India, June 27 -- Fourteen years ago, I wrote an article for a leading news magazine on 'The New Bollywood Brigade.' It started with an anecdote about Anurag Kashyap telling Amitabh Bachchan off. Kashyap was only 26 years old then. Satya, which he had co-written, had established him as a hotshot talent. The story went like this: Impressed with Satya, Bachchan had called Kashyap and said, "Let's do something different." Kashyap clearly told the superstar that he wanted to do it his way. "Don't set any limits because I'm writing for Amitabh Bachchan." Kashyap wrote the script, which had Bachchan playing a grey character. Everyone liked it but, as Kashyap told it back then, "Bachchan developed cold feet... He wanted a justification for the character. I said no. I said, let's respect the audience. Let's give them something to think about." After that conversation, Kashyap said, he never went back.
Last week, Bachchan saw Kashyap's latest film Gangs of Wasseypur and raved about it on Twitter. "What a film," he tweeted, "Anurag Kashyap's direction amazing. Indian cinema taking path breaking strides. pride and extreme gratification." In the years since their first encounter, Kashyap has gone from being Bollywood's problem child to the poster boy of 'Hindie,' that is Hindi independent cinema. It's been a journey fraught with struggle, depression, divorce and incessant battling with the powers that be in Bollywood - studios, producers, stars, trade pundits, even the Censor Board (Kashyap's first film Paanch never released because the Censor Board deemed it too dark for the Indian public). But Kashyap has endured.
Gangs of Wasseypur is, by turns, absorbing and frustrating. It features terrific performances and scenes of powerful, explosive violence. But it is also indulgent and much too long. The film started slow at the box office, but picked up by the evening shows and is likely to make around R11 crore net on the first weekend. Clearly, Kashyap's brand of cinema is no threat to a masala entertainer like Rowdy Rathore, which has made over R130 crore in three weeks and is the biggest hit of the year so far. But the fact that Kashyap could get a major studio - Viacom 18 - to put down R18 crore plus for a two-part, five-hour-20-minute, star-less saga about the coal mining mafia in Bihar is a victory. It means that viewers have choices at the multiplex. Yes, the box office Goliath is probably going to be a full-blow, star-laden comedy or drama - this year's biggest include Agneepath and Housefull 2. But there is also likely to be something smaller, edgier, 'hatke' running at the next screen.
Because Kashyap is no longer a one-man movement. Over the years, he has mentored dozens of directors and an astonishing pool of talent. In between his own projects, he has found time to produce films like Vikramaditya Motwane's Udaan - the first Indian film to make the official selection at the Cannes International Film Festival in seven years; Bejoy Nambiar's Shaitan, Vasan Bala's Peddlers and co-produce Michael Winterbottom's Trishna. Dev.D pushed the astounding composer Amit Trivedi into the spotlight and Gulaal made us recognise the many talents of Piyush Mishra. Gangs of Wasseypur features an array of dazzling actors - from Manoj Vajpai to Richa Chadda to Tigmanshu Dhulia. There isn't one false note among them.
These films and filmmakers are slowly expanding the definition of Indian cinema abroad. Bollywood is still the mother brand but there is an increasing recognition that an alternative cinema is emerging. At Cannes, the India conversation is usually dominated by which stars walked the red carpet. This year, for the first time, the chatter was about Indian films - Gangs of Wasseypur and Peddlers screened in the festival sidebars. At the upcoming Toronto International Film Festival, the City to City section will showcase 10 Mumbai films; Gangs of Wasseypur is a strong contender.
Film scholar Ashish Rajyadaksha once said that it is "vitally important to maintain an experimental cinema for both the mainstream and the larger cultural context," because the experimental cinema becomes "a research and development centre for cinema in the country." What's exciting is that Hindie and mainstream filmmakers are feeding off each other. So Motwane's next is a period film with mainstream stars, Ranveer Singh and Sonakshi Sinha. Kashyap is a co-producer. His next directorial project is also a period film - Bombay Velvet, set in the 1960s Jazz Age, starring Ranbir Kapoor.
The creative churning is yielding sparkling cinema. Which is why Anurag Kashyap matters.
Anupama Chopra is an author, journalist and a movie reviewer for the Hindustan Times. The views expressed by the author are personal.
Published by HT Syndication with permission from Hindustan Times.