If you are a Hollywood film fan, especially those more into the darker R rated genre, then you probably have seen some of producer Adi Shankar’s films. He has been behind the action thrillers The Grey and A Walk Among the Tombstones (both starring Liam Neeson), Lone Survivor (Mark Wahlberg) and Killing Them Softly (Brad Pitt), among others.
Now, the young producer is bringing the Hindi film epic drama Gangs of Wasseypur to the US. Gangs of Wasseypur is director/writer/producer Anurag Kashyap’s ambitious and extraordinary blood-and-bullets-fueled crime saga that charts 70 years in the lives – and spectacular deaths – of two mafia-like families fighting for control of the coal-mining town of Wasseypur, India. Inspired by the real-life exploits of local gangs the film, Gangs of Wasseypur is produced by Guneet Monga (The Lunchbox), and boasts an incredible cast, including Manoj Bajpayee, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Jaideep Ahlawat, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Piyush Mishra, and Richa Chadda.
The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and garnered a standing ovation. It was originally released in two parts because of its more than 5 hour runtime, and it went on to receive audience and critical acclaim. The film is currently rated 100% by Rotten Tomatoes and is the only Indian film from this decade to make IMDB’s ranking of the Top 250 global films of all-time.
I had an intriguing, interesting, fascinating and well, totally cool conversation with Adi about his thoughts on Gangs of Wasseypur, why he chose this film to bring to the US and all things filmi!
What led you to producing films?
I grew up in a lot of places. I didn’t really feel like I had a friend until I was 18, because again we were constantly moving, so it is hard to make friends. When I hit my 20s, I thought all right, the two really unifying things in my life were comic books and to some extent video games and films. It’s really entertainment. I am a creative dude and I saw the world becoming more and more global, and as a global citizen who doesn’t really identify with one place over another, I saw a path in film, which would potentially lead me to a place where I could express myself. I didn’t see myself behind a desk someplace wearing a suit.
So what was that first film that made you say, okay this is what I want to do, this is what I want to make?
My first gig was that I actually got introduced to actor Daniel Stern. If you have seen Home Alone, he is the tall guy. So I was introduced to him and he hands me a script. I was like ‘Oh, awesome!’ At this point I am feeling like a raging badass because I am talking to Daniel Stern. ‘Wow I f***ing made it! F**k you guys!’ I am telling all my friends like ‘What are you doing on Tuesday? Oh right, I can’t hang out with you because I have a call with Daniel Stern, that guy from Home Alone. Yeah, we are working on a script!’ His script was really not very good but I was like whatever, Daniel Stern’s awesome! I rewrote the whole thing without telling him! I took his soft PG13, at best, romantic comedy and turned into a hard R foul-mouthed comedy. I gave it back to him. He got really upset. I was like, ‘No, these are notes’. He says, ‘What are you talking about? You rewrote the entire script’. I was like, ‘Oh that is not what notes are? Oops’. So, that was my first foray into Hollywood. I am still proud of that script. I feel like I use a lot of the jokes in my daily vernacular, so there is that. Then I went on from there and here we are!
How would you describe what a producer does?
Oh man, you know for each film it is so different. What is interesting to me is the job has different meanings in different countries. Also the job has changed a lot over the years since it has started. The job today is not what it was 5 years ago; the job five years ago is not what it was in the 80s, right? So as a visual example, there have been characters of movie producers in movies for a very long time. And that character of the producer is usually an archetype. And the character of the director has always been the same, the character of the movie star has always been the same. I mean you have these movies where someone is playing a really famous movie star, it is basically the same character. The character of the producer is constantly changing. I am just a creative dude that really runs around making movies. I would be making paintings right now if the Hollywood thing hadn’t worked out for me. And honestly this is a marathon, not a sprint, so it remains to be seen if this actually works out in the long run or if people just forget about me next month.
Seems to be going well so far.
Yeah, it is going all right! (Laughs)
You said that if this did not work out you would be doing paintings. Could you see film almost as paintings, putting it all together to make a perfect picture, or a good picture or an interesting picture?
Yeah, yeah! I think all art forms, whether it is music, painting, sculpting or movies, they are all just telling stories, right? That is what we do as a species. In fact, it is kind of what makes us who we are! Both good and bad. We tell stories, that is why we remember each other. That is why we have things like History. We tell stories and that is why we have revenge and we hold on to grudges and we have family feuds, which is what Gangs of Wasseypur is about.
What drew you to Gangs of Wasseypur?
I wouldn’t say I am a fan of Bollywood. I don’t say that to be disrespectful. I say that because I feel like we, as Indians, are focused on the wrong things a lot of the time. It becomes more about monetary success. It is about winning at all costs. I think that has engulfed the Indian Film Industry in such an overwhelming way. Then finally you get a movie like Gangs of Wasseypur. It is a big ‘f*** you’ to that. Excuse my language; it is not your typical jerk-off Bollywood movie. It is actually a real story about real people told realistically. Not only that, but it is not some disposable piece of popcorn that does really well at the box office that people are going to forget tomorrow. This is a movie that will stand the test of time.
It stands up internationally. I make this point a lot. India is a bigger country. India makes more movies than anyone else. Yet why is the Korean film industry the toast of the world? Well, it is simply because on a story-telling perspective, we just don’t compete. And it is not that we can’t compete, we don’t compete. And finally in Gangs of Wasseypur we have a movie that dares to compete and does.
To the American audience, how would you describe this epic film?
It is a gangster crime epic in the vein of The Godfather. It is not a Bollywood movie; it is not a Hollywood movie. I don’t think borders actually exist and I actually think borders are kind of nonsensical. It is a film about Indian people set in India that happens to be in Hindi, but it is a movie. It is a crime epic.
This has shades of Coppola, Taratino, Scorsese, and even the film noir of days gone by, but at the same time definitely Indian. Do you see that to be true?
Yes 100%. It has Indian flavor, but it is authentic. It is authentically Indian. It is not what I like to call the Jennifer Lopez-ification of India.
What do you mean?
You know, where a lot of the stories feel like a continuous Jennifer Lopez music video. (Laughs)
How do you bring a film like Gangs of Wasseypur to the US for release?
I was fortunate to have distributors who loved the movie and got right behind it. Cinelicious, who are amazing to work with, I guess they felt I could open the film to some new audiences. At least help that path.
Now this is a 5-hour, well, basically a bloodbath with other slice of life moments as well, how do you think the audience will take it here in America?
I actually think the 5-hour thing, that is actually going to play to the movie’s advantage, because people just don’t make movies that long here in the US. I also think that this movie is really going to find its home on Video On Demand and through streaming services like Netflix. Because you know no one really looks at Breaking Bad and says ‘Oh My God I really want to watch this show but it is 12 hours long’. Similarly Gangs of Wasseypur, it is very long, but you could break it up into smaller viewings and it is actually totally conducive to that. I think people are going to consume bits of it and experience this epic story very much the way we would consume a TV show.
You could think of it almost as a miniseries.
Right, which it totally would be!
Along with the outstanding cast, you have Manoj Bajpayee and Nawazuddin Siddique who I think are two of the finest actors in India today. What are your thoughts on their performances in the film?
They are great performances. They are performers no one can knock internationally. It is just good acting!
Unfortunately, I think India is in this weird post-colonial space where things don’t really get recognized unless they get recognized outside of India. It is a horrible mentality that needs to go away tomorrow, but it will slowly go away over time! These are the kind of actors that will get international acclaim.
They both get so lost inside their characters, that many times if you saw them in another character you would not know that they were the same actors that were in Gangs of Wasseypur.
Yes! I mean it’s like if you look at half the cast of the great Game of Thrones in real life, you would have no idea! You know what I mean? You are like What!?!?! (Laughs) You are the blank…what??!!??
The fact that Guneet Monga does not have more recognition in India…
It is actually a travesty! I think it is a national embarrassment. Not only is she super talented, obviously and not only has she made awesome movies like The Lunchbox, but she is also a woman and this is in a country that doesn’t treat women very well.
The Lunchbox, by the way, it blows my mind that it was not India’s entry to the Oscars. Literally I am not joking when I say it is a national embarrassment.
I am lucky that they would even have me on the movie and that they have given me the honor to present the movie internationally. That is really cool. Normally you have to be a much bigger filmmaker than me to be able to do that.
One of the things I noticed was that Anurag was able to portray this epic tale with the dark violent elements but also some very light and funny moments, like with Manoj flirting with the girl or the Bollywood sections with Nawazuddin in the second one. How do you think he was able to combine all that and make this film as good and as entertaining as it is?
True! I would use The Wolf of Wall Street as an example of this. I feel like a lot of movies pass judgment on what is happening and it makes it uninteresting because all of a sudden now the camera is judging what is happening. As long as you are portraying reality as three-dimensionally as possible, people are going to be along for the ride and be entertained, right?
I think in Hollywood right now we suffer from this idea that the protagonist needs to be likable. We need to have that moment where he is saving the little girl because people want to see a likable protagonist. Well, that is not really true! We just want to see reality. It is more like we watch movies because we want to give our lives meaning or to see a reflection of things that have happened to us. A realistic portrayal of human emotion is always captivating.
If you were there at the initial stages in the production of the film, is there anything you would have suggested or changed?
No, no not really. I would have actually had it be like a miniseries from the outset to tell you the truth. I would have said this should be a little bit longer and be a miniseries. But honestly, no I would not change anything.
What do you think American perception of Hindi cinema is?
It is bad! I really don’t think it is good. Well, American’s don’t use the words Hindi cinema, they call it Bollywood. That is a bad thing. I actually think it is kind of insulting. We need to stop using that word because Bollywood to me sounds like Folex to Rolex. It sounds and implies a knockoff. We need to stop doing that. That just sounds silly. It is Indian cinema. Unfortunately, in a lot of instances, the perception is that it is cheesy, melodramatic, and poorly acted. That is not a good thing. I think movies like Gangs of Wasseypur are going to play a part in altering that perception. And films like The Lunchbox. Those are Indian cinema.
In the Hollywood industry, is the perception the same?
I don’t think Indian films even cross the radar. You have got to look at it this way. Look at the movies that are being remade; you have the Korean movies being remade, you have the Scandinavian movies being remade, right? You look all over the world and you see, ‘Oh wow these movies are so great, these stories are so great we want to create bidding wars and try to recreate them and remake them or do them’ or whatever, but where was the Bollywood movie that sparked a bidding war over people wanting to remake it?
You know, we are able to compete on the international stage but for whatever reason we get in our own way.
Could you see yourself producing a film directly in India?
Yeah, yeah, yeah! 100% I have a movie that I am super excited about that I want to make. It is effectively Die Hard on a bridge. Terrorists take over a bridge and a ranger is on that bridge with his wife and daughter. Of course he has to fight back. At first it looks like they are these fundamentalists, but halfway through the script, when he takes one of them down he realizes they are not fundamentalists, this is private military group trying to create conflict. I need to take them down. It became Die Hard. The whole thing takes place on the bridge. The whole idea is to do it really straight, really gritty, really realistic. This is not an action comedy. There are no songs, there is no dancing. It is an action film, it just happens to be in Hindi.
Do you have anybody in mind from the Hindi film industry?
Yes, actually I do! I really like Anil Kapoor. I think he would do really well in an action role where he is playing his age. Think Liam Neeson. He is not a 50-60-year-old dude pretending to be a teenager; he is a 60-year-old dude playing a 60-year-old dude. I think Anil would be fantastic in that role.
Do you see any of the Hindi film actors coming over and doing Hollywood films?
Yes! I think within the next 10 years we will see our first bonafide cross-over star. It has got to happen at some point, right? Irrfan Khan is certainly a front-runner at the moment. And he actually would be great for my Die Hard movie as well.
Did you ever imagine that this would be your life, that you have produced films with the some of the finest actors in Hollywood and are now bringing this Hindi epic to America?
No! I actually feel really weird even talking about it. You know I feel like I am making it up! I am waiting for someone to tap me on the shoulder and say ‘Hey Dude, yeah you are not allowed to do this anymore’. And I am like ‘Yep Yep Yep!’ I am just waiting for that to happen.
What are your hopes for Gangs of Wasseypur in America?
I think the movie speaks for itself. I really do think it will find an audience on Video On Demand, iTunes and Netflix. I see three audiences for the movie. One is the Diaspora audience who I hope realize that this is a very important film in the trajectory of our people and come out and support this. The second is what I would call the “art house genre crowd”. These are people that tend to like my movies, people who like early Nick Refn movies like Pusher, and people who like Korean movies like Oldboy, people who like I Saw the Devil. I hope they will come and see this movie and say ‘Wow, this is a movie that competes on an international level with all these great genre movies’. The third audience is the fan boys! I am a fan boy myself! We like to be ‘in the know’ early. We were the guys bringing copies of Japanese video games over before they were imported to the US. I hope they learn about Anurag. And then Anurag gets to direct a giant superhero movie!
What do think is the best thing about Gangs of Wasseypur?
It is no-holds-bar filmmaking. The passion resonates from every frame! That is what movies are all about.
I love when an interview becomes a conversation. That happened with Adi and it was fabulous! I would like to thank him and say I hope we can chat again when your Hindi film is made in India!
Cinelicious Pictures will release Part 1 of Gangs of Wasseypur on January 16 for an exclusive one-week-only run at several AMC theaters across the U.S. Part II will release in the same theaters the following week on January 23, also for one week only. In New York City, the full film will play at the prestigious Lincoln Center opening on January 16 for one week. This special event is not to be missed by anyone who is a lover of Indian cinema.