It’s easy to watch Satya (1998) today and wonder what the fuss is about. It looks familiar. It feels common. It sounds choppy. But that’s like watching Dil Chahta Hai (2001) and wondering what the fuss is about. These are ‘Ground Zero’ Hindi films. Entire genres stemmed from them. They’re part of an exclusive club that changed not just the language of storytelling, but also the way we watch movies. Just like Dil Chahta Hai marked the beginning of the slick urban-romcom aesthetic, Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya was the godfather of the postmodern gangster aesthetic. It’s the original (or as they call it today: The OG) marriage of the Mumbai Striver story (even opening with a migrant-outside-CST-station shot) and the gritty underworld tragedy. Satya may seem generic now only because it spawned multiple generations of pretenders and homages. But very few have come close to achieving its era-altering influence. Even fewer have aged as deftly as Satya has.
That disorienting background score, the rainy city, the claustrophobic spaces, the playful lyrics, the Bhiku Mhatre mania, the roster of future greats, the musical cussing, the written epilogue, the cinephilia-infused frames – these are inextricable cogs of our cultural lexicon. They are studied and taught, consumed and celebrated. They’re the conscious history of Hindi film-making as well as its subconscious memory. Personally, I’ve been a fan without quite knowing it. I watched Satya just once, more than two decades ago, before returning to it for this piece. Despite the single viewing, it always felt like an intrinsic part of my evolving relationship with Hindi film. Perhaps because its DNA flooded through every subsequent gangster or Mumbai drama for years. Perhaps because the grammar of acting, direction and mythmaking was passed on like a precious family heirloom. With every iteration of Satya, its legacy got stronger – and my reading grew newer and older at once.
On its 25th anniversary, then, I write about Satya through 10 of my favourite moments:
Manoj Bajpayee’s iconic character has not one, not two, but three consecutive ‘entry shots’. The sequence is fascinating. You’d think the name “Bhiku Mhatre” – yelled out in agony by a hitman (Sanjay Mishra) being tortured in police captivity – would make for an ideal first shot and segue into a physical-entry scene. But Satya makes its own rules. Here it’s only the second scene of the trio. It is in fact preceded by the visual introduction of Mhatre, where the mob boss quietly answers the phone call in his living room – and gets annoyed with his noisy kids in a dual-life manner that brings to mind The Family Man’s Srikant Tiwari. We know he exists, we’ve seen him, and only then do we hear of him. The final scene – where the cops barge in to arrest him while Dil Toh Pagal Hai’s ‘Are Re Are’ plays on the radio – is just as telling. It announces the arrival of an anti-hero (and actor) at the opposite end of the Bombay-film-industry spectrum ruled by romances and Shah Rukh Khan. Nothing good in Satya happens during these mainstream anti-nods. At another point, a shady music director (Neeraj Vora) propositions aspiring singer Vidya (Urmila Matondkar) by riffing on the famous Baazigar (1993) line. The man’s “Kuch paane ke liye kuch dena padta hai” (“One must give something to gain something”) makes Vidya’s skin crawl, in contrast to Khan’s charming meet-cute line to Kajol all those years ago.
When they first meet, Bhikhu Mhatre seems both offended and aroused by Satya’s (J.D. Chakravarthy) righteous aggression in prison. The underworld star gets into a heated scuffle with the stoic migrant – a scuffle that soon turns into a homoerotic exchange of sweaty gazes. The two men pause their battle by breathing hard and staring at each other, like primal beasts suddenly realizing that they’re supposed to be mating instead. It’s a loaded moment in a film that constantly teases the machismo of power-drunk gangsters. The best part about it is the way Mhatre punctures the textual tension. Like a judge on a talent reality show, he admires the outsider’s courage (“dum hai”), and then insists on exchanging names. Whether it’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship or a doomed (b)romance, only time – and a story full of intense glances – will tell.
It’s raining, like it is in most of the film. Satya has just moved into a tiny flat provided by Bhiku Mhatre, the gangster besotted with Satya’s deadpan courage and monosyllabic intellect. It’s his first night here. He looks out the window, likely reflecting on the meaning of his rent-free digs in a city whose language he is learning to speak. Then comes the catch: A power cut. The room suddenly resembles the insides of his ambition. He can’t see a thing. Satya stumbles towards the open door, only to be greeted by a film-school-style image: A flawless face cleanly lit by a lighter flame. It’s Vidya, his kind neighbour – and the humane light that punctures his darkness. In another context, this could have been a shot straight out of a horror film, further punctuated by Urmila Matondkar’s impending scary-movie legacy (Kaun, 1999; Bhoot, 2003; Naina, 2005; Ek Hasina Thi, 2004; Pyaar Tune Kya Kiya, 2001; Karzzz, 2008). But in Satya, a future don has been derailed by love. It’s a tender fire that, ultimately, will burn him down.
Satya is out of prison and has already settled into the life offered by Bhiku Mhatre: A flat, a career, an unofficial position in the Mhatre gang. Except he’s still on a probation period of sorts. When Bhiku is released from jail, Satya’s final test emerges in the shape of an unassuming scene. Both men are in the car, Satya looks visibly obligated, and Bhiku is in high spirits. At first, it feels like Bhiku is going to paint the town red with his new friend. That mad-hatter chuckle of his loosens Satya up. But when his guard is down, Bhiku abruptly alters the tone of the moment. He gives Satya a gun the way a teacher hands an exam paper to a student. He stops outside a dance bar, where Jagga – the tormentor responsible for Satya’s jail stint – spends his nights. Bhiku wants Satya to paint the town red, but a little more literally: Shoot Jagga. The allure of this scene is that Bhiku looks more nervous than Satya does. You can tell that he is desperate for Satya to succeed. Because if not, his own reputation is on the line. He backed this greenhorn, integrated him into his gang, hyped him up – all as a blind leap of faith. If Satya doesn’t display some killer instinct, all this bonding will have been for nothing. Once Satya does the deed and returns to the car, Bhiku bursts out laughing. Pride, but also pure relief. He is glad that he bet on the right horse, but more importantly, he is glad that Satya has earned the right to be his friend and sounding board. His risk paid off. And he looks like a teenager thrilled to introduce his crush to the world.
As with any self-respecting gangster, going home after being released from prison is only third on Bhiku Mhatre’s list of priorities. The man first finds the time to party with the gang (topped up with the lyrically crude ‘Kallu Mama’), and then tutors Satya’s first kill. When he finally returns to his family that night, his wife Pyaari (Shefali Shah) is understandably annoyed. Even more so when she sees that he’s brought a guest (Satya himself) after forging a bond in jail. She keeps yelling at him, and his playful requests to welcome his new buddy fall on deaf ears. When nothing works, he loses patience and slaps her. Her muted reaction suggests that this is the usual course of an argument. The door becomes the scene of a domestic dispute. Bhiku apologizes to Satya – who promptly flees their personal space – before he turns his attention to ‘wooing’ the woman back into a good mood. He’s done this before. It doesn’t take a lot. In less than a minute, they’re giggling like volatile newlyweds. My enduring memory of the scene features Mhatre instinctively shutting the door when a breeze pushes it open by mistake. It’s not supposed to be part of the staging, but Bajpayee makes it look like an action from a black comedy. He notices the door while hugging his oblivious wife, turning it into a gesture of both protection and privacy. Almost like the door is the porous partition between his family life and professional identity.
Encouraged by Satya’s fresh thought, loose cannon Bhiku Mhatre kills his ex-friend and rival, Guru, in broad daylight. Their long-time mentor, Bhau, is not pleased; he had warned Bhiku to not disrupt his political campaign. Everyone is alarmed by Bhiku’s disobedient burst of hunger. A face-off with old Bhau (Govind Namdeo) is imminent. Bhiku’s partners-in-grime – Kallu Mama (Saurabh Shukla) and Advocate Mule (Makarand Deshpande) – expect trouble. When Bhau arrives at his protege’s den, the tension is thick. Bhiku and his men stand around like guilty children who, despite rehearsing their excuse, are struck by their father’s physical aura. Satya stands near Bhiku in solidarity. But to their surprise, Bhau comes in peace. He waves a white flag, pulling Bhiku’s cheeks for being naughty again, and forgiving his favourite people in their own backyard. The sighs are palpable. The genius of this scene lies in the exhalation of its players. Relief washes over their faces the second Bhau smiles at Bhiku, and Bhiku himself dares to grin. Kallu Mama instinctively applauds, like he’s watching a father-son resolution moment on the big screen. As does Mule, who, like most Indian men, deflates the gravity with empty laughter. All is well. When Bhau notices Satya’s low-key reaction, he praises him for being Bhiku’s rock. Satya suspects something here, but the validation of a big man like Bhau temporarily blinds him. He melts, too. This journey from solemnity to joy is reversed towards the end in that scene: Bhau deflates the celebrations of his election win by…abruptly shooting Bhiku dead. He was pretending to be tolerant all along. Both scenes are joined at the hip, dramatically and stylistically. When Bhiku dies, the reactions come full circle. A drunken Kallu Mama is in shock, paralyzed by what feels like a bad red herring. But Mule sees it coming – he deflates the laughter with empty treachery.
Bhikhu Mhatre and his wife, Pyari, assume the role of the boisterous older couple with a shy Satya and Vidya at a restaurant. You can tell that the Mhatre(s) are on a rare night out, away from the kids and the social tensions of his gangster image. He teases her, she whines and blushes, and they put on quite a show. You can also tell that Bhikhu is batting for Satya, the way a roguish Ben Affleck did in Good Will Hunting (1997) when he meets his genius best friend’s (Matt Damon) date for drinks. Bhikhu launches into a funny anecdote about watching Jurassic Park (1993) – a title only Vidya can pronounce – and jokes about how the T-Rex in the Hollywood blockbuster resembles their boss, Bhau. It’s Ram Gopal Varma’s second Spielberg ode after Rangeela (1995), where Gulshan Grover played an over-the-top film director called Steven Kapoor. More importantly, though, Bhiku’s laughter is so infectious that it’s almost musical in this scene. The man is addicted to attention. He loves making Satya smile and Vidya laugh. Bajpayee sheds all comparisons to the Nana Patekar school of acting here, turning the short-tempered gangster into a loyal friend that everyone is fond and wary of at once. The scene could have overplayed the comedy of Bhiku (almost) spilling the secret of Satya’s job. But it stays rooted in the man’s excitement of having a friend he can nurture and impress.
The new police commissioner, Amod Shukla (Paresh Rawal), has been assassinated. The city is on high alert. But Satya has become more brazen – or just more in love. In this tense atmosphere, he goes to watch a Bollywood film with Vidya. A former rival spots him and calls the cops, who arrive and surround the cinema hall. Inspector Khandilkar (Aditya Srivastava) is determined to nab Satya, the mysterious upcoming gangster responsible for his superior’s murder. He instructs his team to seal the entry and exit doors of the theater. The plan is to stop the screening and scan every moviegoer, one by one, on their way out. Satya eventually uses his gun to trigger a deadly stampede and evade capture. Women and kids are trampled to death. But the reason this scene feels so eerily striking is because of its real-world influence. The Bollywood movie in question is Border (1997), the blockbuster that was also at the centre of the 1997 Uphaar Cinema Fire in Delhi. Satya is set in the same period. One of the main causes of the Uphaar tragedy was the manager’s decision to bolt the doors during the show, an act echoed by Khandilkar’s reckless plan. Given that this year’s Trial by Fire probes the fire in gruelling detail – a fire that, in a shared universe with Satya, was the first of two Border incidents – it’s almost fitting that 2023 marks 25 years of Ram Gopal Varma’s classic.
Bhiku Mhatre is very angry. He scolds the heck out of Chander (Snehal Dabi), the baby of his gang. He blames Chander for making a mistake, for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. He curses Chander for wanting to be a don, for playing the fool, for laughing too much, for choosing the wrong line, for not marrying, and for constantly being his tail. Like an irritated parent pulling up his unruly kid, Bhiku goes on and on. Until the lump in his throat takes over. His rant melts into masculine grief – he doesn’t know what to do with this feeling. Because Chander is not in front of him. Chander is dead, shot down by the Mumbai police during the new commissioner’s ruthless ‘cleanliness drive’. Bhiku is now bad-mouthing the kid – out of love and affection – and venting with Kalu Mama and Satya. The three men are digesting this loss in a dimly lit den. Bhiku is emotional, Kallu Mama is aggravated by Bhiku’s emotions, but Satya remains the voice of reason. Here’s where Satya proposes a plan to kill the commissioner. Watching his bosses from a corner is another peripheral face of the gang, Yedaa (Shabbir Masani; also known as the beheaded watchman in Bhoot and beheaded soldier in Asoka, 2001). The camera repeatedly cuts to a silent Yedaa, a brooding fly-on-the-wall presence in a way that suggests he might go on to write a memoir about his time in the underworld. It’s almost like he’s the future narrator of this story. That Yedaa is the only member who survives in the end – like he wasn’t considered important enough to capture or kill – hints at this little fiction.
Bhiku Mhatre is on top of the world. He taunts his favourite beast, Mumbai, and declares himself its Emperor. (“Mumbai ka king kaun?” is a beautifully alliterative line). The throne has been crafted from the blood of the police commissioner, Bhau’s election victory, Satya’s last-ditch escape from the theatre, and the suspension of Inspector Khandilkar. There is nobody left to defeat. As he stands at the pinnacle of Bandra Fort, however, Bhiku’s triumph slowly morphs into tragedy. His cockiness dissolves into concern. Because his comrade has finally cracked. The poker-faced Satya breaks down, consumed by the irony of his name, and the prospect of a future with a woman who has no idea who he is. The sight of a lovelorn Satya reduces Bhiku to a human. It’s not the first time. Earlier in the film, Bhiku gets paranoid when Satya disappears for four days. When Satya casually mentions he was in Khandala with Vidya, Bhiku is about to blow his lid. But the second Satya admits he’s struggling to buy a gift for Vidya, Bhiku softens and offers to take him shopping. This time, at the top of the fort, he feels a surge of care for Satya, but there’s also a tinge of heartbreak on his face. After assuring Satya that he can leave it all and start afresh with Vidya in Dubai, Bhiku half-jokes that he’s kind of jealous of her. Behind his hyena-like giggle is genuine sadness; Satya has chosen Vidya over him, and his dream of an endless brotherhood is over. All he knows is that he doesn’t want to see Satya suffering, and he would go to any lengths to mend his spirit. It’s a wonderfully staged moment, but it’s also the straightness of the arc that works. The twist is that there is no twist. There are many ‘sexier’ narrative choices that a late-career Varma might have made. Like Satya being revealed as protagonist Bhiku Mhatre’s imagination (his conscience). Or Satya being outed as an undercover cop dismantling the underworld through Mhatre. Or even Satya going to war with Bhiku for taking all the credit. If not for Vidya, he might have ultimately done that. And that’s the only solace for Bhiku, who is now no longer on a collision course with Satya’s ambition. The scene has the glow of a goodbye that defies the melancholy of a farewell.
When the Mhatre gang has its game-face on – torturing a rival in their little room – a few of them catch a glimpse of Vidya outside. They tease the serious Satya like college kids, who in turn excuses himself to go meet her in the middle of ‘class,’ a la Ratan from Jo Jeeta Wohi Sikandar (1992). The torture continues. The interesting part is how distracted Bhiku looks. He has a direct view of Satya from the window, and he watches the two – with an unbroken gaze, almost hypnotized – as if they were white-skinned foreigners on the road. When Satya returns, the frat-teasing continues, until Bhiku himself warns them to stop. It’s a reaction that best reflects Bhiku’s star-crossed approach towards Satya’s blossoming relationship – and even ties into their final scene together, in which he lightly confesses to being envious of Vidya for having Satya’s devotion. The film’s hidden identity, as an unrequited love triangle, is most visible here.
When Satya is gunned down by the police at Vidya’s doorstep, he dies a stranger – not a lover – in her eyes. She knows his truth, and can’t process the familiar body that collapses onto her floor. The way he knocks at her door before dying, though, brings to mind the kind of haunting desperation that Anurag Basu successfully replicated in Gangster (2006) – a movie that could well be the spiritual sequel of Satya and Vidya’s story had he survived. J.D. Chakravarthy’s primal screams rightfully sound like they’re emerging from a character who isn’t used to speaking (or emoting) a lot. The soundscape invokes a corresponding moment in Gangster: A Love Story (2006) – when an otherwise-reticent Shiney Ahuja violently breaks down at Seoul Station, after discovering that the love of his life has betrayed him.