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In Telugu speaking states, one pursues engineering to truly discover one’s passion. Engineering, in that sense, is puberty for a Telugu boy.

It is not surprising that a number of Telugu men studied engineering, worked for a few years, saved money, and became independent filmmakers. Nagesh Kukunoor, Shekar Kammula, Srinivas Avasarala, Tharun Bhascker – it is a long list.

But the first among them was Ram Gopal Varma.

To understand the context in which he made his first film, one needs to have some context of Telugu cinema of the 80s. At one end were directors like K. Vishwanath and Vamsi. At the other, were K. Raghavendra Rao and EVV Satyanarayana. The former made realistic films about social evils. The latter made parrots pluck grapes from heroines’ navels.

The industry was going through a shift in superstars. The older generation of Krishna and Sobhan Babu were phasing out. NT Rama Rao still made movies but had already set his eyes on politics. A new breed of actors – Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna and Venkatesh were filling their shoes.

Everything about his films – from the lighting, sound design to cinematography – had a distinct, gritty feel to it. And yet, the man was invisible. He rarely gave interviews or clicked pictures. Unthinkable as it seems today, the Ram Gopal Varma of the 90s was an invisible devil.

But while the faces had changed, the roles remained the same. The Telugu hero was expected to master the Navarasas – the nine emotions. He had to flirt with the ladies, kill the villains, save his sister’s reputation, and deliver justice to the downtrodden.

In 1989, Siva released. Directed by a debutant who spoke English and read comic books. Who had no fucks to give for the decade-old tradition that was the Telugu film industry. The film opened to thunderous applause, and the industry hasn’t been the same since.

There is a cliché in Hyderabad – Siva choosaam, bandiekkaam (‘We watched Siva, and hopped on to the bus’). In the next few years, a slew of directors, actors and writers would work under the rookie. In the next three decades, Ram Gopal Varma would go on to make nearly 120 films – a few of them great, some passable, the others putrid.

Of all the filmmakers of the 90s, Ram Gopal Varma’s films are the most recognisable. His heroes are larger-than-life but rooted in the real. They smashed the villains to a pulp but did not dance in Switzerland after the intermission.

Everything about his films – from the lighting, sound design to cinematography – had a distinct, gritty feel to it. And yet, the man was invisible. He rarely gave interviews or clicked pictures. Unthinkable as it seems today, the Ram Gopal Varma of the 90s was an invisible devil.

His films did not cast traditionally good-looking actors. JD Chakravarty looked like a pot-smoking Arts student who borrows his juniors’ kurtas. Manoj Bajpayee like the senior who bullied JD Chakravarty in the same college. His writers did not come from decades of experience – but were youngsters like Anurag Kashyap and Jaideep Sahni who had nothing but originality and rawness.

Also Read: Ram Gopal Varma On 20 Years Of Satya

His films also avoided the ‘meet-cute’ – a done-to-death trope in Telugu cinema. Most Telugu films are obsessed with meet-cute. It was alright at the time to make a film whose conflict is that the hero saw the heroine’s navel (Kushi). In Varma’s films, the evil people were already evil. The lovers were already lovers.

Most of these insights were derived in hindsight. You see, I began watching films in 2004.

Before 2002, I had watched a total of four Hindi films – Maine Pyar Kiya, Hatim Tai, Karan Arjun, and (thanks to our hostel warden being in a good mood) – Lagaan.

I first walked into a cinema hall in 2002 to watch Devdas, seated on a bench in the front because the usher had pocketed the ticket money. In the 2000s, the Khans were going through a rough patch. Their tested modules (Mann, Yeh Hai Jalwa) were bombing. Their experiments (Swades, Mangal Pandey) were tanking.

In the 2000s, Ram Gopal Varma’s film company – ‘Factory’ – was a film industry by itself. Films releasing every month; helmed by newbies, and starring newcomers. They had no songs, no sisters getting assaulted, and no mother breaking her bangles. They were films that reeked of freshness, and involved youngsters. Which is not to say that Varma hasn’t worked with legends.

But when he did work with them, he somehow got them to adhere to his aesthetics. Gulzar sounds like a poetic Ramu in ‘Goli maar bheje mein‘. Rahman is raunchy in Daud and Rangeela. Illiayaraaja – the revered king of melodies – gives his best work in the background score of Siva. Sridevi looks and sounds like she never did in Kshana Kshanam. Mohanlal – the Malayali demigod – plays a police inspector who rounds up criminals with his eyes.

In that decade, Ram Gopal Varma was on a spree. He produced an average of five films a year – all of them starring non-stars, made on small budgets, and a unique script. There were comedies like Love Ke Liye Kuchh Bhi Karega, horror films like Bhoot, and omnibuses like Darna Mana Hai.

I was too enamoured by the movies to take an objective call on their quality. I would walk out of a hall moved by a film like Dil Vil Pyar Vyar and completely ignore the cinematic genius of a film like Khosla Ka Ghosla. Cinema halls in Bhubaneswar priced their tickets at 22 rupees, and I hated popcorn anyway. It was a good time to be at the movies.

By the 2010s, Ram Gopal Varma’s films seemed to have developed Tennis Elbow.

And that’s the other thing about his films. It is difficult to intellectualise them. Unlike say Mani Ratnam and Satyajit Ray, whose films are deep wells of symbolism and cinematic artistry – Varma’s films are efficient when they work (Shool, Satya) and terrible when they don’t (Naach, Darling).

Everything that worked for him earlier – the wacky camera angles, the rousing background score – were amped up to an over-indulgence. Ram Gopal Varma doesn’t seem to think of cinema as an art form – but rather like individual products that he churns out for the market.

He wasn’t emotionally attached to his films, and the audience finally caught up with it. Even though he had changed the grammar of mainstream cinema towards a more realistic lens, he couldn’t care less.

And that’s the other thing about his films. It is difficult to intellectualise them. Unlike say Mani Ratnam and Satyajit Ray, whose films are deep wells of symbolism and cinematic artistry – Varma’s films are efficient when they work (Shool, Satya) and terrible when they don’t (Naach, Darling).

Varma does not possess the other great quality that is often associated with maestros – originality. His films (Luv Ke Liye Kuchh Bhi Karega, Nishabd) are blatant rip-offs of Hollywood hits. His obsession with The Godfather reflects in every third movie he makes. His heroes are all Indianised versions of Bruce Lee.

So, what really, is the legacy of Ram Gopal Varma?

Krishna Nagar is a colony in Hyderabad. Every single person there – from auto-drivers to waiters, to shopkeepers – is a ‘struggler’. Tiny rooms house aspiring writers and directors. The route to Telugu cinema is simple and linear – you slog it out in Krishna Nagar and then move to Film Nagar after making it.

I lived in Krishna Nagar for a year, fascinated by the place and its people. If Ram Gopal Varma stood for elections from Krishna Nagar, he would be elected to the Assembly every year, year after year. He is idolised and worshipped, his posters adorn their walls. Nearly every person in Krishna Nagar moved to Hyderabad after watching Varma’s films.

If we zoom out a little, Ram Gopal Varma’s films changed the landscape of Hindi cinema too. He made songs in Switzerland cringe-worthy. He showed that it was alright to have a film without songs, and a hero that didn’t look like a Gladrags model. He made it possible for people like Anurag Kashyap, Manoj Bajpayee and a slew of other ‘outsiders’ to make films.

Ram Gopal Varma’s films were never made to be discussed in film theories – he simply has no fucks to give about those matters. He is a guy who didn’t get over his Ayn Rand and Bruce Lee fascination. He does not wish to change the world through his films – just to keep making them. In that sense, Ram Gopal Varma is more of a hustler than an auteur. A salesman amidst painters. Perhaps history will be kinder to him in the way that it is to Govinda. Perhaps it won’t.

As opposed to the shy, silent director of the 90s, Ram Gopal Varma is omnipresent today. His tweets are more entertaining than his films, and he has a knack of staying relevant on social media. He makes sensational announcements every week and continues to have millions talking about him.

It seems absurd to us because it is not what we expect from filmmakers. We expect them to be mature, philosophical – even noble. Varma enjoys being the crook.

His next film Lakshmi’s NTR releases in a few days. It is the story of NT Rama Rao’s second marriage, and how he got back-stabbed by Chandrababu Naidu. NTR and Naidu are two of the biggest Telugu icons in the world, but I doubt Ram Gopal Varma cares.

He will take all the fucks he has to give, mix them in a peg of vodka, and tweet about it.

(With additional inputs by Saikiran Rayaprolu).

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