Ram Gopal Varma leaves the audience behind and launches into increasingly idiosyncratic ways of telling stories.
Most films are essentially reconfigurations of what we’ve seen earlier, what we’ve heard – there’s very little cinema, anymore, that’s capable of shocking us with never-before content. That a pall of familiarity cloaks the opening sequence of Ram Gopal Varma’s Department is, in a sense, only to be expected. We see a cop (the tall and wiry Rana Daggubati) in uniform, and in motion. He’s chasing someone we presume to be a small-time villain, not worthy of establishment as an empathy-deserving character. The cop leaps over a car, dodges a motorcyclist headed in his direction, and shoots. The nameless villain crumples into a blood-spattered heap. The cop is suspended, and so is a question over our heads. Where is Varma headed? What is he going to do with this tale of upright, impotent policemen struggling with rampant crime and an apathetic citizenry that hasn’t already been done in Ardh Satya or Ab Tak Chappan or Khakee?
In the absence of new content, it turns out, Varma seeks to set his story apart through form. As the opening credits establish the extent of anarchy in Mumbai, a man is shot in front of his two young children at a beach. The children run after their father, horrified and scared, and the man dies – and Varma cuts to a teddy bear far away, an apparent remnant of innocence that, for these children, has receded to a similar distance. Didn’t this sort of symbolism go out of style with the hacks, and hasn’t Varma, through his films both worthy and trifling, proved himself anything but a hack? But this isn’t as bad as the mind-bogglingly questionable cinematography. If you’ve wondered how a grown man might peer down at his big toe, or how a saucepan filled with freshly brewed tea would regard the world, this is the movie for you. At times, Department looks like a sniggering parody of a Ram Gopal Varma movie, something that a college kid put up on YouTube in order to mock Varma’s growing penchant for hallucinatory camerawork.
Showy cinematography is not at all a bad thing. We are, after all, speaking about a visual medium, and if someone wants to exploit the big screen to showcase his visuals, why should we complain? Only the sternest grouch, these days, would seek to ground cinematography in the “invisible” aesthetic , where we’re not supposed to notice that there’s a camera around. But Varma’s compositions aren’t just “visible,” they jump out and jab you in the eye. I was left massaging an incipient migraine, and after a while, I couldn’t bring myself to care about this overfamiliar story, with its feuding gangs (one of them headed by a half-naked Vijay Raaz) and the switching of sides and the inevitable conflation of gangster/politician, embodied this time by Amitabh Bachchan with a tiny bell tied to his wrist. And just as Varma made Bachchan excavate the contents of his nose in Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag, he has the actor thrust a finger into an ear and perform a sustained wiggle. Which slime-slathered orifice will Varma have Bachchan’s digits crawl into next? The heart quails.
Department is ostensibly about Sanjay Dutt recruiting Daggubati into his extraconstitutional hit squad and the team’s attempts to conquer crime, but a lot of the film feels like something a doting producer-father dreamed up for a starry-eyed son who sought a launch as an action hero. Daggubati’s first scene is essentially a template for his subsequent ones. They run. He chases. They run. And he chases. In one instance, he leaps and Varma freezes the frame to showcase this mid-air stunt. Bottles of beer are brought down on the skulls of villains, who sometimes fly through the air and land at the other end of the room. And much furniture is laid waste, to the accompaniment of sound effects made to resemble a typhoon rattling around in a broom closet. Varma keeps hinting, through the occasional dialogue about right and wrong, at moral complexity, but all we see is a 1980s dishoom-dishoom movie, driven by 1980s chartbusters like Ilayaraja’s Aasai nooru vagai and Bappi Lahiri’s Thodi si jo pee li hai.
Buried under all this clamour is a narrative about friendships gone awry, loyalties renegotiated at every opportunity, and the inevitable perversion of the powerful – but the relentless gimmickry wears us out and we find it difficult to be involved with anything, anybody. Only Lakshmi Manchu, as Dutt’s wife, allows us to feel something for her character, a smart woman who’s made her peace with whatever needs to be done to survive. (And she’s a dead ringer for Stockard Channing.) Varma certainly has guts. Few other directors would stage a scene where a child is dangled outside a window by a villain, and dropped to his death before the heroes can barge in and save him. But a few scenes and a few dialogues cannot rescue a filmmaker who seems to revel in his worst impulses. Department opens with these words: “Power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.” At least some of us will be left wondering if that isn’t some sort of soul-searching confession by Ram Gopal Varma.
Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.
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