Zeishan Quadri, the man who wrote Gangs of Wasseypur, makes his directorial debut with a gritty film on Meerut’s kidnapping rings
It was sometime in 2009, when Zeishan Quadri was undergoing what he calls an education in cinema, which involved bingeing on acclaimed films from across the world, that he had a realisation. “Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, (Martin) Scorsese, (Akira) Kurosawa, City Of God…,” Quadri rattles off a list of directors and well-known films, “I could do as good if not a better script than those behind all these great films.” “Realism mein realism,” he elaborates. “Style mein style.”
Quadri, the son of a civil engineer from Bihar’s Wasseypur town, had washed up on Mumbai’s shores like so many others on the whim of wanting to be a Bollywood hero. He had worked as a wholesale businessman of jeans along with a cousin in Orissa, then as a call centre employee with various firms in Delhi for around three years, before he reached Mumbai. Faced with the reality of not being able to find any work as an actor and having to share an apartment in Andheri with four other aspiring actors he had befriended in the city, Quadri began to watch films more seriously to understand the career he wanted for himself. As he watched those films, he says his mind began to develop, quite involuntarily, an idea of a story—a gritty gangster flick, epic in its scope and ambition and real in its feel, set in the town of his childhood.
Quadri approached the director Hansal Mehta, who apparently liked the idea but turned down the offer of making a film on the subject since he was caught up with other projects. Quadri then tracked down the film maker Anurag Kashyap at a suburban venue, Prithvi Theatre, to convince him to turn his story into a film. “Anurag looked up at me and said, ‘Kuchh likha hai?’ (Have you written anything ?) I told him, ‘Nahin sir, par likh ke de sakta hoon’ (No sir, but I can write it).”
The following day, he was with Kashyap again, this time with an eight-page concept note on his story of the coal mafia in Wasseypur and generations of families that get caught up in a violent struggle for power and dominance. He had drafted it overnight. The filmmaker was impressed with the idea. Quadri returned to his muse, the town of his childhood, and wrote an entire script over the next 35 days.
The result, a two-part crime saga, Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1 and Part 2, became two of the most exciting Bollywood films to have released in several years. In the hands of Kashyap, the film, peopled with an assembly of odd and interesting characters, became a stylish film of criminal dynasties at war in India’s blistering hinterland. Since Quadri was still interested in pursuing acting as a career, he even convinced the filmmaker to give him a role in the film.
Since the success of Gangs of Wasseypur, Quadri has more or less shelved his ambition of becoming an actor, although he did have an acting role in the film Revolver Rani and will appear in another film, Banana, by filmmaker Imtiaz Ali’s brother Sajid. Instead, Quadri has been writing and developing scripts, some of which are currently under production. Among them is Madamji, being directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, and Oh Womaniya, which will be produced by Pritish Nandy Communications. He has also set up an office, called Friday To Friday, which writes and develops scripts for films and TV shows.
This year, the former denim wholesaler and call centre executive is delivering another product. His first film as director, titled Meeruthiya Gangsters, will be released this year. “Directing came as an offshoot to writing,” he says. “As I started working full time as a scriptwriter, I began to want to direct them too. To see the script to its logical end—to its completion just the way I had imagined it as a writer.”
In the three years that he spent as a college student in Meerut, Quadri was surprised by how common kidnapping and extortion were in the city. “Every day, the newspaper would be filled with reports of kidnappings, from those of rich businessmen to even ordinary people,” he says. “If kidnapping is an industry, its biggest production unit is in the 120 sq km that covers Meerut, Ghaziabad and Muzaffarnagar.” So when Quadri got the opportunity to direct a film, backed by a real estate firm called Pradeep Group that’s keen on the business of film production, he decided to focus on that ‘industry’as his subject. He wanted to look at the phenomenon through the perspective of six youths who turn kidnappers. “Also, I feel no director has so far managed to capture the essence of that city on camera, despite the fact that many well-known directors, including Vishal Bhardwaj, are from the city.”
“What happens in Bollywood is everything is made extra sweet and palatable. So much so that people and regions that one bases the films upon look nothing like what is shown in the film. Gangs of Wasseypur would have been very different in the hands of the usual Bollywood director. A film on kidnapping, I suppose, would show unlikable and hardened criminals,” he says. “But I don’t want to do that. I want to show the reality of kidnapping. How kidnappers are mostly bumbling idiots—often without even a plan.”
Asked about the challenges of film direction, he says, “Just till a few years ago, I didn’t even know what a cinematographer meant or what a DoP (director of photography) does. I still don’t know many things about filmmaking. But I know one thing—I need a good script and, I think, memorable and interesting characters. And this can pull me through.”
A few weeks ago, Quadri showed a rough cut of the film to Kashyap. The filmmaker apparently loved it and has claimed he will try to take it with him to the Cannes film festival in France this year.
We’re sitting in the verandah of Quadri’s office, along with a friend who is visiting, a brawny television actor given to philosophical quips. Quadri is wearing a tight-fit faded denim shirt with denim trousers. On his right wrist dangles a silver bracelet, the type worn by Salman Khan.
Quadri is the youngest of three children. When he was growing up, he would often bunk school to watch films in Wasseypur’s only movie hall, Ray Talkies. He was so impressed with Salman Khan that he, like many others in the town, began to talk and dress like the actor. Violence, he says, was so commonplace that the school he attended would shut every few days because someone had been murdered and people would be out on the roads for revenge. “But the violence and crime never seemed unnatural, since, I think, we were in the midst of it,” he says. “Murders in broad daylight over the smallest of issues are still very common. And sometimes one feels bad. But all of this has also served me with rich experiences that as a writer and filmmaker I can explore.”
The opening sequence of Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, where a group of armed men shoot and bomb the house of a rival gangster, was based on something that actually occurred in Quadri’s neighbourhood. “I was still a child then. I don’t remember how many people died that night or even what the cause of the incident was. I just remember going to sleep listening to the sound of gunshots,” he says.
One of Quadri’s strong suits, as seen in Gangs, is characterisation. Almost every character has his quirks and odd stories. These all come, he says, from his memories and observations of a place. During the writing of that film, he came across a young boy whose name was Definite. “The father of the boy had apparently once remarked, upon seeing his son squeeze through two bars of a gate, ‘Yeh toh definitely chor banega’ (He will definitely become a thief). And the name caught on—so much so that very few knew his real name.”
In another instance, he came to know of the brother of a gangster in Wasseypur who had the habit of playing with a razor blade in his mouth. This quirk came through in the character of Perpendicular, the brother of the protagonist Faizal Khan in Gangs. During the shooting of the film, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, who played Faizal Khan, had improvised the scene where he is asked by his romantic interest to seek permission before trying to hold her hand. “From that film, I learnt that the best scenes and characters come from true incidents,” Quadri says.
In Meeruthiya Gangsters, one of the kidnappers is a man named Foreign. Quadri apparently knew of a friend in college who was called that because of his light eyes and brown hair.
In speech and mannerisms, Quadri sometimes appears to be like a character out of his own film. When the first part of Gangs was close to being released, he started getting calls from irate locals of Wasseypur, threatening to kill him if he did not stall the film’s release. He says, “I told them ‘Abey chutiya, I am coming to Wasseypur on such and such date. Here is my flight number and my arrival time at Ranchi airport. If you don’t come, I will come find you’.”
During the filming of Meeruthiya Gangsters, Quadri was often troubled by other such lumpens. Local ruffians would appear looking for money. On one such instance, a thug apparently appeared with a number of lackeys saying he would not let the film be shot because he had heard the film spoke ill of his father.
“I put the actors in the vanity van and asked the film crew to stay clear. I walked up to the guy creating the ruckus and told him, ‘Kyaa karega?’ (What will you do?),” he says. “I made a few calls to people who mattered in the area, and before long the guy had disappeared.”
“These people, they probably thought I’m some posh city boy.”