Review: Sarkar Raj / Aamir

Posted on June 7, 2008


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Sarkar Jr. expands his concerns from Mumbai to all of Maharashtra in an ambitious sequel that sees Ram Gopal Varma back in form. Plus, a thriller that thinks.

JUNE 8, 2008 – AT ONE LEVEL, RAM GOPAL VARMA’S SEQUEL to his Sarkar is merely a gimmicky whodunit – a super-stylised, mob-world murder mystery that requires the film to stop dead in its tracks, towards the end, in order to accommodate a Poirot-ish summation about exactly happened and why. Just who could have carried out that shocking execution, which, in its ruthless contempt for audience identification for and empathy with a character, appears to echo Psycho? Yes, we know who actually carried out the killing. It’s the assassin built up as a man of mystery, whose face is never shown – and who’s later dismissed simply as “woh khooni,” that killer. (Trust Varma to make us anticipate a dramatic reveal about the identity of this murderer and sneakily strand us without the rug under our feet.)

But whose hands were those that were pulling this assassin’s strings? Could the puppeteer be Hassan Qazi (Govind Namdev, in a pencil moustache that instantly telegraphs his disreputability), the smarmy deal-fixer who (correctly) labels Sarkar (Amitabh Bachchan) as “neta ki libaas mein ek gunda,” a mobster posing as a messiah? Or perhaps it’s Kantilal Vohra (Upendra Limaye), the businessman who fulfills the dual function of (a) throwing a well-aimed spanner in the direction of Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan), the Sarkar scion, who’s working towards consolidating and expanding his father’s empire, and (b) continuing the tradition of annoying supporting characters from the earlier film (here, Vohra is prone to impromptu bursts of Hindi film songs).

But even as Sarkar Raj goads you along these directions, leaving you to untangle its murder-mystery knots, you realise that – at another level – it’s a sly, out-of-the-movie critique that, in his lifetime, Bachchan Jr. can never break out of his father’s shadow. Forget the explicit development in the film that points to this, which you’ve got to see to believe – even the way Shankar is introduced to us is from the shadows; he emerges noiselessly, like a ghost. Just as Sarkar riffed on The Godfather – something that Varma acknowledged on screen, that he was paying tribute to the gangster classic – Sarkar Raj works variations around The Godfather: Part II. Here too, early on, Shankar/Michael escapes an attempt on his life, and we’re aware of this because the family’s trusted lieutenant Chandar (the excellent Ravi Kale) is interrogating the suspect.

It plays like a two-person scene – a showy two-person scene, shot in Varma’s instantly identifiable style, contrasting light and darkness – until a disembodied hand reaches out from what appears to be nowhere, and switches off a recording that incriminates this suspect. The hand belongs to Shankar, of course – and he’s literally inhabiting the shadows that his father lurked in earlier. (Sarkar, meanwhile, is outside, in the brightest of sunlight, waving to the crowds gathered below to celebrate his sixtieth birthday. If you sense a grandfatherly benevolence behind his smile, it’s possibly due to the relief that he’s no longer shouldering the weight of his raj, which has now shifted to his sullen son. Uneasy lies the head, etcetera.)

Varma keeps Shankar in the dark in more ways than this one, in the sense that it’s impossible to fully read this character. (And as a result, what Abhishek Bachchan is asked to do – and does very well – isn’t to deliver a performance so much as embody a presence; in contrast, his father walks away with all the plum drama.) There’s a lovely, little moment in the household when Sarkar discovers that Avanti (Tanisha, playing Shankar’s wife) is pregnant. He wants to give his blessing, and he has no money on him, so he asks Chandar to loan him Rs. 101. It’s a light scene, played for laughs, until a (somewhat awkward) segue brings about memories of Vishnu, the family’s elder son who was killed in the earlier film.

The mood changes in an instant, and Shankar tells his father that he doesn’t regret murdering his brother, that they should all forget about it and move on. What’s strange, though, is that a few scenes earlier, he’s confessed something quite different to Anita (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan), an NRI industrialist who’s trying to set up a power plant in Maharashtra. (In a film that’s about doing whatever it takes to be on top, how fascinating that even the plant has to do with power.) She seeks him out for help – because entire villages have to be cleared to make way for her dream project – and for some inexplicable reason, they begin to bond, and he shares with her his angst over the murder of his brother.

And you wonder, why is he able to relate to her in ways that he cannot with his own father, or even his wife? Why does he let her get away with referring to him as “tum” and not “aap,” as you’d expect from a relationship that revolves primarily around the workplace? Could it be because, unlike Avanti or his mother – wearing silks and worrying about the consistency of sheera – Anita, with her pantsuits and her professional accomplishments, is, finally, a woman who’s his equal? (Aishwarya Rai Bachchan is perfectly cast as this flinty overachiever. With another actress, we may have complained that this role is underwritten, because we’d be looking for reasons that made Anita tick, but Aishwarya exudes such power and confidence that these considerations become redundant.)

And besides, what is Shankar’s investment in this power project? “Baap bete ko samaj seva ka bada shauq hai,” sneers Qazi, at one point, and even if you accept this at face value – that the Sarkar family is into social service – it’s not clear why Shankar is suddenly concerned about the whole of Maharashtra. (He feels the power plant will result in much good for his home state.) Even Anita is allowed a sliver of motivation in the form of unresolved daddy issues, when she confesses to Shankar that this may be her one chance to show her always-a-boss-never-a-father what she’s capable of. She even snags a wee bit of a character arc, as she navigates a Swades-like trajectory from lugging around bottles of mineral water to drinking directly from a hand pump in a village.

But Shankar, he’s stuck resolutely in those shadows – and that’s when something clicked and I fully understood why Varma’s remake of Sholay didn’t work. Over the years – and possibly from Naach onwards – this most idiosyncratic of directors has developed a style where narrative coherence is of the least importance. He’s less interested in beginnings and middles and ends, in mapping out rounded narratives with rounded characters, than in presenting only those aspects of the story that catch his oddball fancy – and if that means showing us what someone is thinking, by means of an endless close-up, even if we’re not sure what’s going on in that person’s head, then so be it. (And the reason Aag failed so miserably is that a perfectly constructed narrative like Sholay is rendered unrecognisable when presented to us in this best-of format. It’s as ridiculous as Mel Brooks’ Highlights from Hamlet in To Be or Not To Be.)

But when the subject matter proves malleable to this style, this vision – as is the case here – it doesn’t become a particular problem that, for instance, Shankar remains a shadowy cipher. (For that matter, Varma never thought it important in Sarkar either, to detail Shankar’s transformation from law-abiding NRI to flag-bearer of his father’s criminal empire.) This is a very strange type of filmmaking (at least in an Indian mainstream context), in which we’re being asked to respond not to our understanding of a character but the filmmaker’s perception of him (or her) – because we get only selective snapshots of Shankar, selected by the director – and if it works in Sarkar Raj, it’s because this is such a mythic story, whose beginnings and middles and ends are fairly imprinted in our minds from earlier myths, like The Godfather: Part II.

At its broadest, Sarkar Raj is simply Highlights from The Godfather: Parts I and II, but distorted through Varma’s engaging, what-if fantasies. If it was interesting to see, in Sarkar, how the director conflated the characters of the elder son of the Sarkar household (Vishnu) and the middle son of the Corleone family (the weak, volatile, traitorous Fredo), it’s fascinating, here, to see how Shankar – seemingly the embodiment of all things Michael, that other dweller in the dark – takes on aspects of the rash, hotheaded Sonny when he single-handedly sets out to rescue the victim of a kidnapping. Even in its byzantine interplay of business and politics, Sarkar Raj follows the template of the Godfather sequel, which abandoned the simpler dramatic effects of its predecessor and opted for an ambitious overview of the perils of power.

Varma, at one point, presents us with an under-view of this power – when he (very literally) shoots a key player from under a swing in a manner that reveals simply a dangling leg, which even Sarkar supplicates before. That one shot tells us all there is to be told about Rao saab (Dilip Prabhawalkar), about the power he wields, just as his grandson (a very impressive Rajesh Shringarpure) is instantly slotted as a commie-style rabble-rouser when he barges into a closed-door meeting Rao saab is having with Sarkar. I guess this approach works here because Varma is working with types more than characters (and the reason it failed in Aag was because Sholay was made memorable by characters and not types). It’s not for everyone, this style of filmmaking – and it does have its drawbacks, in that it leaves you admiring the films from a respectful distance rather than wholeheartedly falling in love with them – but it is good to see Varma back in form, and back to doing what he does best.

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This review may contain spoilers.

AT THE BEGINNING OF AAMIR, the soundtrack bursts into Peggy Lee’s ridiculously cheery It’s a good day, as if taking a cue from the cheer felt by the eponymous protagonist (played by Rajeev Khandelwal, whose bewildered, blank-slate face is perfect for the part). Preparing to land in Mumbai after a trip abroad, he straightens his tie, winks at his reflection and smiles – and Mumbai appears to smile with him. The beaches are populated with morning walkers. Children get going with a game of cricket. Crowds of commuters hang outside the inevitable local trains. A senior citizen does that thing with his stomach you do in yoga, where the paunch is sucked in and let loose with alarming rapidity. It is, in short, a good day, a day like any other – until Aamir runs into a customs officer.

That’s when his day begins to turn bad. “Clear hai,” says the person checking his luggage, but the customs officer asks him to look again. He delights in keeping Aamir waiting – and, at first, he simply appears to be taking full advantage of his position, a have-not lording over a have, singling out Aamir for punishment on behalf all those people like him, passing through every day, laden with luxuries this officer can only dream about. This notion about Aamir paying for his life of privilege only gets strengthened later on, when he discovers that his family has been kidnapped, and their release depends on his following a trail through the seediest of neighbourhoods. When the kidnappers refuse his ready offer of ransom, it seems that they aren’t after mere money; they want to teach him a lesson, to rub his nose in the lives of the millions of others who live on the other side of the tracks.

To the accompaniment of a snatch of background score that takes off on While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Aamir treks through a Mumbai he never knew existed – a city with a National Restaurant and a Gulistan building and a toilet so foul-smelling, the satiny sheen of his necktie may well be the glow of radioactivity from another planet. (The soundtrack too settles down from Peggy Lee’s pop-jazz into the delightfully earthy, Indian-sounding Chakkar ghumiyo, which plays as Aamir attempts to decongest blocked traffic in the middle of a tiny intersection. He’s finally getting his hands dirty in the real India, even if it’s in the city.)

But gradually, it becomes clear that he’s being punished for something uglier that raised its head earlier, in a throwaway bit of conversation with the customs officer, when Aamir asked if his baggage would have undergone the same level of scrutiny if he were named Amar. (There’s a very funny, if somewhat contrived, follow-up to this observation, which I won’t spoil for you.) This is about his identity as a privileged Muslim. The kidnapper is apparently one of those hardliners who cannot stomach the idea of a liberal Muslim, of someone like Aamir who has a Hindu girlfriend (or “mashooqa,” as the villain chastely terms her). When Aamir first speaks to him and calls him “yaar,” he offers a gentle rebuke. He’s not a “yaar;” he needs respect, like the others in his community. A chastised Aamir quickly takes to calling him “bhai jaan.”

The beauty of Aamir – reportedly based on the Filipino thriller Cavite, though I saw plenty of similarities to Roman Polanski’s Frantic, what with missing family and a woman who offers to help for money and a crucial item of baggage, along with terrorists – is that some of these lessons are indeed much-needed eye-openers for Aamir. As part of the many things he’s required to do, he makes a call to Pakistan from a public phone booth, and he’s struck by how that simple act sets a cop on his tail. In some ways, he begins to realise what it means to be a Muslim in a country full of Hindus – even if this is hardly the way he would have liked to have had these epiphanies.

And as Aamir goes about trying to free his family, the film coils tighter and tighter into an impressive extrapolation of the words we heard in a voice-over at the beginning, about our destinies being written by others: “Kaun kehta hai aadmi apni kismat khud likhta hai?” About the only thing that didn’t work for me was the villain. The abstraction of his mission didn’t require a concrete presence, and I’d have preferred it had he remained just a voice over the phone. (Plus, first-time director Rajkumar Gupta has him do these embarrassingly oh-so-villainy things, like fondling a child’s chubby cheeks and winding up a monkey toy.) But the ending carries a wallop, more so because the song that plays over the closing credits – Ek lau is tarah kyon bujhi mere maula – acquires unimagined resonances from the events that just transpired. Even now, I get gooseflesh thinking about it.

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Posted in: Cinema: Hindi