(CSB correspondent Jeff also contributed to this article)
Ram Gopal Varma is unquestionably one of the most talented filmmakers working in India (or anywhere) today. In the last few years, RGV has been putting out some of the most consistently stylish, hard-hitting, and enjoyable gangster movies ever made. He has managed to break out of the traditional Bollywood mold - while some of his films feature the traditional musical numbers, many do not - while achieving popular and critical success, something once considered nigh unthinkable. In recent years, he has been directing his own films and producing a number of others directed by his proteges, making him in some ways the Bollywood equivalent of Hong Kong’s Tsui Hark or France’s Luc Besson. All these films bear his influence. Recently, he has been working with the greatest star of Bollywood cinema, Amitabh Bachchan. and is pegged to remake what many consider the greatest Bollywood film of all time, Sholay.
The New York Asian Film Festival is presenting the World Premiere of his latest film, Shiva, and staging a retrospective of several older films that he directed or produced, Company, Ab Tak Chhappan, and Ek Hasina Thi. For those who dismiss Indian films out of hand as musicals and melodramas, these films will prove you wrong so fast that your head will spin. Company and Ab Tak Chhappan in particular are first rate films that no true movie buff should miss. And who knows, maybe after you get your feet wet, you might be inspired to see some more traditional Bollywood fare, like DDLJ or Sholay.
Company is undoubtedly one of the best gangster films of this or any decade. RGV details the rise to power of two men; cold, business-oriented Malik (Ajay Devgan) and hot-headed street thug Chandu (Vivek Oberoi). The two combine to form a crime syndicate known only as the Company, and take over the streets of India before becoming a truly multinational conglomerate. Naturally, such good fortune cannot last. RGV’s vision here is both bleak and tremendously accomplished, and he pays his debts to the greats of the past with a couple of well-placed Scarface hommages. Company deservedly made Devgan and Oberoi enormous stars, but it also features a terrific ensemble cast that includes the sexy and strung-out looking Manisha Koirala in one of her most appealling roles. This is essential cinema.
Ab Tak Chhappan (2004)
Ab Tak Chhappan is all about Nana Patekar. Patekar absolutely dominates the screen in the role of Sadhu, an “encounter” specialist (encounter is a Indian euphemism for missions in which police function as death squads, murdering members of the criminal underworld - Kaakha Kaakha is another excellent movie on the same subject). Sadhu is equally comfortable in the worlds of crime and the law, and controls both perpetrators and colleagues with fear and the constant threat of violence. He’s not glamorous, he does not need to be. Devgan and Oberoi are great in Company, but Patekar is the man I would not want to meet in a dark alley. Of all the films produced by RGV’s proteges, this one comes closest to upstaging the master.
Ek Hasina Thi (2004)
This Varma-produced revenge flick’s biggest asset is committed performances from its stars, Urmila Matondkar and Saif Ali Khan. Urmila is a staple in Varma films and is one of the best actresses in Bollywood. Khan, who until very recently was known for playing sidekick roles in romantic comedies, seems to relish his role here as a very bad guy. The movie has some interesting parallels with Sympathy For Lady Vengeance, a film that was released a few years later, although this is a much pulpier film and not nearly as dark. A lot of people believe this is the best film Varma has produced (we here at CSB would give that honor to Ab Tak Chappan ).
Here at CSB, we cannot be more excited about the World Premiere of Varma’s latest directorial effort, Shiva, at the ImaginAsian on June 30. Interestingly enough, this is the third film Varma has directed to go by this title. Varma’s directorial debut, entitled Shiva, was a film in the Telegu language about a new college student who takes on a gang of politically connected thugs that also happen to be his classmates. Containing copious amounts of violence (as well an incredibly goofy song in which the characters weigh the relative merits of going to botany class or the movies), it was such a big success that Varma quickly remade the film in Hindi with the original cast, again calling it Shiva (this second version is available on DVD in widescreen with English subtitles). Varma’s latest version of Shiva is not a college tale, but rather takes place within a police force, so it will be interesting to see what similarities (thematic and plotwise) it has with its predecessors. At any rate, as the incredibly violent trailer evidences, the new Shiva is certain to be a very intense experience (and is highly unlikely to contain any songs about botany). Don’t miss this one.
Those looking to further explore the world of Ram Gopal Varma have plenty of other options. Prior to Company, RGV directed the outstanding gangster rise-and-fall story Satya, which may even be a better film. More recently, he directed Amitabh Bachchan in the Godfather-influenced Sarkar. There is also his excellent prequel to Company, D, which Charlie has reviewed on CSB here. He has also taken a stab at directing horror with the Exorcist-tinged Raat and Bhoot. Raat has some funny moments but I can’t recommend either in good conscience - Bhoot in particular is a exercise in style over substance.
Filed under: Movie News: Bollywood and General and Movie News: India and Movie News and Contributors: David and People: Ram Gopal Varma and Film Festivals: New York Asian Film Festival 2006 and Contributors: Jeff