At the beginning of Gangs of Wasseypur 1, Shahid Khan (played by Jaideep Ahlawat) beats a muscleman to death in a coal-mine, blaming him for the death of his wife. The muscleman had kept Shahid’s friend waiting when he’d come with news that Shahid’s wife was facing complications during childbirth. Eventually, Shahid makes it home, but his wife is dead, leaving behind a child who eventually grows up to be Sardar Khan (Manoj Bajpai). In the fight sequence that follows, where Shahid Khan avenges his wife’s death, he is shown in epic terms: in slow-motion, amidst a cheering crowd in pouring rain, his clothes and face blackened by coal, lips reddened with blood. It is a bloodthirsty image, one that conjures up another threatening world.

In many ways, this scene encapsulates director Anurag Kashyap’s recent work through its themes, characterisation, cinematic framing, use of music and directorial voice.

Dibakar Banerjee’s latest full-length feature film Shanghai includes a scene where small-time pornographer Joginder Parmar (Emraan Hashmi) is shooting a local leader’s promotional video. A monitor occupies the foreground of the bottom right corner of the frame, with the leader behind it, against a green background. The leader says “Jai Pragati!” twice, beaming at an imaginary audience but is interrupted by his henchman’s phone ringing, who answers it with “Jai Pragati!”, then passes the phone on to the leader. The leader peremptorily begins talking with a “Jai Pragati!”, is put on hold and mutters another “Jai Pragati!” before exploding into “Who changed the plan?”. It is a discomfiting scene, where our laughter is triggered by satire.

This is Dibakar Banerjee’s work at its finest—engaging, sophisticated, and armed with a mean satirical impulse aimed with sniper-like precision at the ruling classes, in terms of themes, directorial style, framing, and background score.

Since the mid-2000s, the films of Kashyap and Banerjee have attained cult status without ever being obscure or inaccessible. Kashyap has referred to Banerjee as “the best director today,” while Banerjee plugged Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur “because it shows me another world.” Critics seem to agree that they represent a kind of new “middle stream”; they represent a way out of the dichotomy that Indian films, and film criticism, have been trapped within for decades now: the highbrow experimental arthouse “cinema” and the lowbrow mainstream popular “movies”.

Kashyap and Banerjee are not unique in creating a middle stream that is eager to distance itself from the big-budget mainstream while being reluctant to answer to a description of arthouse or, on occasion, even middle stream. Theirs is not the first in India to bring commercial success to non-formulaic, auteuristic films. The work of Vishal Bharadwaj in the 2000s—Makdee (2002), Maqbool (2003), and Omkara (2006)—and Malayalam films of the 1980s and 1990s leap to mind, directed by Padmarajan, Bharathan, etc., and written by Lohithadas, Srinivasan, and so on. And there is the current New Wave in Tamil led by Bala, Vasanthabalan, and Vetrimaaran. However, Vishal Bharadwaj as well as the Malayalam and Tamil new waves had a subtler treatment of political subjects: in their films art played hide-and-seek with politics.

Within mainstream Bollywood, their work has precedents in the hoary traditions of the angry young man melodramas and the middle-class satire. If Kashyap’s protagonists come in the lineage of the angry young man films of Salim-Javed, Banerjee is a harsher version of Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

The Salim-Javed hero had a righteous anger at a dysfunctional system and a lack of trust in state machinery even when he was part of it. Kashyap’s characters are besotted with the idea of personal achievement, at any cost. The prototype of his hero is the deranged murderer in Last Train to Mahakali, who claims to have invented a cure for all viruses.

This shift is explained by Javed Akhtar, who says, “Gradually, with industrialisation and a capitalist system, we emerged from feudal values–and winning became a virtue and the hero changed. So in the 1960s, we see a more positive hero, like Shammi Kapoor. We were optimistic, affluence was around the corner and better things were going to happen in the next month or the next year. But they didn’t. And that dream got shattered and created a kind of cynicism and anger. This led to a lack of trust in institutions, in systems, in law and order. And the image of the angry young man was a natural, logical result.”

We may extend Akhtar’s idea to speak of Kashyap’s hero. In the 2000s, the large-scale subversion of state machinery to suit private ends came to light and the dreamy visions of post-liberalisation utopia became impossible. This meant the hero changed into someone who was in it for himself, he cared only for personal achievement, and violence was a necessary component of his world. The hero became more morally ambiguous; avarice was justified as street-smartness and righteous anger replaced by personal ambition.

It is easy to see Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s influence on Banerjee’s first film, Khosla ka Ghosla, which clearly belongs to the safe world of the middle class satire in that even a dangerous land-shark presents no real threat. However, even an angry film like Shanghai, very far from the popular imagination of Hrishikesh Mukherjee as the director of GolmaalAnand, and Abhimaan, bears the imprint of Mukherjee’s work. Shanghai exists in an interesting relationship with Satyakam (1969), a period film set in 1946 starring Dharmendra, where an honest engineer’s attempts to, quite literally, build a new nation are frustrated at every turn. Both Shanghai and Satyakam look back at a buoyant hopeful time through the lens of disillusionment, post-facto. However, Banerjee’s lacerating vision in LSD and Shanghai mark him out as a unique voice.

While Kashyap and Banerjee have their antecedents within the Bollywood mainstream in Salim-Javed and Hrishikesh Mukherjee respectively, and have parallels with the Malayalam New Wave of the 1980s-90s and the current Tamil New Wave, what sets aside the work of these two is their frank handling of political content. It is rare for middle-stream cinema to have such an open engagement with political ideas; not merely in choice of content, but also in terms of form and the assumptions underlying its characters. It is rarer still for middle stream cinema to have such obvious disagreement, for the schism between Banerjee’s work and Kashyap’s is wide. Their work coexists uneasily along fault lines caused by the hidden politics of their film, across the bonhomie induced by belonging to the same new wave.

Both filmmakers cater largely to a class of middle-to-upper-class urban multiplex audience, in spite of their attempts to penetrate the small towns. While Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur has been somewhat more successful in selling tickets in the single-screens of small town India as compared to any of Banerjee’s films, both directors are dependent upon the urban elite through multiplex tickets, satellite, overseas rights and screenings abroad for their profits.

Banerjee explained the phenomenon to HT Brunch: “In the early 1990s, India got divided into people watching MTV and Channel V, and the ones who saw Karan [Johar] and Aditya [Chopra]’s movies. The latter were taking leadership of New India. [The] music channels also started playing Hindi movie songs because that was profitable. The migration from smaller towns to urban areas increased, reflecting a change in Bollywood. And these supposed ‘urban elite’ were starting to feel left out. The elite need to belong to something to survive, so now they are trying to get back to watching Hindi films.” This sense of reaching out to the urban elite has also been stated by Kashyap who has repeatedly talked about how some of his films—especially No Smoking and That Girl in Yellow Boots—were not intended to be mass films.

These development narratives are necessarily rooted in violence, the violence involved in the creation of the brave New India post-2000. And it is in the depiction of violence that Banerjee and Kashyap part ways.

The elite of New India that Banerjee refers to are the post-liberalisation urban elite. This is an English-speaking audience that is, or considers itself to be, too sophisticated for the movies of Switzerland’s dreamscapes. It is the generation that has succeeded the one that thronged to Switzerland after watching Chopra-Johar films. For this audience, the cosmopolitan internationalism of Dil Chahta Hai has been replaced by the nightmarish quality of India’s real experience with liberalisation.

This is the market both Kashyap and Banerjee are tapping into: the market of the real, the gritty, the offbeat. Inevitably, the “real/ gritty/offbeat” is always somewhere else, an other place, a world far removed from that of their audience. In the case of Kashyap and Banerjee, this other place is the small towns and the lower middle class in the metropolis.

Kashyap and Banerjee have taken their place after Hindi cinema moved to the cities. The world of Hindi cinema—much like the real world outside—has become increasingly urbanised in the last few years, with small towns or, alternately, the lower middle classes taking the place formerly reserved for the villages. What is significant is that even with the urbanisation on film, the urban audience still sees a world unlike its own. Banerjee brought the Delhi lower middle class to the mainstream in Hindi cinema with Khosla ka Ghosla, and has been influential in establishing what is almost a genre today—the Delhi lower middle class film. Films such as Delhi 6Vicky DonorBand Bajaa Baraat, and Fukrey continue in the vein began by Khosla ka Ghosla.

Kashyap has sought to create this other world in the small towns from Gulaal to Dev D to Gangs of Wasseypur. Their films are rooted in the dystopias of coal mines and development projects. If Gangs of Wasseypur is the story of the rise and fall of a family involved in mining and scrap metal trading, Shanghai shows the seamier side of urban development projects.

These development narratives are necessarily rooted in violence, the violence involved in the creation of the brave New India post-2000. And it is in the depiction of violence that Banerjee and Kashyap part ways.

In the films of Banerjee, violence is the product of a larger system, enacted upon individuals rather than by them. The brutal killing of the young lovers in Love Sex aur Dhoka (LSD), or the comically-depicted distress of the middle-class man at the hands of the land shark in Khosla ka Ghosla, are depictions of violence where the individual, even if occasionally an agent of violence, is at the receiving end.

In sharp contrast, Kashyap’s characters are perpetrators of violence who create their own bloody versions of hell, often self-consciously. Nasir, the narrator of Gangs of Wasseypur played by Piyush Mishra, says, “Hum Mussalmanon ki yeh Mahabharat aaj ki nahin hai, zamaney se chali aa rahi hai.” (“This story of us Muslims is not new; it has been going on for ages.”) While the comment by the narrator is intended to reflect upon the violence in Wasseypur between Qureishis and the other Muslims, it may be read as a reductive understanding of violence as the sum of individual actions. The meaning implicit in a Muslim narrator’s reference to the wars of Muslims is transformed under the gaze of a largely urban Hindu upper caste audience in multiplexes, when Nasir’s comments are seen out of context and bandied as a general truth.

Ever since I watched Gangs of Wasseypur, I think of the coal mine fight scene in Part 1 whenever I think of Kashyap’s work. The epic framing of the fight in slow-motion, the stark colours of the blood-reddened lips in a coal-blackened face, the nameless cheering crowds that add to the bloodthirsty image, the threatening other world the film conjures up–all of these are hallmarks of Kashyap’s films.

A view commonly expressed by critics and audiences alike was that Gangs of Wasseypur 1 was much superior to Gangs of Wasseypur 2. My own reading of this is that while the overarching plotline of the films dealt with the Dhanbad coal and scrap mafia, Part 1 focused on individuals establishing what would become mafias and systems of power in Part 2. Part 1 is, for Kashyap, familiar territory.

The overwhelming theme in Kashyap’s work has been an individual’s life shaped through violence—and few can claim to have done rise-of-the-individual stories better than him—right from his script for films directed by Ram Gopal Varma, the cult classic Satya and the psychological thriller Kaun, to No SmokingGulaal, and Gangs of Wasseypur. All of Kashyap’s work revolves around an individual’s relationship to violence, except perhaps for his brilliant Black Friday, where we get a sense of the scale and sweep of the Bombay blasts of 1993. Kashyap’s focus on the individual was acknowledged by him while discussing his shortlived involvement in Mani Ratnam’s Guru: “The story I’d written was about man’s rise to fame and glory. It didn’t have much scope for a love story.”

Be it the rise of a business baron (his abortive involvement in Guru), or a mafia don (SatyaGangs of Wasseypur) or that of a new underground movement (Gulaal)—Kashyap depicts the violence, and the individual, in relief. They are alone in their rise and fall, and that rise or fall alone is both reward and retribution. This is perhaps why the psychological thriller Kaun is Kashyap’s best script: it is taut, tension strangles the viewer, and the too-simplistic psychological nature of the character’s motivation needs no larger framing narrative. It is a vacuum-packed narrative, set within the four walls of a house with only three characters (unless one counts the kitten), and an atmosphere of violence that could only be perpetrated by an individual. This vacuum lends itself well to Kashyap’s style and it is the same instinct that frames the epic fight in Gangs of Wasseypur 1. It’s a man-to-man fist fight where the winner gets all.

The relationship between violence and the individual is perhaps what marks out Banerjee’s work. From Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! to Love Sex aur Dhokha, or Shanghai and the melancholy short film Star in Bombay Talkies, Banerjee shows an insightful grasp of the forms violence takes in today’s India. As the song Bharat Mata ki Jai written by Banerjee in Shanghai goes, “Agar chanda nahin, donation sahi, bolo kya doge.” (If not extortion, then donation is fine. Which do you prefer to give?)

The father figure in LSD, a variation on the Bollywood’s stock Amrish Puri-like patriarch, is rooted in the deep-seated caste patriarchal violence that lurks behind post-liberalisation India’s capitalist self-image. It is also perhaps the clearest example of Banerjee’s view of the feudal and capital colluding in contemporary India through the machinations of caste.

The father, who initially hesitates when his daughter is cast as the heroine in a student film, is flattered into giving his permission as well as accepting a role in it himself when he’s told by the protagonist that, “If you play this role, sir, it’ll look like Amrish Puri himself is doing it.” The continuity suggested between the upper caste trader capitalist and the feudal landlord is complete when the modern patriarch orders a brutal killing of his daughter and her lower-caste lover when they try to elope. Although caste is not directly mentioned, thanks to censorship, the killer’s last words to the protagonist leave the caste subtext in no doubt: “Bhagwan ne iss duniya mein subki jagah banayi hai, pata nahin tere ko?” (“God has assigned a place for everyone in this world, don’t you know?”).

Similarly, in Shanghai, the Chief Minister’s characterisation is intended to inspire confidence in the urban elite; after all, she wasn’t dressed in white, she didn’t look like a corrupt neta. Eventually the concerned sensitive genteel Chief Minister is revealed to be the shadowy hand that pulls the strings in the central murder around which Shanghai is built, the very personification of the violence inherent in the neoliberal agenda.

In each of these instances, the stock Bollywood trope is subverted—a genteel female Chief Minister costumed in bold colours is a shadowy villain; a ‘modern’ looking patriarch turns out as bloodthirsty as an Amrish Puri-type—to reflect contemporary reality, showing Banerjee’s deep engagement with the world and the violence built into its very sinews.

Violence is structural in Banerjee’s films, enacted by a larger system onto an individual. And as filmmaker, his own empathy lies with the individual. Think of the thumping street dhols that burst out of the film as Purandar (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) runs home in Star from Bombay Talkies. The dhols, played too loud as Purandar runs home, seem to be a heart that is wearing itself down, a mad pulse threatening to burst. In the scene immediately before, Purandar has played an extra in a film, but feels swept away by the pressures on set, and an overwhelming sense of being a nobody to whom nothing ever happens. He leaves the shoot without collecting his wage, and it is this daze that is broken by the dhols when he runs. The drumming stops the moment he reaches his home and sees his daughter.
The sense a viewer has of this scene is of the violence enacted upon Purandar, and his own incapability to fight back in any meaningful way. Yet, the dhols make us empathetic towards the protagonist; after all, we have heard his heart beat. As if to underline the centrality of violence in this short film, Banerjee closes the poignant scene where Purandar enacts his day to his daughter’s delight with a slow receding tracking shot that shows a steel and glass building menacingly towering over Purandar’s chawl.

This understanding of the place of the individual in the larger world, most often mediated through violence, is one that shows up in the contrasting characterizations in the films of Kashyap and Banerjee.

Earlier in Kashyap’s writing career, even amidst a scene of torture, it was possible for lower class characters to form a human bond. Think of the truly touching moment in Satya, when Satya (J. D. Chakravarty), Kallu Mama (Saurabh Shukla) and Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai) are watching the gang torture a failed assassin. One of the gang members spots Vidya (Urmila Matondkar), who is Satya’s love interest, and they start pulling his leg about her. He rushes out to meet her and sternly tells them that he doesn’t like being ribbed about her. When they continue unfazed, Bhiku Mhatre shuts everyone up. Satya walks out and sits on a mound of gravel on a busy Mumbai road. Bhiku sits next to him, the traffic whizzing past behind them. Amidst the dust and grime, immediately after enacting brutal torture that ended the failed assassin’s life, Bhiku asks Satya quietly if he is serious about Vidya.

As Satya reluctantly concedes that he may be, Bhiku proceeds to pull his leg about her. To my mind, this scene speaks more about the relationship between Bhiku and Satya than any other in the film. A scene such as this would be impossible in a later Kashyap-directed film, certainly amongst lower class characters, and difficult even amongst his upper class characters.

A contrasting scene is from Gangs of Wasseypur 1, when Sardar Khan’s (Manoj Bajpai’s) first son Danish Khan (Vineet Kumar) is grazed by a misdirected bullet. In what is a genuinely hilarious scene, Sardar and his cronies take their son to the hospital, and insist that the doctor operate upon him, even in the darkness from a power cut that follows. In Kashyap’s treatment, Sardar’s anguish is comic, and the entire scene shows the world of the characters as being pathetically misinformed. Contrast this with the much more humane treatment he accords the relationship, albeit fraught, between Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) and his son J. P. Singh (Satya Anand). There too, the father is violent in dealing with the son, but his actions seem to possess some semblance of rationale.

Earlier in Kashyap’s writing career, even amidst a scene of torture, it was possible for lower class characters to form a human bond, as was seen in Satya. However, it is almost as if, in Kashyap’s later films, relationships and rational are impossible for the lower classes.

Sardar Khan’s anguish, and his relationship with his sons, seems to be modelled on a behavioural stimuli-response approach totally lacking in motivation. It is almost as if, in Kashyap’s later films, relationships and rationale are impossible for the lower classes.

This was not the case in Black Friday, whose chapter on Badshah Khan has heartbreaking moments in what is arguably Kashyap’s best film. The shot of Badshah Khan lost, or abandoned, amidst a busy marketplace, the crowd walking away from the camera with him alone walking towards it, as the plaintive Bharam Bhaap Ke picks up in the background, is inspired filmmaking. Even moments in the song when the camera, and presumably Badshah Khan, gazes at women on buses and ferries in Kolkata are evocative only of Badshah Khan’s forlornness, where his gaze is one of loneliness, not one that inflicts a male gaze. When the police finally arrest him, immediately after the song ends, it comes as relief—to Badshah Khan and to the viewers. The directorial vision in this scene, as with all of Black Friday, shows Kashyap at his best, and in what would become increasingly rare in his later films, his empathy is firmly with the lost, abandoned Badshah Khan.

By contrast, in Banerjee’s films, characters are always constructed in relation to the world outside. Even in his earliest film, Khosla ka Ghosla, you see evidence of trenchant sociological insight transforming itself into an evocative visual.

In a bid to get back at Khurana, the Khoslas and the theatre crew make their first gambit by baiting the broker Vijender with a phone call regarding a fake plot. We hear Vijender on the phone as the camera tracks into his office, which has a red-and-white awning. The camera moves to the interior of the office and our attention is focused on a perpetual motion toy, which shows a red clown somersaulting. As we see Vijender biting the bait, his gaze falls on the perpetual motion toy, and he stops it forcibly by hand. The themes of the rest of the movie are clearly foregrounded here: a chain of events is about to be set in motion that will make Vijender, and by extension Khurana, somersault even if they try to prevent it.

The clever art direction (by Rohit Ganju) that directs our gaze to the red clown through the red awning is typical of Banerjee’s use of colours. His more recent films, particularly Shanghai and Star in Bombay Talkies, use colours that direct our gaze to devastating effect. Vijender’s perpetual motion toy, apart from clever art direction, points to a number of character details: it connects Vijender’s aspiration to be Khurana (for Khurana has a perpetual motion toy that is clearly more expensive); it points to his need to impress his clients with a useless knickknack; and above all, it points to the fact that the toy is reminiscent of tabletop knickknacks found in the offices of so many middlemen. A sociological insight into the kinds of knickknack found in a small-time broker’s office contrasted with the kind found in the office of a big shot land shark is turned into a visual metonym that shows us their inability to stop themselves falling head over heels into the trap set for them.

This device also constructs a character rooted in his world, both within the film and in the world outside. Another lovely little vignette is the south Indian Brahmin IAS officer Abhay Deol performing arti to his laptop in Shanghai.

These quirky characterisations are rooted in the real world, not plucked out for either their fancifulness or to give depth to the otherwise two-dimensional characterisation.

Characters in the films of Kashyap and Banerjee stand out for their satirical edge. By identifying objects to be ridiculed through violent laughter, satire has the potential to either justify or invert established power structures.

Banerjee uses this satirical violence to telling effect. In Khosla ka Ghosla, Khurana the land shark is often shot from below. He scratches his balls and when the camera views from his perspective, his huge mobile phone is in the foreground. Similarly, the “Jai Pragati” scene described above from Shanghai satirises the minister. The most remarkable fact about Banerjee’s satirical impulse is that its violence is sniper-like in precision—satire is used to subvert power structures, never to reduce a character to a laughingstock. The small town pornographer in Shanghai, Joginder Parmar played by Emraan Hashmi, is empathetically portrayed, as is the idiosyncratic father in Khosla ka Ghosla. Their motivations are clear and it is their humaneness that stands out, over and above their idiosyncrasies. 

In sharp contrast is Kashyap’s explosive satirical impulse. Kashyap’s satire explodes in marketplaces and on streets; it blows up entire parts of the world of the film, with no clear target. It merely magnifies the unequal power relations between his characters, structurally established through background music, cinematography and text.

The murderous chase of Sultan Khan (Pankaj Tripathi) by Definite (Zeishan Quadri) and others, as well as the failed murder attempt by Definite on Shamshad Alam (Raj Kumar Yadav), are framed in comic terms. In both scenes, it’s almost as if the characters’ lives are run purely by chance, that they are bit players in their own lives. They flit in and out of frames, the comic background music overwhelms them and they are denied speech.

Contrast this with the scene immediately following Definite’s chase by Shamshad Alam. Ramadhir Singh (Tigmanshu Dhulia) serves tea to his henchmen, including Shamshad Alam, in a garden, with birds chirping for background music. Ramadhir is placed in the centre of the frame, with the other characters placed so as to direct the gaze upon Ramadhir. Unhurried, Ramadhir suggests that he’s the greatest because he does not watch movies.

Sab saale sab ki dimag mein apne apne picture chal rahe hain. Sab saale hero ban na chah rahe hain picture mein. Saala Hindustan mein jab tak cinema hai tab tak log chutiye bantey rahenge.” (“Every fucker has his own film playing in his head. Every fucker wants to be the hero of his film. As long as Hindustan has cinema, people will continue to be made fools.”) The camera is lingering, unhurried; the audience adoring; the bird chirps adding a veneer of significance to the utterance.

Ramadhir is indeed a hero in his picture, a feudal lord taken on his own terms, but not Definite or Shamshad or Sultan Khan, who are bit players aspiring to become heroes.

Kashyap’s explosive satire is set off in the crowded marketplaces that are rarely frequented by the upper classes. The comic marketplace chase sequences of Wasseypur stand in stark contrast with Badshah Khan’s desolation in Black Friday, in the crowded marketplace where he seems to be walking alone. It is almost as if the very marketplaces that were earlier a metaphor for being alone in a crowd, for spatial isolation, are now merely a place for comic mistiming.

Kashyap’s explosive satirical impulse takes its worst form in his Bombay Talkies short film, Murabba. The premise is that an ailing man sends his son to offer a murabba to Amitabh Bachchan. He believes that the half-eaten murabba will grant him longevity. Again, the lower class characters are shown in behavioural stimuli-response mode, with the father withholding information from his son that would have made the whole trip seem unnecessary.

In the film, it is this same satirical impulse that ensures the protagonist’s murabba is trampled upon, and that frames Amitabh Bachchan as a superhuman, almost with a halo. The moment when Bachchan arrives on screen is heightened using a sound collage of various famous lines from his hit films. The construction of the scene is not very different from the one where Ramadhir holds forth on his disdain for cinema; only the bird chirps have been replaced by a sound collage, and Ramadhir’s disdain for cinema has been replaced by a superhuman presence from the world of cinema. In both cases, the effect is one where we empathise with the upper class characters and laugh at the lower class characters, even when they are the protagonists, as is the case of Murabba.

This was not the first time Kashyap had used the trope of cinema to show a character’s exceptionalism; he’d used nearly the same scripting device in Last Train to Mahakali, one of his earliest works—a short film that aired on the Star Plus TV show, Star Bestsellers, in 1999. A death row inmate (Kay Kay) narrates his elusive hunt—driven by a desire for achievement—for a cure to all viruses to a rookie journalist.

At one point in his narration, he is on a Mumbai local train and is accosted by two inebriated strangers, singing Goli Maar Bheje Mein from Satya, arguing about who’s a better gangster: Bhiku Mhatre from Satya or Anna from Parinda. The protagonist played by Kay Kay cuts them short with a curt, “Mein filmein nahin dekta.” (“I don’t watch films.”) What has changed is the meaning of the trope of the cinema in Kashyap’s films. In Last Train to Mahakali, the effect had been to show the protagonist’s absolute isolation from the rest of humanity; he’s unaware of one of the biggest hit songs of the year, Goli Maar Bheje Mein from Satya.

On the other hand, the effect of the comic treatment of characters’ life-and-death sequences in Wasseypur contrasted with the adoring camera on Ramadhir Singh is to signal to the audience that they are better than the characters they are watching. The tragedies of Definite or Shamshad or Sultan Khan are laughter-inducing.

The films of both Kashyap and Banerjee use cinema itself as a central trope. For Banerjee, cinema appears to be a dangerous illusion (LSD Part 1), or a hidden menace (LSD Part 2) or as work whose labour consists of stars and nobodies (Star in Bombay Talkies). Kashyap’s films draw upon them far more uncritically, references to cinema crop up everywhere, in cinematography, plot and dialogue.

In Wasseypur, Ramadhir Singh’s comments are stage managed—through framing, background music, and dialogue—to be self-reflexive so as to distinguish the viewers who laugh at Ramadhir Singh’s dialogues from those who laugh at, say, Munnabhai’s. The ironic use of Ramadhir’s disdain for cinema gives its audience a barely hidden second layer of meaning which they discover in delight. Through this discovery of irony, the film flatters its audience into accepting its—and by extension, their—superiority. This is, increasingly, the coded message that Kashyap’s films have nested with them: lulling its audience into an acceptance of what is increasingly touted as “the real/gritty/offbeat”.

While promoting Gangs of Wasseypur, Kashyap compared it to No Smoking, a film whose spectacular failure was prefigured in its description as being “Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind] meets Kafka meets something else”.

His response to the failure of No Smoking—“I can understand that the audience may not have seen, say, a Bob Fosse, from which No Smoking draws inspiration. However, I expected the critics to understand it.”—is reminiscent of the deranged death row inmate in Last Train to Mahakali, who screams, “People don’t deserve me. Sab darey huve hain; kuch nayi cheez dekhein do dar jathey, saale.” (They are scared; they see anything new, and it scares them.) In contrast, Kashyap claimed Gangs of Wasseypur was “very accessible. It is there everywhere–B-centre, C-centre. Everybody will get the film because it’s not at all unfathomable. It is not No Smoking. That’s how simple it is and the characters of the film are not deep too. For Gangs, there is nothing that you really need to crack your brains behind it. It’s just a simple story.”

He risks suggesting that a film populated with lower class small town characters is the same as being “not deep” and that an inscrutable film populated with urbane characters is inherently sophisticated, to signal to his elite audience that while they were invited to empathise with the urbane characters of No Smoking, they could simply laugh at the characters in Wasseypur. It is this same aspirational class logic that leads him to portray, in Gulaal, the dissenting poet figure (Piyush Mishra) as a Lennon-inspired character who wears Lennon’s photo on a pendant. To signal the character’s status as rebel, he uses the easiest rebel icon of the English-speaking elite classes.

There is no doubting the significance or popularity of the films made by Banerjee and Kashyap. The fact that critics are already referring to “the kind of cinema that Anurag Kashyap and Dibakar Banerjee make” makes this a significant comparison. Their cinema points to a growing market for a rootless elite that, disenchanted with the technicolour dreams of liberalisation, is looking for cultural production that shows them the “real/gritty/offbeat” New India out there.

What is nothing less than astonishing about the films of Kashyap and Banerjee is the fact that this new middle stream consists of their contrasting takes on more or less same themes. This not only makes theirs a most unusual middle stream, but also points to the polarising times we live in where there are such contrasting takes playing to the same audiences. However, the fact that these films are consumed by the same elite audiences also points to the resilience of consumption, where anything, even—especially, perhaps—such radically different cultural products can be consumed with equal ease.