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Modernity and the discourse surrounding RGV

Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma

Filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma

RGV’s ascent is marked by a discourse about the “modernisation” of the Indian popular film through a break from its song and dance melodrama format and movement into realism and minority auteurship (note 1). This is not merely a function of the film form (note 2), but also the mass media’s active support of the filmmaker (especially in the early stages) after the success of films such as Rangeela and Satya. I would like to argue that in RGV, the media elites have sought the unfinished project of realism, the goal to get Indian cinema out of its “not-yetness”. A parallel to this desire can be found in the recent clamour for the “multiplex” film. However, RGV’s canonisation is not the first instance of the elite obsession with realism and disdain for the popular film form (note 3). This demonstrates how certain ideas about cinema are picked up and circulated for mass consumption. Here we sample the media valorisation of RGV post-Satya. Each citation has a brief analysis.

1. Anon (2004) “RAM GOPAL VARMA” Screen Weekly [Online] www.screenindia.com

The writer here makes a distinction between Satya and the “mainstream” film. The reporter reminds readers about the canonical status of Satya — achieved through “realism”. It reveals the writer/reporter/magazine’s bias towards verisimilitude and the contempt for the portrayal of gangsters/mob in Hindi films before Satya.

Satya breaks the stereotypes glorified by mainstream cinema. The real Don isn’t a gelled hair villain surrounded by bikini-clad women. He isn’t talking on the cellphone sitting in Mauritius.

2. Sharma, Devesh (2002) “Off the beaten track” Screen Weekly [Online] www.screenindia.com

This was an interview with Ram Gopal Varma, in which Satya is referenced – not just for its continuity in Company but also the approach to filmmaking, a modernising moment in Hindi cinema.

Is Company a sequel to Satya?
No, it’s different from Satya and the difference lies in the fact that while Satya was a film about a man’s progress in the underworld, in Company, the underworld itself is the hero.

The title is pretty intriguing?
I believe that the underworld is like any corporate entity. Like other business concerns it too has its ups and downs, promotions and demotions. Only when one gets fired, the bullets are for real.

You did a lot of research for Satya, reportedly even met people from the underworld…
(Cuts in) Let me clarify that I have yet to meet someone connected with the underworld. The information I collected with Satya was primarily from crime reporters, newspapers and police officers.

3. Dwyer, Rachel (2006) “Bollywood’s new dream: Indian cinema has a global future in its sights” New Statesman

The film scholar from SOAS, in an article for the magazine, differentiates RGV for realism. Thus, there is a desire to classify the Hindi film and RGV get’s his due place as an equal to Yash Chopra and Sanjay Leela Bhansali.

The 1990s saw certain production houses associated with specific styles: the big budget romance shot in exotic locations with the top stars, was associated with Yash Raj Films headed by the veteran Yash Chopra; while Ram Gopal Varma’s company was linked to gangster and realistic genres (1998’s Satya) and Sanjay Leela Bhansali emerged with a new visual and musical richness (such as his 2002 remaking of Devdas).

4. Chatterjee, Saibal (2005) “Myopia still looms large”Hindustan Times [Online]

An even larger number of copycats have tried and failed to imitate Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya and Farhan Akhtar’s Dil Chahta Hai. Moral of the story: original and individual styles cannot be stenciled. They have their own rhythm and logic.

5. Neelakantan, Shailaja (2003) “Bollywood’s Tarantino and his band of outsiders” Salon [Online]

Again, an enthusiastic support for “realism” and contempt for what is regarded as a typical Hindi film.

Director and producer Ram Gopal Varma (aka “RGV”) has revolutionized India’s tradition-bound film biz, rejecting classic costume musicals and weepy melodramas for gritty, urban, low-budget realism.

In the above report, RGV is quoteded as saying: “I am to Bollywood what Al-Qaeda is to America”

6. Ferrao, Dominic (2003) “Ramu hits the global highway” Times of India [Online]

Here the writer points to the contribution RGV made to the industry by introducing filmic modernity through a film such as Satya and then goes on to credit all subsequent “innovations” to him.

After Satya , films like Kaun, Company and Road from the Varma banner, have kept the beacon burning, pointing the way for other budding filmmakers who would have never attempted to step off the beaten path — but for the success Ramu achieved.

7. Gupta, Shubhra (2003) “Bollywood, Hollywood: Contrasting tales” BusinessLine [Online]

The journalist here heaps scorn on the industry practice of repeating success stories and praises RGV for his innovative film style.

In the last decade, rising production costs, astronomical star fees, and other commercial imperatives have driven filmmakers into a corner where derivative stories, and styles, have been the norm. If a Sooraj Barjatya makes Rs 100 crore with his four-hour-long marriage video, ‘Hum Aapke Hain Koun’, along comes an Aditya Chopra, and does the same in his ‘Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge’. So does Karan Johar in his ‘Kuch Kuch Hota Hai’. Everybody and their uncle climbs on to the marriage bandwagon: they make copies without any of the charm or the novelty of the ‘originals’, and the industry is struck all in a heap because they fail.

As the past year proved, with mounting losses of over Rs 300 crore, it’s not just the lavish ‘shaadis’ audiences are tired of. Mafia tales, too, have to have something new about them; not everybody can be a Ram Gopal Varma, with his landmark ‘Satya’, and ‘Company’. It’s time to stop aping old success. It’s time to move on.

Anon (2003) “2002’S PERFECT 10” The Statesman [Online]

Company: Ram Gopal Varma’s brooding intense Coppola-esque study of gangsterism was by far the finest underworld film made in this country, way superior to his own raw real and uneven Satya.

Notes:
1. Minority auteur is defined as a strategy of actively playing up one’s minority status in the industry. Thus, the filmmaker makes explicit references and mimics the dominant film form in camp style. For example, in RGV’s films such as Rangeela, Satya, Company, Sarkar one can find explicit references to the mainstream film industry, key personnel, and their practices.
2. Noel Carroll argues that though there are many usages of the term film form or style, the common usages include general style, personal style, and the style or form of the individual film. Both general style and personal style refer to groups of film; their domain is a body of work. The style or form of the individual film refers to a specific film, such as Uski Roti. General style refers to a group of films by more than one filmmaker as in the notion of the Classical Hollywood Cinema or the Hindi Popular Cinema. Personal style refers to the films of a single filmmaker, such as Ram Gopal varma.
3. During the FFC era too, the mass media particularly Screen and Filmfare actively critiqued the popular film form.

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