I meet Ram Gopal Varma on a very Ram Gopal Varma kind of a day in a very Ram Gopal Varma kind of a place. It's Sunday, and the rains are lashing against the large glass wall of his room at Company, his office, his pleasure palace: Life-size statues of a bull dog and a chameleon sit on the floor, and there are black and white blow-ups of Amitabh Bachchan—sipping tea from a saucer in Sarkar, a naked woman riding a lion, Steven Spielberg, Bruce Lee.
20 years ago, Satya, Varma's gangster film set in a rain-drenched Mumbai, released on one such day–3 July. A film made from the gut with prophetic results, it marked the beginning of a new sub-genre with its brutally authentic, black comic portrayal of the Mumbai underbelly. It's a cult, but one that was also a commercial hit, remembered with great fondness for multiple reasons: for 'launching' such indie talent as Anurag Kashyap, Manoj Bajpayee and Saurabh Shukla. Sandeep Chowta's killer score. Bajpayee's Bhiku Mhatre hurling at the shoreline the iconic line 'Mumbai ka king kaun?'.
Varma, of course, isn't the filmmaker he used to be—film after film, in recent years, confirming his fall from grace; his excesses having got the better of his craft. But he is in the mood to talk, happy to reminisce about one of his finest films, find flaws in it, and—the part he enjoys the most—drift away into Bombay gangster lore. Edited excerpts:
How was the initial response to the film? Did you expect the kind of success it got?
On the first day, it took a 30 per cent opening. Bharat bhai (Shah, producer) called me and said, 'Ramu, picture ka opening thik nahi hai, abhi dekhna hai kya hota hai'. I remember I was in Boney Kapoor's office and asked him if he can find out from his distributors how the film is doing. He spoke to someone in Indore, who said 'Forget it, it's gone'. Then on Saturday evening, Bharat bhai called me again. He said, 'Ramu, picture utregi nahi theatre se.' By Saturday night, it was running for Rs 100 in black, and ran for 30 weeks at Eros theatre in Mumbai. It did well predominantly in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bangalore, Delhi, entirely on word of mouth. People were coming out of the theatres with their mouths open; the reactions weren't like 'It's a nice, decent film, you have to see it.' It was more like 'Arey tu dekh na, you have to fucking see it.'
No one had seen a film like that. And the industry always wants to look at a film in comparison. The moment there is no benchmark for a film like Satya, no cast, no entertainment, whatever they think the regular commercial format is, it becomes very difficult for them to estimate how it will be received. I was just coming out of Daud, which turned out to be a big flop, and I remember telling Anurag (Kashyap), to start with Satya immediately because once Daud releases and flops they won't let me make this. So we started little before Daud came out.
Satya is a success because of the mass audience, especially in the Maharashtra circuit, not the class audience. There are a lot of things they'd never heard or seen before in a mainstream Hindi film, something as simple as the word 'Chutiya'. People could relate to it, especially the Mumbai circuit because the underworld was a very popular thing at the time.
Satya is a success because of the mass audience, especially in the Maharashtra circuit, not the class audience. There are a lot of things they'd never heard or seen before in a mainstream Hindi film, something as simple as the word 'Chutiya'
One time, I was standing outside a theatre, and a guy put his hand on me and said, 'Hum logo ke upar acchi picture banaya hai tu'. 'Hum logo' is the point; he is admitting he is a gangster, and the very fact that he put his hand on my shoulder, with that authority… A lot of cops actually thought I was heavily involved with the underworld. Paramvir Singh, a very famous officer, told me that I must have had access to some very, very inside people, otherwise it's impossible for any film to achieve this kind of realism.
You've made successful crime films based in Mumbai like Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005). How did your fascination with the city's underworld begin?
I remember the first time I heard the word D-Company. It was told to me by a sales boy in this cassette wholesale shop in Grant Road. I used to run a video library in Hyderabad. I used to come here to buy cassettes. This was around '86-87, and during the couple of times I visited, he took me to Caesar Palace Hotel in Bandra, which was owned by Mahesh and Arvind Dholakia, big underworld figures at the time. He told me this place belongs to guys who are against Dawood Ibrahim's D-Company.
I was always fascinated by the dark side of people. Before that I vaguely remember hearing some smuggler called Haji Mastan when Amitabh Bachchan's Deewar came out. Caesar Palace was basically a pick up joint; I could see the atmosphere, and the people hanging out there. I was fascinated by the whole thing—and some years later both the brothers were killed due to some underworld feud with Chhota Rajan. Mumbai has always fascinated me with its extreme poverty, super rich, expensive cars… I used to look at Shethia building, so dirty, the staircase looked like it is going to fall off anytime. You go in and it's ultra luxurious. There are secrets within secrets and nobody knows what the hell is happening.
I properly stayed in Mumbai when I was directing Rangeela (1995). It's after the '93 blasts happened that the underground really came into the forefront, became a point of discussion for everyone. Because of the D-Company's involvement with the blasts, throughout the making of Rangeela, my mind was more in the underworld.
That's when you thought of making Satya?
Yes. I wanted to do something with the underworld. But there was no story, no title. Once Rangeela was done, I was doing Daud with Sanjay Dutt. He knew a lot about the underworld, and because of his own problems with the whole thing, he would tell me about instances when we met.
I had the James Hadley Chase novel My Laugh Comes Last in mind. I actually made that film already in Telugu, called Antham (1992)–Drohi in Hindi–with Nagarjuna. That was a huge flop. I realised the mistakes and I took the same story and made it into Satya: a gangster who falls in love with a girl, the girl doesn't know that he is a gangster, and he wants to come out and marry her, but it's too late, and he dies. Urmila is in that film as well.
I was working on it when I heard a story from a friend who was living in Oshiwara at the time. He lived on the 14th floor; every once in a while, he would meet this guy in the elevator who lived above him. They would smile and say hello to each other once in a while; they didn't know each other's name. Three years later, one day, his wife told him that police came and arrested someone from the building. It came in the newspaper, and he realised it's the same guy he used to meet in the lift. He didn't even know the details of what crime he was arrested for. But that's what Bombay does to you. You might be living in the same building, and you might not know your neighbour. I liked that, and that's the angle I took. Vidya (Urmila) doesn't know who Satya is, she takes him just as a normal person who lives next door.
What sort of an impact did Gulshan Kumar's murder have on Satya?
Satya didn't happen in one stretch, there were a lot of gaps. Even I wasn't in the grips of what I exactly wanted to make. When Gulshan Kumar died, the whole industry went into shock. We were doing test shoots then and we had to stop it. In the intermittent time I changed a lot of things in my head about how I wanted to make the film. Technically, you can say we started the film after Gulshan Kumar's death.
I met a gentleman called Ajit Dewani, who was Mandakini's secretary back in the day, and who was killed in 2001. He himself was not a part of the crime organisation, but because of the Mandakini connection he used to know quite a few of these guys in D-Company. I got a lot of information from him, including that of Bhiku Mhatre's character (Manoj Bajpayee).
Typically you think of criminals in underworld as heartless and ruthless, but from Dewani's stories they sounded more fun. For instance, one of these guys wanted to have pakoras at 2 in the night in a reputed place in Bandra, so they knocked at their doors and made them serve pakoras at gunpoint. He told me about a gangster who was killed and he had gone to see his brother, who was also a gangster. The brother was cursing the body, 'Motherfucker I told him not to go, he doesn't listen'. He can't take it that the power to save his brother has been taken away, and that not listening to him caused his death. A guy abusing a dead body is a very strange thing, which is what I took in Bhiku Mhatre. When Chandar dies, he says, 'Mar gaya saale, maine kya kaha tha saale ko?' There is a certain wildness in your laughter, the look in your eyes, I wanted to reflect that in Bhiku Mhatre's character.
Once when I went to a certain dance bar in Borivali for location hunting, I was told that the owner is a D-Company guy. He was in prison for 6 years, and now he was out. He was very intimidating, but after 15 minutes he became a normal guy. Because he knew I knew who he was, he was play acting, which is where I took the Kallu Mama character (Saurabh Shukla) from. Kallu Mama is basically the idiot in the gang, but when the builder comes you can see that he can play act. He wants to play a personality which will work for him.
I met one guy in Bara chawl, Arun Gawli's area. I was told that he was very close to Gawli. Gawli was a fearsome guy at the time, and just then we had heard instances of Nattu Bhai, the builder, being killed. But when I met this guy it was such a big anti climax—every line he said was like 'Gawli bhai aata hai mere ghar pe', 'Gawli bhai ne mereko ghar diya'. That's how I created Chandar.
Satya was praised for its realistic, gritty treatment. Can you talk about the aesthetic of the film?
The only thing I was really conscious about was that we should stay true to what I was hearing from these sources. The fact that we took the decision to shoot in real locations made a difference. For example, we shot Gurunarayan's death scene on Mahim Bridge. There were hardly 3 or 4 people, a few ambassadors, and Arri 2 cameras which didn't have a rotatable eyepiece. The actors used to get out from the car and run, and the cameraman used to run behind them. It was shot in a very guerrilla style, and I think it is that sense of urgency that added a lot to the realism.
If we spent a lot of money and made a proper production design and location, I doubt the film would be the same.
Was the title a homage to Govinda Nihalani's Ardh Satya, which you've said is one of the films that have influenced you?
Yes, definitely. There are two reasons. Second is that my first girlfriend's name was Satya. I was trying to impress her. Actually she wasn't my girlfriend, I used to love her, and she never looked at me, so I just wanted to send a message that see what I've become.
20 years on, what's your assessment of the film?
People ask why is Bhiku Mhatre more celebrated than Satya? The reason is not JD Chakravarty's performance, the reason is that I was unclear about his character. My first thought for Satya was that it's a kind of a Howard Roark the in the underworld, which is why the placid and non-emotional look. But I tried to make Satya look larger-than-life; the measured lines, expressions are designed—'Usko bolo woh idhar aye', it's like a punchline. He is standing there looking like a zombie when Bhiku is fighting with his wife (Shefali Shah) and the same guy blushes in the car after his first killing—I included that because I got carried away by the anecdote of a guy blushing after he killed somebody. There were inconsistencies in Satya's character, especially in the beginning portions. It was consistent in the last 25-30 minutes; by that time I had caught the sur of the film, which I copied from My Laugh Comes Last. So I got clarity because of some other writer (laughs).
There are other things that are illogical, but which worked. For instance, the climax when Satya goes to kill Bhau at the Ganpati visarjan. Action director Allan Amin and I had a huge plan—a big truck with Kallu Mama coming with colours on him, some guy waiting on the terrace giving signals, and this other guy who is close to Bhau. In the last minute I said 'Just fuck all that. We will start with a close-up of a cloth wrapped around the knife.' I said, if people connected to Bhiku Mhatre's death and are rooting for Satya to take revenge, they just want to see him killed, it's not about the how. This looked very convenient even on location—Bhau is just standing there waiting to be stabbed when there's such a big gang war happening, whereas he obviously knows that he will be targeted by Satya. If people had asked me at the time, I wouldn't have an answer. But I thought the overriding emotion of Bhau getting stabbed by Satya will make people forget the logic.
There was another scene I knew had something very wrong but I just couldn't think of an alternative. When Satya goes with Vidya to see a film in a theatre, Pakiya (Sushant Singh) informs the cops. In a realistic situation, they come in plain clothes, ask the informant to point out the guy while the audience is coming out of the theatre. In the film, Inspector Khandilkar (Aditya Srivastava) comes and announces, 'Aap ke beech mein ek khatarnaak gangster hai'. This guy has just killed the police commissioner (Paresh Rawal) of the city, he can take anyone hostage; why would the police do that? But my point was how will Satya manage to escape without Vidya knowing that he is a gangster? I was counting on that being the operating factor, and people will forget the logic.
I was going with Hitchcock's when-drama-begins-logic-ends theory. When we shot it and sent it for background score to Sandeep Chowta in Chennai, he called me at 11 pm and said, 'Ramu, the film is brilliant, but the part in the theatre, how can the cops be so dumb?' He said all his 7 musicians with who he watched the film, felt the same. I was fearing that to happen, and he said it, and now I was fucked because I didn't have the time to do anything about it. After great deliberation, I decided I have no other option. Believe me in the last 20 years not a single person told me that except for Sandeep Chowta.
I showed the first cut to 15 people and all of them hated it. Including my own uncle, who told me if I can afford it can I not release the film? The person he hated the most was Manoj Bajpayee.
What's the most memorable reaction you got for the film?
I showed the first cut to 15 people and all of them hated it. Including my own uncle, who told me if I can afford it can I not release the film? The person he hated the most was Manoj Bajpayee. He felt Manoj was irritating. My younger brother's friend Sanjay Thakur, who I didn't know beyond 'hi-hello' gave me a handwritten note on the 20 points he hated in the film. Out of them, I took 5 very seriously.
He felt Satya's relationship with Bhiku Mhatre was completely wrong, it was not there for him to suddenly want to take revenge for Bhiku's death. That's when I added those scenes when he comes back from Khandala, where you can see Bhiku's concern for Satya. You need to see the emotional relation between two characters.
Second was the scene in which Satya comes and tells Urmila that he wants to go off to Dubai with her. When she goes to tell her mother, he hears sounds, goes to the window and sees the police vehicle and runs. My brother's friend said that 'This bastard just now said there is nothing in my life except for you…and with the first sign of trouble he runs off?' In the re-edit, I took a close up of Satya after seeing the police car to register the hesitation and helplessness in his face.
How would you rate Satya compared to your other films?
When I look back, 90 per cent of Satya and Rangeela seem perfect. I don't feel that about Company, or Sarkar. Rangeela has a very classical structure, almost me taking off from The Sound of Music. I like the haphazardness and unpredictability of Satya; but more than anything, it's the characters that look so real. Satya is based on characters who are at a very low level of the gangster hierarchy, the labour class in a sense. They are not like organised crime like D-Gang, and people like Chhota Rajan, Amar Naik, Rama Naik; those guys are very, very clever. I came to know about them post Satya.
Company was made roughly 3 years after Satya, after I happened to meet a guy called Hanif Karawala, who was very close to Dawood Ibrahim. Things he told me about the relationship between Dawood and Chhota Rajan was the base for Company. But today when I watch Company I don't like it at all because the information now I have about Dawood and Chhota Rajan's relationship is far higher; I find it a very fake film.
The difference between me and Anurag is that he believes in very realistic characters, and I have a tendency to believe in larger-than-life characters. I wouldn't like to do as much dialogue as what normally Anurag uses. I like a lot of punchlines, very designed things.
Are there any Indian gangster films you've liked after Satya?
I think Gangs of Wasseypur is very good; it surprised me in many places. The difference between me and Anurag is that he believes in very realistic characters, and I have a tendency to believe in larger-than-life characters. I wouldn't like to do as much dialogue as what normally Anurag uses. I like a lot of punchlines, very designed things.
Anurag's flair was in the way Bhiku Mhatre talks in the movie, 'Nasik mein main uske liye goli khaya tha, madarchod.' Bhiku is trying to work himself up to kill Guru Narayan, you feel guilty about killing someone you know, but you want to convince yourself to be able to shoot. These things are very particular to Anurag.
Satya was never written in that sense. Mostly it was the actors improvising. And many times, I was asking Anurag to give me scenes on the day of the shoot. For example, in the scene in that building where a surprise shoot happens on Bhiku's gang, I wanted Anurag to write me something which will distract the audience because when the killings happens it'll shock them. He came and narrated to me a joke about Ram aur Shyam—"Ram sab kuch dega toh Shyam kya muft mein lega?". I didn't even get the joke while shooting. But I was just enjoying the way Anurag was narrating, I could see the spark in his eyes. For me the content of that is not important to the script, I wanted it as a diversionary tactic for when the bullet will come out of the blue. See, when a film becomes a cult, you want to hear every detail about it, but to be honest none of us realised the film will be received the way it was. We'd taken it like just one more film…it took its own shape… We didn't make Satya, it made itself.