It was 1995. A 12-year-old schoolboy ambled up to the entrance of Ray Talkies, a cinema hall in Dhanbad (then in Bihar, now part of Jharkhand), movie ticket in hand. The entrance was blocked by two young men, who were casually chatting with scant regard for the inconvenience they were causing. The boy asked them to move. "Why should we?" responded one of them aggressively. "Can't you see we're having a conversation?"
"I'm from Wasseypur," said the boy, referring to a locality within the town. Within a second, the two men wordlessly moved apart to make way for him.
This is a snapshot of life from the town where Zeishan Qadri, the schoolboy in the incident above, grew up. He is now 29 years old and enjoying the success of Gangs of Wasseypur Part 1, a movie directed by Anurag Kashyap that released last week, whose screenplay he co-wrote. Qadri, who has also acted in its upcoming second part (likely to release in August), has based his script on the coal mafia in the area as well as his experiences of living there for 20 years.
"People from Wasseypur are known and feared for their unity and loyalty to each other," says Qadri. "People don't care whether you're rich or poor, Hindu or Muslim; emotional bonds are made quickly over there, and they remain strong for years."
The only son of Syed Imran Qadri, a civil engineer who works for Eastern Coalfields, he grew up in a strict and protective environment. While his mother and two elder sisters would constantly berate him for his shortcomings and his inherent rebellious and troublemaking nature, his father was a strict disciplinarian.
"My family would fill in entries detailing my transgressions in a thin notebook," he says. "Every time a notebook would get filled, I'd get a beating." But he doesn't think of them as traumatic experiences at all. "It's a privilege to occasionally be beaten by your parents; it shows that they care," he says, with a shrug. "Better that than being beaten up on the streets."
He spent twelve years of his school life regularly bunking classes to either watch movies every Friday or play cricket with his friends. Qadri claims he never missed a single first-day-first-show, not even of C-grade films that played to near-empty theatres.
"Actually, I would have loved to make cricket my life, but this was before the time of [Mahendra Singh] Dhoni and the IPL, so it was considered much too risky to pursue as a career," he says, adding that a local selector once approached him to play at the district level but he declined the offer, fearing that his father would find out and object to him wasting his time.
Qadri's description of life in Wasseypur, which was once a village on the outskirts of Dhanbad in the province of Bengal before Independence, fits in well with events depicted in the movie. Random acts of violence were, and still are, a way of life. Qadri was 14 when he first saw a corpse, 200 metres from where he lived. "Hearing and seeing such things wasn't that big a deal for us," he says.
But he maintains that there was a big difference between the kind of violence seen at the coal mafia level and that seen among the youth. "A lot of us, including myself, got into scuffles on a regular basis, especially during junior college," he says. "Usually, it would start with defending a friend and retaliating on his behalf. The fight would keep escalating until a few people would get black eyes. In the end, there would be a truce and everybody would become peaceful again."
There wasn't much intermingling of the sexes in Dhanbad while Qadri was growing up, thanks to the small population and tightly knit community. "In Wasseypur, people are aware of what is being cooked for dinner at a home two blocks away," he says. "Going out on a date with a girl, at least at that time, was impossible. The entire mohalla would come to know about it before you returned home."
Nine years since he left Dhanbad, Qadri, a manic chain-smoker who describes himself as a workaholic, has adjusted to Mumbai's frenetic pace quite well. Yet he misses the easy camaraderie amongst his group of friends at home. "I try and spend at least a month a year there," he says. "I spend my evenings doing the same things we did in school - meeting my friends at a place called Vijay Tea Stall, where we sit around, crack jokes and pull each other's legs over chai and sutta [tea and cigarettes]."
He admits that his small town upbringing, exposed to so much violence and machismo, has infused him with a kind of stubbornness, but says that this has proven to be beneficial. "I'm not scared of anyone or anything," he says. "Had I been scared, I would have never had the guts to come to Mumbai."
He then proceeds, in true filmi fashion, to deliver a line worthy of ear-splitting whistles and applause: "Jaan ek hai, ya toh Allah le lein, ya phir mohalla le lein. Phir darr kis baat ka? [I have one life to live, so whether God takes it, or society, what's there to be scared about?]"