Ram Gopal Varma’s tribute to “The Godfather” is an offer you can’t refuse.
JULY 10, 2005 – THERE’S A WONDERFUL THING Ram Gopal Varma does in his Sarkar, when he begins the post-interval half. Subhash Nagre (Amitabh Bachchan) is being taken to jail, and he, for the first time in the film, isn’t a leader but a follower. So far, we’ve seen him as the sarkar, as the dignified protector of his people, but at this point, his hand is on son Shankar’s (Abhishek Bachchan) shoulder. The latter is the one who’s walking ahead, who’s seemingly protecting his father during a rare occasion that he’s lost his dignity – and we’re subtly prepared for the inevitable shift in power. If the sarkar in the first half was the father, in the second half it’ll be the son.
I’m giving nothing away by mentioning any of this because, right at the beginning, Varma acknowledges that Sarkar is his tribute to The Godfather – but, perhaps for the first time, this story (of a Don-figure and his family caught in the crossfire of rivals after his throne) isn’t sentimentalised. Coppola did that with his original, for instance, in the elaborate scene where the Don plays with his grandson before suffering a heart attack. When Mani Ratnam based his Nayakan on the same source, he fleshed out, say, the Don’s meeting his wife; her sordid background in a brothel offered ample opportunity for emotion.
But Varma isn’t after any of that. He seems to realise that this is a gory story, and though he does soften things up – mostly with his female supporting cast (who are so peripheral to the goings-on, a mother’s reaction to her son’s death is simply heard as muffled sobs in the background; we don’t even see her) – he sticks admirably to the core of how a family in power goes about retaining that power. What made sarkar what he is? Does the apparently law-abiding Shankar have any misgivings about his father’s line of work? These people live by the gun, so would they also die by the gun? There’s very little of that potential empathy-inducing business here.
And why should there be? After all, isn’t survival by itself an empathy-inducing business? Do we need more externalised drama to realise that? (It’s not that there’s no drama, though. When Shankar runs towards his father after hearing gunshots, Varma, for the only time in the film, switches to slow motion – prolonging our agony as much as Shankar’s about what’s really happened. Even the movie’s gradual shift from full-light – when we first see sarkar, he’s in the sunlit outdoors, though the situation is identical to the one where we first saw Brando, half-hidden in shadows – to murky darkness is nothing but visual drama.) Varma has often said he wanted to bring back the Angry Young Man of the Seventies, and his spare, gritty film brings to mind that scene from Deewar when Bachchan, after beating up goondas in a godown, can barely stand; all he can do is stagger exhaustedly to a tap and thrust his face into the water – like an animal. That instinct for basic, unromantic survival is very much there in Sarkar.
In a way, Sarkar plays like Highlights from Godfather, and part of the fun is to watch the one-to-one correspondence – how, for instance, sarkar’s elder son Vishnu’s (Kay Kay) hotheadedness is all Sonny Corleone but how his weak-minded treachery is all Fredo (from The Godfather sequel). But the mood is all Ram Gopal Varma – the lingering on huge close-ups, the interminable silences, the showily-disorienting camera angles (a shot in a hospital is actually taken from underneath a stretcher-trolley), the jarring bursts of music that have a life of their own (sometimes drowning out dialogue), even the caustically dry humour of a hood instructing an underling about how best to prolong a victim’s agony, “Sar pe mat maar… jaldi mar jaayega.”
I could have lived without the extra-colourful villains – a swami-type character, in particular, is quite painful, mouthing pseudo-profundities like, “Shareer keval aatma ka pratibimb hota hai” – but they’re not the focus; the leads are. Kay Kay and Abhishek do excellent work, communicating almost entirely through silence, but Sarkar, expectedly, is Amitabh’s show. The almost embarrassed smile at the happiness that Shankar is returning home, the slow-building anger towards Vishnu when he swears at the dining table, the coldness while dismissing someone who thinks he can buy sarkar, the satisfaction when Shankar says he’ll take care of things (that’s what sarkar wants, but he wants Shankar to say that himself, unprompted), the defeated resignation when he realises a near one’s treachery… What a performance, what a presence! Sarkar is as much a monument to an all-time-great movie as to an all-time-great movie star.
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