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Dude where’s my theory? Satya and Hindi gangster film

(this post is based on a paper on the Indian gangster film presented at the annual MeCCSA conference, 2006, Coventry, UK)

Gangster films often exploit the public imagination of crime often circulated through mass media discourse. For example, in Hollywood studios often claimed that the films were based on reality/immediate events – “stories taken from headlines”. Similarly, Satya and RGV too explicitly reference Bombay and the reality of the citizen’s harsh existence. Gangster and criminal representations have appeal due to audiences’ own ambivalence towards the crime and the rewards gained by the hardworking criminal – which resonates with individual enterprise in a capitalist system. I argue here that most film commentators and critics miss the point about Satya by focusing excessively on “realism”. Thus, though it is persuasive that the Mumbai gangland killings brought the gangster into popular imagination through extensive (and dramatic) media coverage, its salience can be located in the rise of late capitalism and the audience’s identification with the fruits of individual labour. I would like to argue that the film is structurally similar to the early Hollywood gangster films such as Little Caesar . The hypothesis I offer is that both the films deal with a society in transition and the filmmakers/scriptwriters must be consciously/subconsciously referencing the time they lived in.

It is instructive to note that following WWII, the criminal became visible for the emotional euphoria of crime, rather than material gain. For example after the end of the war, gangster films were no longer based on the exploits of Capone or Dillinger but on the true to life stories of Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate; Perry Smith and Richard Hickock, the murderers of the Clutter family in cold blood; Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler; Charles Whitman, the Texas tower sniper; San Francisco’s Zodiac Killer; Charles Manson.

The pre-90s gangster/mob/crime films

Films such as Deewar are located around the motif of family. Patriarchal frameworks act as devices for plot organisation and character development. Key elements (or motifs) that we can find in such films are

  • Loss of father
  • Kinship ties
  • Duties and roles: father, mother, brother, son
  • City as site of trauma of ideal
  • Fate
  • Citizenship and state

Organised crime and Mumbai

Organised crime in Mumbai can be divided into the following broad phases:

  • 1960s to late 70s: smuggling contraband
  • Late 70s-80s: trade unionism
  • Late 80s: textile industry collapse
  • 1990 and economic liberalisation
  • 1992. Hindu nationalism and communalisation of crime

It is interesting to note that the pre-90s gangster film does not exploit the myth/reality of the real-life gangster/mob. Instead the films find parallels in the British post-war gangster films and its relationship with censorship. That is, the gangster is ultimately a good-hearted guy, who reconciles with the state. In comparison, RGV’s gangster films appropriated the mass-mediated myths of the Mumbai gangland scenario.

Deewar

Deewar (The Wall) Yash Chopra, 1975
Contrary to the valorisation of the film around the character of Vijay, critics miss a key point about narrative, plot, and devices. It requires the loss of the father to trigger the plot. The narrative is driven by characters trapped in patriarchal and moral frameworks and the state is introduced to appropriate the abstract citizen (in Ravi), while the feudal order (represented in Vijay and Sumitra Devi) subvert it at the same time. This is neatly packaged in a dramaturgical tradition of melodrama, with resonating motifs of blood ties, fate, citizenship, and duty. The iconography is rested on the triumvirate of Vijay Verma, Sumitra Devi, and Ravi Verma (see poster).

Parinda

Parinda (Pigeons), Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1989

It is interesting how Parinda signals the beginnings of the shift in the representation of the Mumbai crime scene. The plot in the film is driven by the conflict between citizen subject and criminal and a desire to lead a ‘normal’ life. However, Vidhu Vinod Chopra follows the narrative framework of films before him, though he must be credited with reinterpreting the narrative conventions of Deewar, Trishul — particularly love, fate, and kinship. Chopra should also be credited with the introduction of the criminal psycopath as a motif for the reality of the criminal world, a system obsessed with performance, a system that expects winners at any cost. Free from responsibility, free from guilt, free from anxiety, he pursues his interest without compunction, manipulating others to reach his goals. Corporation president, statesman, educator, physician; his calling is irrelevant: his features are everywhere the same.

Satya and Little Caesar

Satya (1998), Ram Gopal Varma

Cashing in on the myth of the Bombay underworld, Satya introduces new narrative norms. Satya should be examined not just for its elements of film but also the way the RGV primed critics and audiences about the film’s “authenticity”.

The real Don isn’t a gelled hair villain surrounded by bikini-clad women. He isn’t talking on the cellphone sitting in Mauritius. (RGV, 2004)

In my research, I noted that RGV has courted the film critic/journalist to his advantage, exploiting their contempt for “masala” film and setting himself as the “minority auteur”. The film references the economic-reforms era motif of enterprise and market and eschews the earlier traditions of family/kinship ties.

Similarities between Satya and pre-war gangster films

I would like to argue that Satya has more structural similarities to Little Caesar. Like in Caesar the opening of film is a device to establish the character, drive the plot, and form the basis of the story – an irrevocable act of violence that establishes the fatalism of the gangster. The audiences are informed that once a first step has been taken, one’s fate is sealed, there is no turning back. On the other hand, once entered into, mob life is impossible to get out of. In Caesar, the opening scene depicts Rico committing a robbery of a gas station. It is futile to hide, escape the gang, or one’s destiny. Similarly, in Satya, the protagonist’s action of slashing the face of an underling seals his fate. From then on, the plot is more about understanding the individual in a system very similar to capitalism.

They are hard-luck stories of a working class and/or immigrant tough who scrambles his way to the top of the underworld heap. He procures wealth, muscle, women, along with the ire of his rivals and the law. Violence is necessary for the persona of the gangster and the escalation in violence helps in the transition from one level of the mob to the other. The level of violence also serves to contrast his gracious manners and sophistication.

Little Caeser

Little Caeser

Satya. Note the similarities in the iconography of the two posters

Satya. Note the similarities in the iconography of the two posters

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