Monday, April 27, 2009

Revisiting Mumbai, RGV style

While Indian crime films has been around for a few decades, they remain relatively unknown in North America outside of the Indian community. Until the late 1980's, the crime flicks were not really considered a pure genre per say as they were mixed with other genres such as action/revenge flicks. That changed in 1989 when the genre started to take form when Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda broke new ground with its ruthless portrayal of the Mumbai underworld. The film still stands tall with its story of two brothers whose lives are under the watch of a ruthless yet emotionally fragile gangster. The memorable characters were played by Anil Kapoor, Jackie Shroff, Madhuri Dixit and ofcourse Nana Patekar whose portrayal as the gangster “Anna” stole the show. Almost a decade later in 1998, Ram Gopal Varma ushered in the next phase of gangster films, first with Satya and then followed by Company. Dozens of other Mumbai based gangster films then followed, directed either by Ram Gopal Varma’s protégés or first time directors. Yet, query an average North American film critic and he/she will not know any of these films or filmmakers. Danny Boyle probably never heard of any of these film-makers either until he started work on Slumdog Millionaire. Boyle has admitted being influenced by Ram Gopal Varma while filming Slumdog Millionaire but influenced is too light of a word because most of the slum shots in Slumdog.. are identically framed to those found either in Satya or Company. It seems that while Danny Boyle is busy getting praises for showing the "real India", the few decades of groundwork laid by talented Indian directors is being ignored. Ofcourse, there are exceptions as David Bordwell and Noel Vera noticed these similarities. Most critics in India noticed this right away and Deepa Gahlot is just one of them.

When compared to Parinda, Satya, Company and even to the marvelous Black Friday, Slumdog.. is weaker and unable to hold its own. On a positive note, Boyle's feature has a vibrant look as opposed to the darkish atmosphere of most Indian crime films, especially any RGV production. Slumdog.. can also boast to have utilized A.R Rahman’s music as most Indian gangster films don’t feature any of Rahman’s soul stirring pieces. In fact, Rahman has never composed for any of RGV’s gangster flicks.

I had wanted to take a closer at Indian crime films since last year but didn’t get around to it. So as a way of making amends, here’s a quick look at Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Company.

Satya -- darkness with a touch of morality

"Mumbai..." A city that never sleeps, a city that dreams while being awake...

One can lose track of how many Bollywood films start with words along those lines. Most films are compelled to explain how Mumbai is the place where newcomers come to to fulfill their dreams or how the city is like a ruthless animal that chews up people everyday. As such words are narrated on the screen, one can see images of the city.

One will see slums or poverty but the camera will not be obsessed with that aspect of the city but will instead use these settings as backgrounds for dissecting the lives of the characters.

We are normally introduced to the main character right at the start of the narration, which is what happens in this film as well. The title character of Satya is played by J.D. Chakravarthi. (note: this picture is from a later point in the film).

In the film's context, Satya isn't a hero. In fact, there are no heroes in this film just shades of grey and dark. In Parinda most people would cite the role of the main gangster (Anna played by Nana Patekar) as the most memorable, similarly in Satya the real show stealer is Manoj Bajpai as the gangster Bhiku Mhatre. Bhiku Mhatre is the type of role that is called career defining and amazingly a decade after playing the role, Bajpai has never been able to get away from the shadow of Bhiku Mhatre.

It doesn't take Satya too long to cross paths with the underworld. His friendship with Bhiku saves him but also makes him a marked man. The following shot is another one found in most crime films as the villains (or heroes depending on your viewpoint) overlook the wonderful city and discuss their lives or talk of conquering the city.

Vidya, the girl next door played by Urmila Matondkar.

There was a time when it was impossible to think Ram Gopal Varma could ever make a film without Urmila but he has moved on. In Satya, Urmila's character is the voice of reason, the pure uncorrupted woman who falls for Satya. But once she learns of his underworld ties, she abandons him.

The rest of the gang. Saurabh Shukla also co-wrote the film and features as Kallu mama.

Alcohol is not too far from most shots in such films and neither is the police torture room. In fact, a gangster film has yet to be made without a trip to the jail cell.

Most people would not know who Makrand Deshpande is as he usually only gets a few minutes role in most Bollywood films. But he makes each second count and his presence in a movie is always a good sign for me.

Overall, Satya was an amazing collaboration where everything clicked -- the screenplay, the technical aspects, the music which was intense when it needed to be and tender on other occasions, and the acting ofcourse. Although the weakest acting was probably the title role of Satya.

The downside of Satya's success was that every gangster film tried to imitate it and even RGV tried to use a similar template in his other gangster films.

Company -- Phones and Guns

While Satya had a moral compass in the form of Urmila's character who believed that crime didn't pay, Ram Gopal Varma removed any concept of morality from Company. His film showed that a life of crime is seductive not only to women who sought out gangsters but also for the police who admired the gangsters. In the film, the honest inspector played by Mohanlal

actually admires the friendship between the main gangster Mallik (Ajay Devgan),

and his friend turned rival Chandu (Vivek Oberoi).

The film shows how cell phones allow gangsters to remotely run their business via locations such as Kenya or other parts of Asia. The main gangsters, Mallik and Chandu, leave India as they are on the run but all they have to do is make a call back to Mumbai for their hunch-men to carry out the orders. Which is why the latter half of Company features shots of someone either on the phone or someone getting shot. Even while Chandu is in prison, he is handed a cell so he can talk with Mallik. And naturally the film ends with the constant ringing of phones.

The rapid fast communication via cell phones also leads to a lot of mistaken killings as the lack of face to face meetings leads to plenty of misunderstandings.

Vivek Oberoi made an impressive acting debut in Company but his character still paled compared to Bhiku Mhatre.

The following shot from Company can be found in Slumdog... In fact, the slanted camera angles from Company are seen quite a bit in some of the slum chase scenes in Slumdog..

Overall, Company is not bad but it is a lesser film compared to Satya.

One bothersome aspect of Ram Gopal Varma's films is that he takes real life gangsters and drafts films around them, while refusing to openly admit that but still giving enough clues as to his inspirations. For example, he directed Company in 2002 and then his production company released D. in 2005. Put the two titles together and you get D Company, the real life crime gang. Fans of RGV droll over the reality that his films show but there isn't much reality but glorification of the gangster life. I wish that RGV one day makes gangster films which have nothing do with real life criminals so that way he can finally make a true gritty film without being afraid of any consequences. Ofcourse, I am assuming the reason he portrays the gangsters as cool is because he does not want to anger the real life gangsters.

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