Gangs of Wasseypur: The Trajectory of Ramadhir Singh

Rohit Negi is an Assistant Professor at Ambedkar University, Delhi. he can be contacted at rohitosu[at]

Rohit Negi

Gangs of Wasseypur (GoW) is a piece of cinema and it therefore must be critically appraised as such. Our guild of professional critics has already done so, and some have pronounced harsh verdicts on what they consider to be a ‘tedious’ film that is too heavily inspired by The Godfather[1]. And yet, one is distinctly dissatisfied with this very limiting way of approaching a film like GoW; it deserves to be positioned against the larger historical, cultural, and political economic context.

In this light, this is not a commentary on the plot, acting or direction, but on the way GoW engages with one particular aspect of Indian economic–which is also at the same time, political–history.

I see GoW as a situated narrative of the longue durée of primitive accumulation in India, and more specifically, the role of shape-shifting criminality central to this history. Like Wasseypur, cinematic texts such as ‘Guru’ (Director- Mani Ratnam) are also about the creation of the Indian capitalist class, but the social philosophy implicit there is hinged on individual creativity, enterprise, and if at all, pure chance.

While individuals do indeed make history, this conventional view is at best limiting and at worst a distraction. As Tim Mitchell writes, the problem here is the capitalist’s success is seen to result ‘simply from [his/her] skill as a calculating agent who was able to out-calculate rivals and make an even larger profit [and] does not ask what arrangements (of law, property, political economy, engineering, irrigation, and much more) made such calculation possible, or what agencies kept those arrangements in place’[2]. Clearly, the representation of Ramadhir Singh’s rise in GoW leads to inquisitions of these arrangements rather than an individualist celebration of his supposed entrepreneurship, or in other renderings, his supposed evil streak (eg Prakash Jha films etc).

The rise of such class of capitalists as Ramadhir is about the exercise of individual agency within the changing dynamics of property, a part of the process of primitive accumulation, the history of which, as Marx wrote, ‘is written in…letters of blood and fire’[3]. No wonder ‘blood and fire’ are a key motif of GoW.

From a Marxian vantage point, the story of primitive accumulation may begin with the colonial enclosure of nature to reconfigure the earth’s crust as fuel for the global economy. But it shouldn’t, because the social situation that shapes the core of the process has a longer history. Those already in the upper strata of the deeply fractured community manage to become the go-betweens of the colonial state. With it they gain capital, the knowhow of mining, and access to criminality, each in turn an essential requirement on a resource frontier like Dhanbad.

These are precisely the attributes that allowed Ramadhir Singh to transform himself into a capitalist proper in the early years of Independence. Just like many other contractors and munims of the colonial era who became the owners of mines, factories, and plantations across the country, Ramadhir too was well positioned. This bandar-baant, as the narrator presciently terms it, is then a particular kind of primitive accumulation, and resembles the more recent the ‘free-for-some’ that occurred in Russia and other former constituents of the USSR as it broke apart in 1991. The victors of this bandar-baant are now the who’s who of the Russian economy.

There is of course the criminality of the two opposing Muslim groups, but it is at once necessary for and peripheral to the larger structure. Their criminality is of a deeply visceral kind (stab, shoot-to-kill, chop and dispose body parts) and therefore unable to transcend the streets of Wasseypur.

What they cannot do, Ramadhir does. He mainstreams his position as a comprador capitalist by joining electoral politics. However, this transition is less well sketched in the film—it seems almost natural that Ramadhir become a politician, given other popular representations of the Hindi heartland. But why should he not expand his businesses while playing the kingmaker from a safe distance (politics is messy, and even the mighty sometimes fall)?

Perhaps Ramadhir is not that big a cat, and despite everything still remains entrenched in the everyday dynamics of Dhanbad, with foes like Sardar Khan challenging his illegality with his own. It is here that our capitalist is compelled to turn to the ‘waidh’ to counter the ‘awaidh’, for he has access to the law of the land. But where GoW remains grounded—and therefore different from other movies about the region, which ascribe absolute power—is in that Ramadhir is not the law onto himself. He must cajole, coax, make alliances but also be prepared to break them. Ramadhir remains a political actor in the truest sense, even after he retires from politics to make way for JP.

[1] A hastily written review that I have several disagreements with.

[2] Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-Politics, Modernity, University of California Press, p. 33.

[3] Karl Marx, Capital- Volume One, Ch 26


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