Art & Culture

How RGV is the only filmmaker to inspire Hindi cinema after Guru Dutt

Gautam Chintamani
Gautam ChintamaniJul 10, 2015 | 13:22

How RGV is the only filmmaker to inspire Hindi cinema after Guru Dutt

Every single filmmaker dreams of making at least one great film while some, on the other hand, manage to belt out more than a few great ones even without realising it. The name Ram Gopal Varma barely evokes the same reaction it used to and even though the once maverick filmmaker might be a pale shadow of his own achievements, there was a time when he was almost synonymous with cinematic greatness. This month is perhaps the perfect time to reminisce RGV as two of his best-known films, Satya (1998), and Sarkar (2005), were released during the first week of July a few years apart.

RGV's Satya (1998) earned him a special place in Hindi cinema. 

By the time Satya released 17 years ago on July 3, 1998, Ram Gopal Varma was one of the most celebrated names in popular Hindi cinema. Right from the time he dazzled critics and audiences alike with Shiva (1990), Ramu, as the filmmaker was fondly addressed, had carved a special place for himself. Like the film that broke several clichés, its creator, too, shattered many myths associated with filmmaking. A self-taught filmmaker, Ramu learned more about cinema from watching Sholay (1975) a million times than attending any film school or assisting someone else. The story of the former video store owner who simply waltzed in and convinced Nagarjuna, a well-established star by then, to not only play the lead but also produce Shiva is the kind of stuff cinematic dreams were made of. Ramu had entered the big league with Rangeela (1995) but Satya, in fact, was almost like a return to form following a dud called Daud (1997).

With Rangeela, RGV explored the romance genre.

Just like what Shiva had achieved in the form of a new cinematic language, Satya, too, practically transformed the crime/gangster genre for Hindi cinema. Written by Anurag Kashyap and Saurabh Shukla, Satya, for the first time, showed gangsters as regular people without making them larger than life.

While researching for Satya (1998), Ram Gopal Varma heard a recording of an extortion call made by the underworld where a maid received the phone call as "sahab" was out and admonished the bhai for calling during working hours. She told them to call later and banged the phone down. While this particular instance never made it to the film, it nonetheless inspired RGV to infuse Satya with a new sense of realism that popular Hindi cinema hadn’t seen. The kind of detailing that Satya induced within the gangster genre, such as showing a gang leader, Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai) and his wife Pyaari (Shefali Shah, then credited as Shefali Chhaya), on a double date with henchman Satya (JD Chakravarthy) and his girlfriend Vidya (Urmila Matondkar) or Bhiku’s wife chastising their son at the breakfast table for "demanding" an egg not only created a new standard for the genre but also assured Varma of a place in the pantheon of Hindi cinema’s all-time greats.

Looking at the way Varma’s career has panned out in the last decade, where he has directed 17 Hindi films with only a couple of them managing to stand out, some have started arguing that Satya owes its brilliance to the screenwriters. While it could be rightfully argued that Satya was truly one of the last exceptional scripts that came Ramu’s way, it would be a gross injustice to credit Kashyap and Shukla more than the director. A simple look at the Ramu’s track record with the crime/gangster genre should rest the case for his dexterity while dealing with such subjects. Satya wasn’t the first time he explored the genre and the near perfect execution is the obvious end to what began with Shiva and Drohi (1992), a follow-up of sorts to his debut. If looked at closely, Drohi’s basic plot – Raghav (Nagarjuna), a ruthless contract killer, is in love with a girl (Urmila Matondkar) whose cop brother (Salim Ghouse) is on his case and if revealed will she accept his reality – is almost the JD-Urmila track in Satya. A few years later, RGV’s Company (2002), which he co-wrote with Jaideep Sahni, would neatly tie up with filmmaker’s romance with the genre.

Along with Satya’s 17th anniversary, 2015 is also the year of the tenth anniversary of Sarkar, the last "great" outing for Ram Gopal Varma as we knew him. Besides Sholay, RGV is a self-confessed fan of Mario Puzo’s The Godfather and Sarkar gave him the opportunity to pay the ultimate tribute to not only the novel, but also to the ultimate star. Those who know Ramu know him as someone who could go weak in the knees as any fan would when he’s in front of stars such as Sridevi and Amitabh Bachchan. Sarkar, in that sense, combines two of Ramu’s biggest obsessions and he is unapologetic in doffing his hat to the elements that shaped the filmmaker within him.

Amitabh Bachchan in Sarkar, an adaptation of Mario Puzo's The Godfather.

Legend has it that Sarkar went through numerous drafts and Ramu even lost his cool when one of the writers suggested beginning the film the same way Francis Ford Coppola’s original started yet in the end it was too difficult for him to not go ahead with the straight tribute. Sarkar was also the first time Bachchan was working with someone as zany as RGV and the superstar wasn’t too happy with the filmmaker’s approach. Even after shooting for a few weeks, Bachchan couldn’t get a sense of what was being shot and almost lost interest in playing the desi Vito Corleone. He shared his apprehensions with Ramu and the filmmaker simply stopped shooting for a few days till he cut some of the shot footage to come up with what ultimately became the teaser of the film. Watching images of the camera tracking on Subhash Nagre (Bachchan) as he sips tea, blew Bachchan and the superstar never questioned Ramu ever again.

In the decade since Sarkar, Ram Gopal Varma has over 20 directing credits in two languages to his name and barring Nishabd (2007), a reimagining of Lolita, and Sarkar Raj (2008), a lacklustre sequel to Sarkar, barely anything is worth remembering. From redefining genres to bizarre remakes of not only classics such as Sholay in the form of Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007) and his own Shiva (2006) or sequels to Satya and Bhoot (2003), RGV has gone from bad to worse. Today, there is barely any buzz about a new Ram Gopal Varma film, but the truth of the matter is that unlike us, RGV doesn’t care two hoots. He never bothered when the going was seemingly good and he couldn’t care less now. But that doesn’t diminish the fact that the filmmaker singlehandedly ushered in the new Bollywood and since Satya rarely any crime/ gangster film has managed to deviate from the template he created.

Although his recent works might not inspire confidence but looking at Shiva, Satya and to some extent even Company or Sarkar, it wouldn’t be too bold a thought to hail RGV as the most significant Hindi filmmaker since Guru Dutt for inspiring an entire cinema.

Last updated: July 13, 2015 | 18:19
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