If journalist and film critic Uday Bhatia is to be believed, "Hindi cinema wasn't the same after Satya." Released in 1998, Ram Gopal Varma's low-budget gritty, gangster drama, set among the unvarnished inroads of Mumbai, washed up unsuspectingly on the shores of Bollywood, leaving the landscape permanently altered.
In his meticulously researched book Bullets Over Bombay (Harper Collins, ₹ 399) Bhatia chronicles not just the making of the film — at a time when gangsters were plotting and plucking people off the streets — by piecing together various, sometimes contradictory, accounts. But he also makes a case for the film's lasting influence — on the style and stylists of both the gangster film genre and the Mumbai film genre.
The film credits include names barely recognizable then — Anurag Kashyap as a co-writer with Saurabh Shukla, Manoj Bajpayee in a breakout performance, Vishal Bhardwaj as music composer, Apurva Asrani as editor — which today "reads like an honours roll". But it is also the film's style, Bhatia argues, that emboldened other directors to move beyond the studio floor and capture grit as grit plays out in real life. In the following interviews, Bhatia speaks of the film's lasting impact, the queer-coded gangster genre, and which of the characters don't work anymore.
The book makes the case for Satya being an important film. But what was it about Satya that spoke to you specifically, given that you spent over a year and a half reporting it, tracking these elusive figures, and over 6 years writing and researching it? Do you remember the first time you watched it?
I actually don't remember the first time I watched it very clearly. But I remember it having a sort of visceral impact. Some of the scenes, especially the Jurassic Park one, where Satya (J.D. Chakravarthy), Vidya (Satya's lover played by Urmila Matondkar), Bhiku (Satya's friend and mentor played by Manoj Bajpayee), and Pyari (Bhiku's wife played by Shefali Shah), are chilling in the restaurant, and of course, the torture scene — which was very disturbing for me back then, because you just didn't see anything that violent in Hindi films.
It was quite a lot later, when I was getting interested in the whole artform that it really struck me how much of Satya is there in the films that came after it.
Was it difficult to pitch a book about this one film, given that so much of the "film books" that come out of commercial publications are usually celebrity biographies or about the whole body of work of a director?
It wasn't too difficult. I think a big reason for that was the people who worked on Satya are still very much a vital part of the Hindi film industry, and they have never stopped crediting Satya. They are still fond of the film. For a lot of them, it was their first, second, third film. That somehow helped convince the publishers and the other people involved in the book that this is not just some old classic that we are picking up and writing about but a living, breathing thing.
So when I did get the opportunity to be able to write this, I at least knew that it was a film that I could watch a whole bunch of times, and I would find enough to write about. That was a reassuring thought. Satya, also, did promise to have that kind of breadth in both directions, in the sense of looking back, and of course, the influence that came after.
Tell me about the cover. While the titular hero is Satya, it is Bhiku Mhatre who is foregrounded in the cover, as he is even in the cultural imagination of the film today. Sometimes I feel Ram Gopal Varma did not know what to do with this Satya character. You mentioned how he just stands in the background of the famous Bhiku-Pyari spat, just lurking. In a film where so much was being improvised constantly with all these theater actors, do you think they forgot about the main character?
It's interesting, because in the film he does come across as a bit of a cipher. I know that Ramu had mentioned Bruce Lee as an inspiration in terms of him being a man that comes from another place to a city and fights for himself. But I wonder if there is also just a little bit of another Varma icon, Clint Eastwood's "Man with No Name" characters, in particular. Because there is something of that mysteriousness — of this guy who comes to another town, and just takes on these people and very quickly rises.
But also J. D. Chakravarthy's performance doesn't often let on too much. Bhiku is so emotional on the surface, that you can pretty much tell a lot about the character simply from watching him from scene to scene, whereas Satya has his guard up even in the scenes with Vidya, where you really can't tell much about the man beneath the surface.
You found Vidya "too naive and virtuous" and "boring". Is that how the others saw her character as well? Was there supposed to be more meat attached to the role?
I'm not a huge fan of the Vidya character. I would have loved to speak to Urmila Matondkar about it but I unfortunately didn't get that chance. That to me would have been quite fascinating because she is the only "star" in this whole film. And yet, she's one of only four women on the set. And it must have been weird, acting with all these nobodies, and yet, the film is about them. She's just a nice, simple person at the start of the film, and pretty much ends up that way at the end. She isn't particularly witty. I don't know if she was created as a foil for Satya, but that's what it seems like.
I think that's the big difference between her and Pyaari. Pyaari is also a woman in this man's world. And she knows that there's not that much that she can do, but then she does try to fight for her space within that. Whereas Vidya is very happy to be this person sitting there and asking Satya how his day was.
As someone who sort of grappled with the history of the gangster genre, what do you make of the current glut of gangster stories on streaming? Every second MX Player and ALT Balaji show has a gun toting hero. What's going on?
I can't say I've watched too many of the non-Mirzapur non-Sacred Games shows. They didn't seem too compelling to me. I normally look out for anything gangster-ish that's coming out of Tamil or Malayalam cinema, because that is where I think innovation is happening. They have been the ones that have taken on the genre from Hindi cinema. Hindi cinema hasn't had a great gangster film for a while.
I have to ask you about the homoeroticism in the film. You allude to it twice in the book — once while noting the "intense homosociality of gangster films" and in the "veiled homoeroticism" in films like Kismet (1943). In Satya it was quite palpable. Even the first time Bhiku and Satya fight each other, they are almost growling and staring down each other with this erotic intensity. Of course we can read it as queer today, but is this not something any of the people involved thought through, or noticed?
I don't think anyone I spoke to had seen the film like that. The slight homoerotic currents are hard-coded into the genre to an extent that the person writing or directing a gangster film now doesn't not think of it in those terms — that intense bonds between men, so intense that it seems like it may be something more than just friendship.
I think it is definitely there in Satya, especially when Bhiku is talking to Satya after his 'Mumbai Ka King Kaun' dialogue, and he says he is jealous of Vidya, because he will go off with her and make a life. It's quite a statement to make. But I don't think the intention was to deliberately queer-code it. I think it is just that the genre has this sort of thing all the way from Howard Hawks' Scarface (1932) to the present day. So it is not something that you have to really work too hard to insert.