Anurag Kashyap walked into Bollywood ready to fight. His debut feature film, Paanch (2003), was banned from cinemas and still remains unreleased. His second feature, Black Friday (2007), was delayed two years by India’s Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). His best films are always at the center of debate in the industry, either for their controversial subject matter, visceral depictions of India’s urban underbelly, or his protest against conservative bureaucratic obstruction of artistic freedom. He has had an indelible effect on the trajectory of Indian cinema in the 21st century because he has refused to abide by the status quo. Like other rule breakers who have made a lasting mark on cinema history, Kashyap’s effect on the evolution of Hindi film is systemic, artistic, and overtly political.
It was Kashyap’s debut short film, Last Train to Mahakali (1999), released on television twenty years ago as part of a “young directors” showcase, which should have tipped everyone off he is a filmmaker who has a fundamentally unique approach to filming his country and its people. Molded by his work as co-writer for Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya, a film considered a landmark for its gritty realism and sharp social critique in a landscape of tawdry Bollywood romantic musicals, Kashyap’s Last Train to Mahakali brimmed with noir elements. The film demonstrated a keen awareness of how to use formal techniques to elicit tension, suspense, and indicate passage of time and change of place. In a Hindi film industry which then valued (and continues to value) cinema as nothing more than a product to be manufactured and sold, the short film begat the hope that sincere, inspired filmmaking would eventually make its way into theaters.
Following decades of industry nepotism and monopolization by the major studios which collapsed the independent film scene started during the Parallel Cinema movement, indie cinema again sprouted new roots alongside Bollywood in the early 2000s, around the same time, Kashyap started making features. While Paanch never made it to the big screen, its central characters’ nihilistic tendencies, and its young director’s irreverent approach toward reveling in everything considered taboo by the mainstream film industry were stylistic elements that would define Kashyap’s later career. Paanch gained whispered notoriety for its banned status and for featuring anti-heroes and moral ambiguity in its central characters. As Kashyap stated, the legend of the film grew larger than the film itself. The future of independent cinema relied on its legend and its filmmaker’s legend to continue growing.
Kashyap has been candid about his troubled and traumatic childhood as well as his life in poverty in Mumbai and how these experiences helped develop his cinema. His experiences certainly helped to drive a darker and more perceptive tone in his films, examining the malcontented undercurrents of Indian society that Bollywood generally steered clear of. Black Friday, arguably his greatest film, examined the cyclical wheel of religious hatred with an incensed focus on the systems of power and corruption that are complicit in its perpetuation. The film’s hyperlinked story, Soderbergh-like editing, and implementation of colored lens filters as emotional and geographical signifiers, and a now-famous, twelve-minute improvised police chase scene through the Dharavi slums, which incidentally inspired the opening sequence of Slumdog Millionaire, caught the attention of critics and audiences leading the film to being hailed as a watershed moment for a different kind of cinema in Bollywood.
Kashyap has tread the line between mainstream and art cinema over the years. His two latest release, Manmarziyaan (2019), a New Age romantic comedy, features both a big budget and big stars. But even in the films that stray towards convention, Kashyap has never resisted the opportunity to take classical elements and tropes of Bollywood storytelling and invert, twist, mold, and recreate them into something new. The best of this remixing was his biggest breakout into mainstream Bollywood, Dev. D (2009), a warped version of Sarat Chandra Chatterjee’s classic novel “Devdas” which upended the traditionalist patriarchal elements of romantic stories and gave its female characters a sense of self-empowerment.
The growth of India’s independent cinema began on the shoulders of Black Friday and Dev. D’s success. Kashyap’s development of two production houses, Anurag Kashyap Film Private, Limited and Phantom Films proliferated the advancement of indie artists gaining recognition among industry players. Films like Udaan (2010), Peddlers (2012), The Lunchbox (2013), and others have competed at major film festivals like Cannes and TIFF and fostered financial and social support for more film which has helped Bollywood incrementally move away from its spiritless and plutocratic ways.
Unlike many filmmakers whose welcome into the industry’s favor comes at the sacrifice of their art, his acceptance at the forefront of Bollywood has not mellowed him. Kashyap was adamant in not just pushing but absolutely shattering the unadventurous boundaries of Bollywood film producers with movies like the surrealist neo-noir film No Smoking (2007), a five-hour crime epic Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), and a dark and haunting ransom thriller, Ugly (2014). As all his best films do, these movies came under scrutiny and initial rejection by the Indian Censor Board, but with Kashyap’s obstinacy and belief in fighting for artistic freedom at all costs, they ultimately released with minimal cuts. Kashyap’s legacy in the last 20 years of Bollywood cinema will always be one of confrontation and forced change. When artistic expression and creative independence are at stake, the only way to make your vision a cinematic reality is to roll up your sleeves and let them know you’re not backing down.