites, and faith of its believers. Kashyap uses the ruse of our most popular family drama and its iconic protagonist, Tulsi, and takes us through the Virani mansion as the prologue heralds a shootout that seeks to decimate a family in its fortress.
The sentimental morality of the small screen contrasts with elemental visceral hatred and convoluted conniving games. This strutting machismo of various hues can still accommodate a celebration of women, through the collage of images that flow with the folksy-modern beat of O Womaniya, a celebration of womanhood by women and also the persistence of the male gaze. Kashyap’s Mukkabaaz (2018) and Manmarizayan (2018) are notable in different ways. The boxer’s saga is not so much about the sport itself. It is more a love story that lays bare the oppressive caste hierarchy and its political nexus, how it affects every aspect of life in the semi-urban sprawl of the Hindi heartland. It infiltrates the psyche — individual and collective — of society in deciding everything about how different sections are ordained to live, love, and work. This section of society, its ways and manner of speech have now become de rigueur for film-makers seeking to tell authentic stories, in an authentic milieu.
Manmarziyaan is another woman-centric film that made no apologies for Rumi, its “wayward” (by conventional morality standards) heroine. Strong-willed and yet vacillating, Rumi can have a roaring affair with a boy-man, who can never be dependable, and decide to marry the NRI, in search of a suitable bride, for his calm, maturity, and non-judgemental attitude. Rumi is not a suitable bride by traditional norms, and Kashyap takes us along on her emotional journey of choosing between two men. In this banquet of creativity, Bombay Velvet (2015) sticks out like an overcooked inedible dish that was lavish with too many ingredients, and did not know when to take the gourmet experiment off the fire. A failed opus that took on everything from vintage Bombay mix of jazz, clubs, boxing, fickle patrons and backroom manoeuvres, like an overawed child before a confectionary spread. But well, a failed opus is part of many a distinguished film-maker’s oeuvre. Including Martin Scorcese’s, Kashyap’s mentor in many ways. With admirable aplomb, Kashyap went on to create some of the best Indian content on digital and streaming platforms.
He is also the part producer of so many memorable films, including Udaan, Shahid, Queen, NH10, Udta Punjab, and the international favourite, The Lunch Box. Protean by any standard and living up to his credo: “I am an atheist, cinema is the only religion I believe in.” That statement sums up Anurag Kashyap, the man, and the film-maker.