Literal translation of title: Truth
Review By: Jeff
As a director and a producer, Ram Gopal Varma is one of the leading lights of contemporary Indian filmmaking. Varma specializes in crime films, and much of his best work has a common aesthetic: a gritty Mumbai milieu, naturalistic performances, flashy camerawork, and crisp editing. We here at Cinema Strikes Back have already alerted our readers to many of Varma’s more outstanding efforts, such as Company, D, and Ab Tak Chappan. However, we have yet to cover Satya, the one film Varma has made (to date) that is for the ages. Satya is a tragedy, the devastating tale of an impoverished man who is completely dehumanized by urban Indian society, and, ironically, can only regain some of his humanity by becoming a coldblooded killer.
The first thirty minutes or so of Satya may constitute the most exciting half hour of Indian cinema that I have ever seen. These thirty minutes — breathless, technically dazzling, and brutally violent — herald the arrival of a major new talent, just like how the opening sequence of Takashi Miike’s Dead or Alive served as Miike’s calling card, encapsulating his adrenalized and shocking aesthetic. The movie begins with a pseudodocumentary montage of images of the city of Mumbai. Already at this juncture, the viewer is aware that he or she is watching a very different type of film from the gangster epics that Bollywood usually churns out. The images in this montage do not shy away from the very real poverty that pervades the city (a sharp contrast from the unconvincing shantytown sets that one often sees in Bollywood films). Nor does the montage shy away from shocking bursts of violence, weaving in flashforwards of pivotal events from later in the film.
Following this montage, the film settles in on a somewhat more conventional narrative approach, introducing us to the title protagonist through a series of brutal confrontations. We first meet Satya (J.D. Chakravarthi) as he negotiates for the “right” to sleep in a stall with animals, and then gets a job as a waiter in a seedy bar, where he is humiliated by Jaggubhai, a low-level gang boss. When Jaggubhai’s men later attempt to extort what little money he has, Satya responds by slashing one of the thugs with his own razor blade. Jaggubhai’s men later reciprocate by severely beating Satya, and framing him as a pimp. Satya is sent to jail, where he quickly gets in a fight with Bikhu (Manoj Bajpai), a prominent gangster. Satya, who fights with a fearlessness that reflects his hopelessness, wins the respect and admiration of Bikhu, who takes Satya into his gang. Varma presents these fights and confrontations in an idiosyncratic style — featuring almost no dialogue and a whole lot of Steadicam work — that is nothing short of gripping.
The film’s first musical number arrives about 34 minutes into the film, following Satya’s entry into the gang, and it is quite jarring to witness, given the bleak, realistic nature of what precedes it. (I have no direct knowledge, but would not be surprised if the film’s producers insisted on the inclusion of musical numbers over Varma’s objection.) However, this musical number — a drinking song featuring Bikhu’s men — has the same formal rigor as the nonmusical portions of the film. Varma presents this entire musical sequence in one cramped room, with none of the scene or costume changes that are typical of contemporary Bollywood musical numbers. These cramped confines do not only imbue this sequence with a certain realism, but they also place a significant limitation on the actors’ marvelous choreography, which is carefully timed, yet feels offhand.
Following this musical number, the film charts Satya’s rise to power within Bikhu’s gang and his integration into middle-class society. The gang gives Satya a comfortable apartment, which is next door to the residence of Vidya, an aspiring playback singer, and her family. Satya quickly falls in love with the shy Vidya (Urmila Matondkar), who appears to reciprocate his affections, but does not know he is a gangster. At the same time, Satya ingratiates himself with Bikhu, and quickly becomes his top lieutenant. At Satya’s urging, Bikhu’s gang engages in a series of increasingly risky and violent confrontations with the police and rival gangs that lead to the film’s tragic conclusion.
Remarkably, the film’s romantic sequences are never trite, cliched, or melodramatic. There are several reasons why. First, Varma does not direct these scenes in a perfunctory manner, but instead invests them with a great deal of craft. For example, Varma stages a musical number between Vidya and Satya in a manner that is as rigorous as the film’s earlier drinking song. During the entire musical number, Vidya hangs out of the window of her residence and sings into the rain, as Satya watches her through the adjacent window of his apartment. The characters’ positioning here is not just an example of unconventional staging for its own sake; it does much to convey the romanticism of both characters, as well as their shyness, and symbolizes how circumstances have kept them apart. (Significantly, Satya’s window is covered with bars.)
Second, the romantic scenes contain a great deal of well-earned pathos. It is genuinely touching to watch Satya regain his humanity, as he engages in normal bourgeois activities that he never previously dreamed of, such as going on a double date with Bikhu and his wife. Third, the romantic sequences are not merely limited to scenes between Satya and Vidya. There is a genuine tension and a burning intensity in the male bonding sequences between Satya and Bikhu — from their initial wrestling matches in prison to later heartfelt talks on the beach. However, Bikhu’s feelings for Satya are clearly greater than Satya’s feelings for Bikhu. Indeed, in one scene late in the film, Bikhu declares that he is jealous of Vidya’s relationship with Satya. The love triangle between Satya, Bikhu and Vidya is never resolved, as all three of their lives are interrupted by violence.
Indeed, the film’s romantic passages are constantly interrupted by extremely violent interludes. Many of these violent scenes depict inter-gang confrontations, as armed gang members chase each other around slums, and other dilapidated areas of Mumbai. These chase scenes are absolutely gripping, as they are filled with long Steadicam shots, filmed from the point of view of gang members who are fleeing or in hot pursuit. Moreover, many of the film’s shootouts are set in populated areas; indeed, a particularly harrowing shootout sequence takes place at a playground. By setting a pivotal shootout in a playground, Varma accomplishes two things. First, he makes it clear this is a film where anything can happen, and that the normal rules of popular filmmaking (such as that heroes do not place children in harm’s way) do not apply here. Second, by having his protagonist do reprehensible things such as engage in this shootout or discuss his feelings about Vidya while a man is being tortured, Varma makes it clear that he is not glorifying gangsterism; while the underworld may have provided Satya with a semblance of a life, it has not, and cannot, entirely restore the humanity that Mumbai has taken away from him.
Production company: DEI
The DVD of Satya is problematic. The film is presented in non-anamorphic widescreen, and has been cropped from its original ’scope aspect ratio. Moreover, although the dialogue is subtitled, the song lyrics are not. Hopefully, a DVD of Satya will be released some day that accords this landmark film the care and respect it deserves.
Filed under: General and Movie Reviews: India and Contributors: Jeff and Movie Reviews and DVD Reviews and People: Ram Gopal Varma and Rating: Great ★★★★ and DVD Reviews: India