He has been a struggler, saviour and a snob, an outsider, recruiter and an auteur, a cult, crusader and a film-school. In a career spanning over two decades, Anurag Kashyap has gone from revitalizing the Hindi film industry to representing it. Unlike his one-time mentor Ram Gopal Varma, though, Kashyap has stopped short of defying it. Most of all, he has come to symbolize the mentality of making films rather than assembling them – a system that fundamentally hinges on seeking out hidden talent instead of recycling old ones.
But his career is a double-edged sword. The man has been so consistent at introducing a generation to different facets of an inherently collaborative craft – editors, cinematographers, writers, producers, casting directors and musicians of repute today descend from his stable of technical orientation – that his pedigree is in danger of being overshadowed by his legacy. There is a perpetual tug-of-war between his name and his voice.
At some point, every Kashyap release acquires the exclusivity of an edgy underground movement – a fight club that aggressively hinges on its participants' cinema literacy to battle the evils of commercial Bollywood. He has been both an enabler and victim of this underdog culture. In this sense, he is a genre onto himself. Sometimes his work tends to be judged in context of what he stands for rather than the movie it tries to be. The artist often transcends the art. But it's hard to begrudge him his kingdom. A simple face-to-face with him even today reveals a restless child-like enthusiasm – one that signifies the spirit of a fanboy who has earned the right to emulate his idols.
Perhaps it's only appropriate then that his thirteenth feature-length film is named "Manmarziyaan": a word that suitably describes his cinematic pathway so far. The title sounds most uncharacteristic – soft, almost. It somewhat suggests a desire to stop being Anurag Kashyap…and simply doing as the heart pleases.
Ahead of its release then, I rank his twelve films from worst to best (not including his anthology shorts and Sacred Games):
12. NO SMOKING (2007)
They will argue it was too radical, too far "ahead of its time." But a film has to be understood to be misunderstood. The part-wicked, mostly arrogant No Smoking was a film-school-style rush of blood for the maker who, perhaps reeling from the joy of finally having secured a theatrical release (Black Friday), went 'full retard' on unsuspecting viewers with the psychological tomfoolery of this John Abraham starrer. It might be about a man put through random hell to quit smoking. But it was largely about a filmmaker defiantly expressing a decade-long nightmare of random roadblocks and shelved projects.
11. THE RETURN OF HANUMAN (2007)
His first and only animated film is by no means a forgotten one. If anything, it remains a rare interpretation of Indian mythology as a device of environmental education. And the cheeky irreverence: Gods using laptops and Hanuman turning Mount Rushmore into the faces of the Ramayana? I suspect 2018 might not have been as forgiving as 2007. But Kashyap's kiddie movie suffered from an adult kind of "ambition". It was a bit of everything ('70s movie references, political and pop-culture nods), overstuffed and greedy – a recurring accusation labeled against his most significant live-action work down the line.
10. BOMBAY VELVET (2015)
If only we could watch this movie with closed eyes. Had this beautiful, chaotic mess of a universe existed in a film not directed by Anurag Kashyap, it might just have been hailed a little. But the film-buff in him strangled the filmmaker, and the narrator in him the intrepid storyteller. I still maintain Bombay Velvet is a half-decent, if obviously excessive, footnote to the universality of the retro-gangster genre. Its reputation – of reshoots, recuts, rescales and overall remorse – preceded its form. At least BV ironically reiterated that Karan Johar had always been Kashyap's biggest villain.
9. THAT GIRL IN YELLOW BOOTS (2011)
Bleak, bizarre, indulgent yet intimate. TGIYB veers off into the strangest nooks of Mumbai's seedy underbelly, but there's something hypnotic about its damning indictment of toxic masculinity. These boots, however, aren't made for walking – a notoriously difficult narrative, full of sharp turns and red herrings, is made watchable by some terrific performances. Kalki Koechlin breaks ground as the half-British girl in a massage parlour, but her black-and-white situation is elevated by the peripheral colour: Prashant Prakash as the drug-addled lover, Gulshan Devaiah as the over-the-top Kannada gangster, and especially Puja Sarup (where is she?) as the motor-mouthed parlour owner.
8. UGLY (2014)
"It all goes to hell in the final twenty minutes" – a phrase you might often find in reviews of Kashyap's eccentric thrillers. Most famously, for this nervy story about a missing ten-year-old girl. Ugly, a film more remarkable for its idiosyncratic parts than the sum of them (who can forget the tragicomic police interrogation sequence between a curious inspector and a struggling actor?), is like that investigative piece meticulously constructed with lurid detail only for the reporter to get fatigued within sight of sunrise and conclude it with a criminally lazy last paragraph. The characters are typically murky, but one wished for a little more "stay" on the emotional quality of the adults (Loveless comes to mind) rather than the sheer quantity of them.
7. PAANCH (Unreleased)
It all goes to hell in the final twenty minutes. There are traces of all the director's victories (Kay Kay Menon's most arresting turn remains tragically unrealized; unredeemable survivalists; the seed for Shaitan) and vices (the final act rivals an Abbas-Mustan meltdown) in his banned first film. A partly inspired tale centered on the downward spiral of five college friends, Paanch excels at manufacturing a wasted atmosphere that sustains five everyday villains. But it sways into commercial Khiladi territory with a climactic twist that advertises precisely the kind of psychological gimmickry it worked so languidly to dispel.
6. RAMAN RAGHAV 2.0 (2016)
Kashyap's Badlapur-ish update of Sriram Raghavan's unreleased docudrama about a mythical serial killer is gleefully unhinged, perverse and entertaining. Nobody inspires Nawazuddin Siddiqui the way Kashyap can, and a career-best performance (as a psychopath – how else?) pushes the film so hard that the maker virtually tries to restrain it with a feeble chapter-wise narrative. Just for that exquisitely crafted sequence where Rammana holds his sister's family hostage, 2.0 ranks as the director's most visceral cinematic achievement – in that even his trademark descent into uncontrolled insanity adds to the film's dichotomous palette.
5. MUKKABAAZ (2018)
The small-town athlete trope is barely a trope in Kashyap's forceful hands. The phenomenally acted potboiler – unusually hopeful as it dares to be (perhaps the cynical tragedies are reserved only for Mumbai, which says something about the filmmaker internalizing his own struggles) – sways between sports, romance, social commentary and anti-establishment rage. Again, Kashyap wants everything, disorients with his musical indulgence, rarely allows a moment to settle and still manages to make his last-gasp hero (Vineet Kumar Singh) explode with the sort of pent-up career angst that only Kashyap might truly understand.
4. GULAAL (2009)
Tigmanshu Dhulia might want to use Gulaal as a bible for his brand of muddy political melodrama. I'm not sure we realize how hard it is to make a movie out of grass-root politics – a culture that thrives on veiled emotions, mundane faces and unfathomable timelines. Rarely has an Indian filmmaker humanized the concept of democracy so directly, without really sugarcoating a universe replete with versions of his own ideology. The seven-years-in-the-making film ends with a Rajput whimper, but not before presenting a distinctly dysfunctional plot as an oddly riveting behavioral thriller. Most importantly, Piyush Mishra's anthems ring louder across today more than the yesterdays.
3. DEV.D (2009)
Gulaal's miraculous release was a result of this brazen Devdas adaptation catapulting Kashyap from indie messiah to mainstream matador. Rather than depicting modern addiction, Dev.D embodied its high – through a lethal cocktail of imagery, sound and wild spirit. The convergence of different artists – Abhay Deol, musician Amit Trivedi and go-to cinematographer Rajeev Ravi – at a common fearless peak in their journeys is as much a testament to Kashyap's creative doggedness as it is to his eye for undetonated hunger. Dev.D was a personal breakthrough, but also a public one – in the sense that it proved Hindi films could function as raw sensory experiences…and succeed.
2. GANGS OF WASSEYPUR (2012)
A bonafide mafia masterpiece, the two-part GoW became the one film that stylistically afforded Kashyap the scale and bandwidth to transform what are traditionally considered his shortcomings (density, information, tangential beats) into an enduring strength. His compression of time, conflicted sense of continuity and lavish expansion of generational politics fit perfectly within the framework of a sprawling crime epic's emotional dynamics. Sneha Khanwalkar's eclectic score – and a tireless grind by the on-location units – smoothens the transitional creases, and turned Wasseypur's mayhem into a reverential template for future legacy classics like Angamaly Diaries.
1. BLACK FRIDAY (2007)
Black Friday is more of a feeling – singularly shocking, stirring, cataclysmic, yet journalistic and depressingly objective, and one of the great achievements in Indian cinema. Walking the bloody line between realism and recreation, it demonstrated that the most compelling stories often lie within the investigative stillness of actual events – and that filmmaking can transcend mediums if it commits to being just a medium. The reflective effect of this movie about the 1993 bomb blasts (based on Hussain Zaidi's superbly researched novel) was so powerful that nothing less than a TADA verdict forced the courts to certify its "legality". Perhaps it was destiny that a film about an explosion is what enabled the filmmaker to finally, at long last, burst onto a nation's screens.