This sprawling epic of Indian crime families runs for five hours and covers some 70 years of tough guys, vengeance, and wives who smile prettily when courted but then mostly only turn up to scream in childbirth and/or demand separation. Director Anurag Kashyap makes his ambition and approach clear from the brash first shot.
We glimpse a Bollywood-style credit sequence, all singing women and swirling saris, until the camera inches back to reveal a family watching the spectacle on a television — and then gunmen executing that family before muscling out into the street, chucking grenades and killing enemies in a lengthy and terrifying single take.
The men swear as they swagger, and the message couldn’t be clearer: This is Indian cinema on a Western model, dedicated to expression through the choreography of killing rather than of dance. Whether one’s more sophisticated than the other, I leave to you. Kashyap does include some song numbers, but they purport to diegetic reality: workers singing, drunks carousing, all a touch too rehearsed.
Meanwhile, hits from India’s pop past comment on the tireless action, which is relentless and episodic, a litany of vengeance-minded men setting out to right the past but then becoming indistinguishable from their enemies. The killing is bloody, the power struggles involving, the history-class examinations of the relations between mines and unions and gangsters fascinating, and the tough-guy routines, while sometimes tiresome, never less than credible.
But even at this running time, the film dips into decades but doesn’t dig deeply into lives. Occasionally the English subtitles are howlingly funny — what to make of the insult “Sardar is not even the size of his father’s pubic hair”?