Ram Gopal Varma and his Al Qaeda

The most influential Hindi filmmaker of the 90s, Ram Gopal Varma isn’t what he used to be — or so say we, embittered critics unimpressed by pandering, and disgruntled audiences unimpressed by waferthin storylines and disastrous remakes. You can’t blame us, to be fair. Just a few years ago, Ramu lied about me on his blog, claiming that I rubbished Sarkar Raj because I was a wannabe director being dissed by producers.

He has since apologised for what he calls a clerical oversight — I have never, ever wanted to direct a movie — but the question is often brought to my notice by sensation-seeking readers. One asked me a week back what I thought of Mr Varma’s blog. “I love it, and I love the fact that Ramu doesn’t let accuracy stand in the way of a good soundbyte.”

It is a line that has positively regaled Varma, the director wishing he had included it in his latest film, Rann, calling it symptomatic of his entire career, so to speak. And while he might celebrate his own alacrity for untruth, it is a charge often levelled against his increasingly surfacial seeming cinema. The gimmicks, the background score, the calculated moments of shock and awe… emptier and emptier.

Yet it wasn’t always this way. Six years ago, when I first met Varma inside his intensely funky Factory office, his production house was churning out more films, at faster clip, than anyone else. Abject newcomers were handed debut projects, and a proud Varma called the movement his Al-Qaeda, something to tackle mainstream Bollywood and force their way in.

“It was obviously said in a certain context,” Ramu now laughs. “It was the so-called realistic films, like Satya, Ab Tak Chhappan, versus all the Switzerland-New Zealand kind of films, with good clothes and good-looking faces. So it was like we were creating a small group of films, as a resistance to the big commercial films.”

“But I’m not very sure I’ve been very faithful to that idea. Because by default, not knowingly — or sometimes knowingly — inspite of the concept or the idea being new, I don’t know if the attempt was completely serious, in a way.”

He also admits he perhaps started too many films without really thinking them through, but he did give directors a chance. “I think I’ve learnt a lot from the mistakes I’ve made, and hopefully I’ll correct them and make new mistakes now.”

Mistakes or not, his crack squad of cinematic terrorists include major names. A look at the posterboys of modern independent cinema shows RGV scowling from a lot of their resumes. Anurag Kashyap, Shimit Amin, Sriram Raghavan, Chandan Arora, E Niwas — a handful of highly-regarded, potentially industry-defining directors, each of whom started their careers with Varma. Dozens others have showed flashes of brilliance but aren’t quite top-rung just yet.

Ramu himself isn’t entirely impressed. He feels the boys have made a mark, but haven’t quite reached the lofty expectations in place when he kickstarted his movement. “I would say [the resistance’s] success would be when it can be at par,” he grumbles. “When you look at Western cinema, European cinema, in terms of realism or interesting subject matter, we should be at par. I don’t think the cinema’s still reached there.”

He also feels, despite giving these people their first breaks, he couldn’t do enough for them. Considering Amin’s Ab Tak Chhappan the only complete triumph from his roster, he says he might have inadvertently shortchanged other directors by not giving them as good a subject and script. “I feel a director is as good as the subject matter,” he clarifies. “I mean I’m the same guy who directed Satya, and I’m the same guy who directed Daud. Who the hell am I?”

He admits the current new wave is making strides, but seems to credit the multiplex revolution — “which allows every kind of cinema to reach its audience” — more than the makers. “Some of them are making effective films, but they don’t startle me. In the way world cinema does, or some regional cinema, when I just get zapped. When I can’t believe a scene can be shot like that. I don’t see that here.”

Ramu singles out Tamil cinema for praise, gushing about how 2007 hit Paruthiveeran zapped him totally. He also applauds Vishal Bhardwaj, saying he scores very highly in terms of craft and originality, and, perhaps most importantly, “there is a point of view, there is a very definite personality [to his cinema].”

It seems inappropriate to label the men birthed in The Factory as Varma’s protégés, most of them leaving right after their first breaks, and can often be found armed with bitter stories about RGV. Yet the fact remains that he gave unlikely filmmakers life-changing opportunities, on a whim.

Vishram Sawant, for example, had designed the interiors of the Factory. And Varma gave him a gangster movie, D, to direct. “The more independent a person is in his way of thinking, I feel that much more difference can come in the way of his storytelling,” explains Varma. “Now, Vishram Sawant is a guy who thinks very, very wild. Like the decor of The Factory, I’ve never seen any decor like that, as an interior work. So if he wants to make a film, I would like to believe that it’d be so bizarre.. it’s like art, whether you like it or not, nobody’s seen it before.”

For all his take on the inadequacies of the new wave, Varma hasn’t watched any of his boys do their own thing, really. He insists this is because of an inherent lack of interest in the subject matter — “I don’t want to watch Chak De because I don’t like sports” — and not one born out of resentment. “Anurag keeps saying to the press that he’s stopped watching my films, but that’s okay, I’m still very fond of him.”

As always, Ram Gopal Varma is a ticking timebombful of contradictions. What cannot be questioned, however, is that if these men, or the filmmakers and genres they spawn, ever defiantly smash the twin towers of kitschy mainstream Bollywood masala, that man who made Shiva was the one who lit the fuse.

RGV on his protégés:

Sriram Raghavan

Ek Hasina Thi, Johnny Gaddaar. Our only bonafide thriller maker.

I saw a film he had made on this guy, Raman Raghav, the serial killer. I was pretty impressed with some portions of the film — if not the overall film, but I could make out budget constraints, etc. And I could see the brilliance. He surprised me quite a few times with the way he shot a few shots, and the mood he created with Raghubir Yadav and all that.

I’m also very fond of him on a personal level, person to person, you know? He’s a very patient guy, keeps on working all the time. So it’s a combination of the brilliance I saw and the personality I saw.

We kept discussing ideas. I had this story idea loosely based on this film called Concrete Jungle, about this woman — actually, it’s exactly the same story. So it was a combination of that and something I heard from the police forces, an incident like that, so it sparked off from there and we worked on it and that’s how Ek Hasina Thi happened.

E Niwas

Directorial debut Shool won the National Award for Best Hindi Film

See, E Niwas was basically my office boy. The point is, after a person works enough number of years… once he understands the basics of how a film gets made and if he can control the crew, tell them what he wants and doesn’t want, then he’s ripe for directing. He might be called technically the director, but Shool happened under the heavy supervision of Anurag Kashyap and Manoj [Bajpai], they used to discuss everything. So he might be the director, but I was depending quite a lot on the others around him to guide him.

His qualification is not because he was my office boy, it was because I saw his dedication and his sincerity to work over a period of time.

I think directorially he was perfect in Shool. If he failed anywhere, it was in the script, the story.

Shimit Amin

Ab Tak Chhappan. Chak De India. Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year. ‘Nuff said?

Shimit came to me because he wanted to work with me because he was very impressed with Company, and I was just starting Bhoot at that time. He came because Sameer Sharma, who was working with me on the script of Bhoot, along with Lalit Marathe, recommended Shimit as an editor. So I said fine and he came from the US to edit Bhoot.

In the course of interactions with him, more than anything else I wanted Shimit to direct. In fact, that was also Sameer’s suggestion.

I just felt that a guy who is not so much into the underworld here — he’s not a Bombay guy, he doesn’t move around with those people — and his basic exposure is towards cinema from there. He’s not into Mumbaiyya language and all that. So I thought it might be an interesting experiment to put a guy like that into a subject matter like this. So that’s how Ab Tak Chhappan happened.

Chandan Arora

Charming, naturalistic filmmaker behind Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, Main Meri Patni Aur Woh, and the upcoming Striker.

See, Chandan also is quite strong as an individual. I worked with him on quite a few films as an editor, from Mast to Company to Jungle. Now, Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon was just a story idea I was told by Makrand Deshpande. I loved the idea, and then I mentioned it to Chandan, and he wanted to do it. So pretty much it was Chandan’s baby, I kept away from the film. Which means, in other words, it is his own thing that came out.

With films like Ab Tak Chhappan or even Ek Hasina Thi, I would have been very involved in the way the film is edited and cut, and also cutting the length etc. Madhuri Dixit, on the other hand, is a film that is pretty much Chandan’s. That’s not the [kind of] film I would make.

Anurag Kashyap

The cult-spawning icon of Indian independent cinema, began his career by co-writing and shooting chunks of Satya.

My first memory of him was when I was shooting Daud, he just used to be standing there and looking at me shooting. He wasn’t working with me. I don’t even remember now who it was, but I had told someone I was looking for a writer and someone sent him. I can’t recall who and how, but my memory of him was that he used to stand there waiting for my shoot to finish.

When I started Satya, the first writer who came to meet me was Anurag. And when I was speaking to Anurag, he sort of suggested this guy Saurabh Shukla. He knew him from somewhere, called him a senior guy. And so Saurabh came on board.

Over a period of time I was very impressed by some lines Anurag used to come up with, and by his intensity. He just gets completely immersed in whatever he’s talking about. Like when he used to come and narrate scenes to me, I probably wouldn’t even listen to what he’s speaking, I just used to connect with his intensity at that point of time.

And he’s very, very complex as a person in terms of whatever I’ve seen. See, I would have never ever made a film with Anurag — I never did make one — because he’s too independent and his style of cinema, his sensibility is very, very far away from me. He’s the guy who’d never probably make the film if I tell him the subject. He doesn’t like my kind of subjects like I don’t like his.


First published Man’s World, February 2010


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  1. allVishal

    Excellent, excellent post! Have been looking forward to reading this ever since you tweeted about meeting him.

  2. Ruchir

    U shd have asked abt jaideep sahani too

  3. hardik mehta

    nice post… i would have never read Man’s world… so its great that you posted here too…:)

  4. Palash

    Ramu is suffering from creative diabetes. But i still feel that he will bounce back one day.

  5. Johnson

    On the title – I almost fell from my chair laughing….lol.

  6. Abhishek

    fantastic! Ramu’s men Friday!

  7. Salil Shankar

    My tribute to RGV, Why RGV must never be killed….. http://30frames.wordpress.com/2011/09/21/why-rgv-must-never-be-killed/ :) :)

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