10 Years of Gulaal: Why the Politics and Poetry of the Anurag Kashyap Film Have Acquired Cult Status

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10 Years of Gulaal: Why the Politics and Poetry of the Anurag Kashyap Film Have Acquired Cult Status

Illustration: Arati Gujar

John F Kennedy believed that “If more politicians knew poetry, and more poets knew politic” the world would be a better place. Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy is perhaps the ideal example of a man who knows his poetry, but may not know his politics. A decade ago, Anurag Kashyap produced a film situated on the opposite end of that spectrum, where young men know their politics, but not their poetry. Now a decade old, Gulaal, is perhaps Kashyap’s most unforgiving film and not because it’s dressed in Kashyap’s trademark brashness or penchant for violence, but because like life, it is grounded in cynicism. Gulaal tells us that the hostility of youth is often misdirected and eventually devoted to causes born out of scorn that no amount of poetry can subsume.

Released to little fanfare only a month after his much more anticipated Dev D hit theatres, Gulaal was at the time a risibly odd film. Gulaal – the colour red – is symbolic of a number of things: love, anger, lust, and betrayal. Kashyap’s film addressed all with a palette so evocative that it plays a character in itself.

Gulaal follows Dileep Singh (Raj Singh Choudhary) who arrives in a fictional town of Rajasthan to study law. Out of sheer bad luck, he ends up living in a bar where his roommate is the moustachioed Rananjay (Abhimanyu Singh), a man who wears his Rajputana heritage with as much pride, as he carries the glint of masculinity in his eyes. In a couple of scenes he stands bare-chested, his pelvic area covered by a V-shaped underwear that on anyone else, would have invited ridicule. Kashyap, clearly understands the relationship between masculinity and flamboyance. But even the cock-eyed Rananjay with all his machismo is a pawn in a bigger game of Rajput politics with both Dukey Bana (Kay Kay Menon) and Karan (Aditya Srivastav) vying for a throne that is more fog than the presumed mountaintop behind it.

Kashyap’s films often cast weak, loserly men and Dileep fits the bill: A man surrounded by men so electrified by aggression and violence that their mere presence causes his spine to lean and eventually mould itself. Dileep’s own Rajput heritage becomes a burden; a call for pride that he inevitably answers. Gulaal is tonally nihilist, a film where death and deliverance are minor considerations in the bigger scheme of things. A scheme that is about power that promises a “return” to the utopia where Rajput pride was unbridled and seemingly intact.

Gulaal isn’t a purportedly grim film; it just refuses to rescue its characters or its viewers.

From the outset, Kashyap does not mince his politics: Most men in this vile world are afterall, beyond the charms of democracy and fairness, hardened by their bitterness, out to get what they believe is theirs to take. In one scene, Rananjay tells his father off by saying “Mujhe Amar Chitra Katha mein nahi jeena hai.” In another, he tells his friend “Youth hi change karta hai samaj.” These are statements that in retrospect seem relevant. Kashyap’s men may be angry, but they still believe in ruminating about ideology. Their poetics may be off, but there is still incessant faith in rebelling with principle.

Gulaal isn’t a purportedly grim film; it just refuses to rescue its characters or its viewers. Mentors here are as scheming and manipulative as enemies. For someone like Dileep, with time, his identity corners him, as he becomes part of a wave he did not even plan to stand on the shore of. Much like present-day India, where the politics one finds themselves enmeshed in, is non-negotiable, even irredeemable by reason.

That said, Gulaal earned its cult status largely due to one man: Piyush Mishra and his doomsday poetry from the film. Mishra’s idiosyncratic appearance in the movie where he rhymes atonally about worldly witticisms is a metaphor, perhaps for the “bigger picture” that is menacingly misunderstood and overseen. “Iss mulk ne har shaqs ko jo kaam tha saunpa, us shaqs ne us kaam ki maachis jalaake chhod di,” he says in the middle of one of his spontaneous bursts.

I talk about Gully Boy when I talk about Gulaal, because at the heart of both are poetry and politics. While the former softened its reflection of present-day India to an extent, Gulaal embraced it with the kind of bloodlust that cinema rarely does. Even though both are completely different movies set in seemingly different worlds, they are tied together by a nervous man, in the middle of it all. One’s dream liberates him while the other’s is besotted by doom. Though Gully Boy’s Murad (Ranveer Singh) presumably escapes through his poetry, it is likely his politics, or lack thereof will catch up with him after the credits end. But Dileep, on the other hand, is fatally restricted by his own privilege. In one scene Karan asks Dileep “Rajneeti ka matlab jante ho?” Dileep naively, yet profoundly replies “Politics”. Kashyap and Gulaal, thankfully, never abandon their own.