Towards the end of the 1980s, when ‘formula’ revenge films were tentatively giving way to romantic capers of the 1990s, came 2 films in Hindi from Telugu filmmakers featuring Telugu stars. Chiranjeevi-led Pratibandh and Nagarjuna-led Shiva challenged the movie critics who had concluded that violence wouldn’t fetch the moolah at box offices anymore. The second film, with a tighter and more plausible script, was directed by Ram Gopal Varma.
A unique style in Varma’s expression of violence involved a total absence of background music during the fight sequences, where one could only hear thuds — the impact of punches and kicks. No violin, guitar or drum playing mad alongside. It made the scenes come across as natural rather than dramatised. Unfortunately, while Hindi cinema got a new form of direction and production, the new director couldn’t ever overcome his fetish for bhai movies — from a college student turning into a benevolent gangster in Shiva to gang feuds in Satya to a syndicate in Company to 2 warring groups of mercenaries in Rakhtacharitra. In between, perhaps to humour his muse of that era, Urmila Matondkar, he romanticised a part of the narrative a bit in Ek Hasina Thi.
Beyond this bhaigiri, however, was hidden a talent to scare. Darna Mana Hai, Darna Zaroori Hai, Vastu Shastra I & II, Phoonk I & II were a giant leap forward from the epoch of funny horror flicks by Ramsay brothers. But Varma had competition here. Vikram Bhatt was as obsessed with this genre as Varma was with gangster movies. Bhatt wasn’t resorting to cheap Ramsay tricks of haveli, tahkhana, mandir, shaitan and chudail either. And he was packaging it in a more slick manner from Raaz I, II, III to 1920 London.
Ram Gopal Varma wasn’t enjoying a monopoly in movies on goons either. Madhur Bhandarkar’s loafers in Chandni Bar and urchins in Traffic Signal were as much a showcase of the stark reality. The other problem with Varma was his tendency to get irritated by other filmmakers and himself. Since the screening of a maudlin Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham, he cannot stand the effeminate Karan Johar. While his jibes and Johar’s discomfiture are fun for the onlookers, this rivalry is not professional. It’s unnecessary. But does it not stem from Varma’s frustration at his inability to make a mark in romance? While Rangeela was a hit, it was not at all the film he wanted to make. Days after its release, he alleged that Aamir Khan had virtually hijacked the job of directing the film mid-way. Some years later, Varma’s Mast flopped.
@RGVzoomin ….Disaster of the year is your territory Ramu…no one can ever replace the comfortable place you have made for yourself there.
— Karan Johar (@karanjohar) September 5, 2013
I made Satya and @karanjohar made Kuch Kuch Hota Hai in the same year and since then he has been escalating and I have been deescalating
— Ram Gopal Varma (@RGVzoomin) October 19, 2013
When he got bored of violence, he laughed at it in Daud and abused the genre in Ram Gopal Varma ki Aag.
But there was a shade one had yet to discover in the maverick: sepia. We got that in the Sarkar franchise. Inspired partly by Godfather and partly by the persona of Balasaheb Thackeray, the Amitabh Bachchan-starrer began where Mani Ratnam’s Velu Nayakan or Dalapathi had left the audience with. If Kamal Haasan had evoked pathos and Rajinikanth had been vulnerable on a rare occasion, Bachchan brooded in a manner nobody else in the trade can.
“Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda Govinda!” The uninitiated must be told this is a chant of a funeral procession among Telugu speakers, equivalent to “Ram Naam Satya Hai” in Hindi and “Balo Hari, Hari Bol” in Bengali. After Satyajit Ray’s woodpecker in Ashani Sanket and RD Burman’s silence interspersed with the sound of a swing moving in the wind in Sholay when Gabbar Singh eliminates Thakur’s family, there hasn’t been as effective a background score. You must speak Telugu or you ought to have lived in the midst of that speech community to get what Varma conveyed with the “Govinda” chant. Never mind that the backdrop of the Sarkar trilogy is Maharashtrian society.
Death was but the fate Ram Gopal Varma brought to the sequel. For reasons known best to him, the camera was placed below a drawing room centrepiece for a larger part of the film. While I haven’t seen Sarkar 3, which released yesterday, yet, I hear that the director has repeated the folly of Sarkar 2. When sepia has already ensured a sombreness that other subtractive colours couldn’t, you don’t need an extra dose of ‘reality’ ensured by queer camera angles even as you use a steadicam for other shots. Of course, this couldn’t have been the sole reason for the first sequel tanking at the box office. If the first film in the series had ended in hope despite the death of the truant son of the protagonist, the second was perhaps too much to bear, given the killing of the better son. And then, the suspense over who the culprit was did not work out; the answer was predictable.
The point is whether Varma has a good enough repertoire like filmmaker Francis Ford Coppola, enabled by novelist Mario Puzo, to continue with the franchise. The point, “When the system fails, a power will rise,” has been made time and again. The antagonist, which could be a gang (compare Sarkar with Spiderman 3) rather than an individual hooligan if that is what it takes, must be menacing enough until the ‘hero’ strikes back. Varma must be reminded how helpless the college students felt in Shiva until the character essayed by Akkineni Nagarjuna beat the one played by JD Chakravarthy to a pulp. This is one formula that has never failed except when the costume, get-up, den and paraphernalia of the baddie are outlandish (Ramesh Sippy’s Shaan or Rajkumar Santoshi’s Ghatak). Fresh out of Rajkumar Hirani’s Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Dilip ‘Gandhi’ Prabhavalkar’s Rao Saab fell far short of the viciousness the character demanded, notwithstanding the whodunnit the plot of Sarkar 2 warranted, for which he must have been subdued.
If Govind Deshpande (Manoj Bajpayee) is diabolical enough, he can compensate for Michael Vallya played by Jackie Shroff who, movie-goers have known for long, cannot act. Since Ronit Roy is the bad guy in most of the films he features in, is his Gokul Satam really a loyalist or a veiled conspirator like Ravi Kale’s Chander in Part II? If it’s the latter, it would be déjà vu; the film flops in that case.
Above everything else, however, what Ram Gopal Varma must explore is the making of a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino film, India’s infamous ‘censor’ board permitting.