I was lucky enough to see both parts of this brilliant, bloody, sprawling Indian crime drama shown at my local arthouse cinema in one afternoon - there's no doubt it's a major entry in the history of Hindi cinema (not just because of the combined near five and a half hour running time) and may prove to be turning point in the perceptions of Bollywood cinema in the West. It's a little confusing that IMDB lists both films as one entity when they were clearly presented as two films with two separate title cards, and a notable increase in certification from 15 to 18. I'm reviewing both films in this one review and then adding it to both listings here on icheckmovies.
The film follows three generations of the Khan family over 60 years, from the 1940s to the present day, and is based on the true story of a real life crime dynasty. The whole sequence starts with a flash-forward of a raid on the house of Faizal Khan (reprised part way through the second film). Director Anurag Kashyap sets his stall very firmly in the opening minutes - we see a family gathering to watch the opening credits of a Hindi television sitcom when the television promptly explodes in a shower of machine gun bullets. There are similar moments throughout - in a key speech late in the film from Ramadhir Singh, the constant antagonist to the several generations of the Khan family, he explains why he has survived when all his contemporaries and rivals have died violent deaths - he blames the unreality of Bollywood cinema for convincing all these petty criminals that they are heroes of their own stories, all-powerful, irresistible and invincible. The reality, as Kaskyap is all too eager to show us, it harsh, bloody, cruel and unforeseeable and this proves to be a scathing personal criticism about the cultural, and artistic, impact of popular Hindi cinema.
The first part concentrates on the lives of Shahid Khan and his son Sardar - the former a petty train robber turned coal mine enforcer, murdered by his boss Singh for privately boasting to take over the business. His son, driven by revenge swears never to grow his hair until Singh is dead. Manoj Bajpai performance as the grown up, shaven headed and bigamous Sardar is a highlight of the whole - it's a terrific, charismatic performance, and the interplay between his two wives and two families motors a good deal of the story, as well as providing some welcome humour. The various sons of Sardar - Faizal, Danish, Definite and Perpendicular - their rivalries and alliances, quest for power and individual acts of betrayal and revenge make up the majority of the second part of the film. There is a complexity to the plot, straddling such a long time line with so many central characters but at no point do you lose track of who is who, or what is at stake - short sequences impact on later events, acts of revenge fulfilled from hours before still manage to resonate. Vitally, it's incredibly entertaining, sometimes shocking and boldly modern film-making.
Just as the music and style of cinematography subtly changes to reflect the passing decades so does the level of violence (hence the shift from a 15 to an 18 certificate) -
for instance the first major event of the second part is the manual decapitation of Sardar's betrayer by his seriously unhinged, drug addicted son Faizal (a great, unsettlingly immoral and unpredictable performance by Nawazuddin Siddiqui). Although we are immersed in a world of extreme violence, criminality and immorality none of our protagonists entirely lose our sympathy - violence begets violence, and the dominos continue to fall right until the final moments, when we finally see the opportunity for the cycle of revenge and lives devoted to crime to finally break. There is a problem in the use of CGI blood in the latter parts of the film,
particularly in the blood soaked final confrontation between Faizal and Singh - it's disappointingly unrealistic when so much up to that point has convinced, but it's really a minor quibble.
For anyone interested in modern Indian cinema and those who have no aversion to screen violence this is probably one of the best filmed gangster epics to date, in any language. Highly recommended, all profane, giddy and breathless five and half hours of it.