Lights, Camera, Conversation… “In the company of men”

Posted on December 6, 2013


About the non-release of “Satya 2,” and an attempt to understand a fine filmmaker’s descent into cultural irrelevance.

That Ram Gopal Varma’s stock has fallen is in little doubt, but it was shocking, this Diwali, to see just how much it had fallen. Satya 2 was supposed to have been released a week before the festival, but something happened and the release was delayed to November 8, by which time, in Chennai, all screens were being hogged by the big Diwali releases in Tamil (and Krrish 3 in Hindi). So Satya 2 wasn’t released in Chennai at all. No one felt that the new film by the director of Company and Rangeela and Sarkar was worth releasing – even on one screen, even though at least one of those Diwali releases was widely regarded a flop and was beginning to be taken off screens. And this Ram Gopal Varma film had a bit of brand value too, harking back to the first Satya, which practically birthed the gangster genre (or at least redefined it, the way we know it today) in Bollywood.

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Part of the problem could be that the films Varma makes and the scale in which he makes them don’t exactly incite a trip to the theatre. Lovers of cinema, people who are interested in Varma’s career, and critics – they will always queue up for his films, but this is a very small number. For the average audience member who picks and chooses the films he wants to watch because he cannot afford to see every film, and for the audience member whose only reason for watching movies is entertainment, there isn’t much that Varma’s cinema offers.  Most people, these days, have already decided that their theatre trips will be for the big, splashy, meant-for-the-big-screen films, and the other kind of cinema can wait, at best a TV watch or a download. But this only explains why Varma’s films don’t do well in theatres, not why they’re not even given a chance. Why wasn’t Satya 2 released even in just a noon show, when his Not A Love Story – hardly the cheeriest of films – made its way to theatres here?

This isn’t a lament about the non-release (in one city) of one movie, but more of a wondering aloud, an attempt to understand a fine filmmaker’s descent into cultural irrelevance. One reason could be that the genres Varma dabbles in don’t lend themselves to this much exposure. We see love stories all the time, but we don’t bat an eyelid when we see, one Friday, the next love story, with the next set of good-looking stars – but with gangster films or horror movies, a sense of sameness sets in unless the writing and the filmmaking is really extraordinary. Otherwise, we’re left with middling, proficient films that are nothing special, and I think that we, as an audience, are more likely to accept middling, proficient love stories than middling, proficient gangster films or middling, proficient horror films. And the frequency with which Varma makes these films doesn’t help. After a while, it’s hard to tell apart Phoonk from Agyaat, Contract from Department.

Satya 2 is a middling, proficient movie. I didn’t love it. I wasn’t blown away. But I didn’t mind it, and found some parts quite interesting. That’s the thing with Varma for me. With the exception of outright bombs like his Sholay remake, his work, to me, is always interesting at some level – and this quality should not be underestimated. Some people look at the trough-phase of a filmmaker and say things like “this film is nowhere near Satya,” but I look at it slightly differently – for me, it’s somewhat impressive that even the trough-phase films of Varma almost always have something going for them. (Yes, of course you have to be more than just a general audience member who wants his paisa vasool to feel this way about a filmmaker or about films, and of course this segment is a minority, but even minorities have to speak up from time to time.)

I showed an early draft of this article to a friend to see what he thought, and he wrote back: “This is my take on the one possible reason why his movies don’t have many takers. People have a funny, prejudiced way of evaluating movies (that they would want to see). The classic example of this is ‘I don’t watch Kamal movies because he’s a bloody womaniser.’ RGV is a loudmouth with a big ego to match – and a loudmouth with a big ego to match should have the success of Salman Khan… Today, people are openly making fun of him – and that could be a reason why they will think twice before paying to watch his movie. (Another problem with his movies is that half of them have to be severely censored to get on TV, so he doesn’t even have the benefit of cable & satellite viewers, unlike a Barjatya.)”

Given how much sex and violence we see on TV these days, I’m not sure Varma’s films have to be censored all that much – they’re not that out of the ordinary. (A Rowdy Rathore, frankly, is more violent that most of what Varma has put on screen.) Satya 2 has a lot of implied violence, but nothing that’s so shocking that people would think twice before deciding to watch it. It’s essentially a rise-of-a-gangster story told through the Clark Kent/Superman prism – at home and around friends, Satya is an ordinary bloke, who travels by auto-rickshaws, and outside, he’s a ruthless God-figure who decides the destinies of the bigwigs in Mumbai. The story is entertainingly nuts – there’s a Maoist angle, go figure – and Satya is nuts too, deeply affected by a trauma that’s explained towards the end. And all of this is shot in Varma’s customary angles, which I always enjoy watching – like the point-of-view shot of Satya through the eyes of a reclining woman, her knee grazing the bottom of the frame.

Maybe Varma could ditch the voiceovers. At one point, we’re informed that Satya went to Kashmir for his honeymoon, and we cut to a song shot in Kashmir – the voiceover is that redundant. And these songs, as always, are dreadful to watch. Varma has never been interested in treating songs as part of his narratives, and he isn’t about to start now. Maybe he could get rid of songs, and maybe he could get rid of the loud, chorus-driven background scores that cheapen his filmmaking. None of this is going to bring back the audiences he’s lost, but at least those of us who still forward to whatever’s he’s doing next won’t have to work so hard at defending them. And the primary reason I look forward to his films is that no one else seems to be interested in dissecting the psyche of a certain kind of man, whether at work or in love. Yes, love. Films like Nishabd, Naach and Not A Love Story are singular creations, a universe away from the soft and feminine romances we get from Bollywood. These are anti-love stories, necessary correctives to the feel-good fantasies on our screens, and they need to be made – even if not many viewers are going to step into a theatre to feel bad.

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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