I finally watched Gulaal. And I’m not quite sure what to make of it. It’s a decent film, but clearly nowhere near Anurag’s best.

Anurag’s maturity as a film-maker has grown with every film. Having watched every one of his films, including Paanch (courtesy a friend), it’s easy to pick Dev D as his best work. So far.

Anurag is perhaps the most (frighteningly, maybe even the only) original mind Bollywood has. The sheer audacity and re-contextualisation of his interpretation of Devdas was spellbinding. No Smoking is perhaps the most mind-numbingly original script ever seen in Bollywood. It is also a very well-shot film. And while it is an extremely complex and convoluted film, albeit with a certain consistent logic of its own, it is also criminally self-indulgent.

And that is Kashyap’s greatest flaw, his weakest spot, one that dilutes his genius on screen – his extreme self-indulgence. And the fact that he is too clever for his own good. In every film of his, there are certain ‘trademarks’, if I may call them that. The college/hostel lingo and the assorted jokes. The little ideas he gets carried away with and over-executes, like the Ranvir –John childhood spoof, or the Cuban cigar interlude, in No Smoking. Even the name (Infidel Castrated) reeked of a certain smugness. Another example is Paro, in Dev D, chasing the factory-worker and finally burning his clothes. He’s also exceedingly fond of the neon-lit pub look – as seen in Dev D, Gulaal and No Smoking. And then there’s the sermonising. The overt preachiness of both Gulaal and Hanuman (the animation film he co-directed) is annoying. In my assessment, as he has jettisoned some or all of these trademarks, his films have got better. And that is why I rank Dev D as the tightest film of the lot.

Gulaal also suffers because he has tried to pack in too much. It is a political allegory at many levels. It is a commentary on the betrayal of the idea of India and on the politics of identity. It is a representation of student politics in India. It is, somewhere, a dark coming-of-age film. It cleverly cocks a snook at gender stereotypes. It is a metaphor for the rise of the dispossessed and the marginalised, and how they end up propagating the very system that excluded them. It has a Foucaultian mad artist (a self-reference perhaps?) as the sole voice of reason. And it tries – obliquely – to comment on the state of the post 9/11 world. Whew! And I’m sure I’ve missed a few. And that’s still too much to pack into a little over two hours.

Where did he go wrong as a writer-director? Let’s start with the preachiness. Given the scope of the film, the easiest thing to do was to have the characters give us their views as if standing on a soapbox. Uncharacteristically, Kashyap does exactly that. So we are, at various points, made to hear speeches (including the Duniya song) on the betrayal of Indian democracy, on the venality of our leaders, on the death of the idea of a nation. (No Smoking, a clever defence of the smoker’s right to choose, had no such preachiness. The message was woven into the film.) Then there is the too-clever-by-half Ranaji song. I expected Kashyap to do better, since he is a director who does not like to spoon-feed his audience. My grouse is that these views needed to be better integrated into the storyline, rather than thrown at us as if they were political speeches on a news-channel. Overt, undisguised and moral preaching is best left to the Films Division and to religious channels. And to lesser directors like Rakeysh Mehra.

There is also the utter pointlessness of the Jesse Randhawa track. It added nothing to the film, and could’ve easily been done away with. Or the character could’ve been modified somewhat. She was truly not in sync with her settings. Piyush Mishra, in the role of the madman as the only voice of sanity was, well, clichéd. And I couldn’t understand the point of Piyush Mishra’s sidekick, the Ardh Nari character. If there was a point, it eluded me.

To me, Ayesha Mohan was the true protagonist of the film – along with her brother; but Aditya is more the puppet-master. Ayesha lets herself be used and uses others, as long as that takes her closer to her goal. And she’s not afraid to admit it. And while we see a reversal of stereotypes in her relationship with Raj, Anurag seemed to be trying too hard to ram that point home; like when he showed Ayesha smoking in every scene with Raj.

On the whole, though, the positives outnumbered the negatives. So I would call it a decent film, but would definitely stick to my view that, perhaps, had the post-Dev D-Anurag directed the film, we might have seen a much better product. Dev D saw Anurag kicking a lot of his pet addictions, and I feel that made him a better film-maker. I hope we see more of that in his forthcoming works.

I have one very real fear, though. A lot of the power of his work has come from the fact that as a marginalised film-maker – remember, in the commercial sweepstakes, he ranked abysmally low, though we loved his films – his passion, anger and sincerity shone through. He was a rebel, his cinema displayed that, and we loved what we saw. I hope his gradual assimilation into the mainstream and his new found ‘respectability’ do not lead him to commit a betrayal similar to the one KK Menon so hammily ranted about in Gulaal.