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Shiva: The film that gave us Ram Gopal Varma

In 1989, a 28-year old civil engineering student and video library owner embarked on a journey that would change the face of Indian cinema. His first film about college politics and violence would come to define one of the most controversial, yet talented directors of our times.

Shriram Iyengar

Controversy and Ram Gopal Varma go hand in hand these days. From his bombastic tweets to his snarky takes on Bollywood stars, Varma never minces his words. It is this very quality that drives a divisive line between cinephiles who stand for and against this mercurial filmmaker. With none of his films making an impact in the last decade, it is easy to dismiss Ram Gopal Varma as a 'has been'. But the filmmaker remains the man who changed the perception of cinema among audiences.

In many ways, Varma's career shares traits with another controversial auteur in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino. Like Tarantino, Varma is renowned for his violent, gritty films filled with blood, and gore. Like Tarantino, Varma too was a cinephile who ran a video library and was raised on a steady diet of Indian and foreign cinema. Like Tarantino, Varma too is known to have changed the stylistic traditions prevalent in Bollywood. It all began in 1989,with the film ‘Shiva’. It came when Ram Gopal Varma was still an amateur dabbling with the idea of a gothic horror film called 'Raat'. As he himself admits in his blog, “Ironically my memory of Shiva is very different primarily because that was not a film I have done with great enthusiasm as my heart was more in “Raat”. Only because Nagarjuna’s brother Venkat asked me if I can come up with a hero-‘centric’ story I just hurriedly put together some college experiences of mine and wrote a first one-line story in about 30 minutes. I literally copied scenes and characters from films like Kaalicharan, Arjun and a host of other films of that time. All in all Shiva for me was more of an entry point into the industry and to establish a certain position of strength.”

Strangely, 'Raat' perished to become a trivia in the long list of films that Varma made. 'Shiva' became the landmark that would define his emergence as the radical young director who would change the face of Indian cinema. A film on college politics and violence, 'Shiva' starred one of the biggest stars of the Telugu industry, Akkineni Nagarjuna. What set the film apart was the underplayed characters of its protagonist and the villain, set against their violent actions. In the 80s, Indian cinema was exploding with over the top action sequences, one liners and heroes who could munch the scenery with their ever changing facial twitches. In contrast, both Nagarjuna and Raghuvaran (as the mesmerizingly menacing Bhavani) underplayed their characters, and only exploded with their fists on the screen, a la Bruce Lee in 'Return of the Dragon'. Speaking of this style, the director says “In those days, they (audiences) were not used to such underplayed performances and subtleties and hence, understandably disturbed.”

The film was also Ram Gopal Varma's first exposure to filming. True to his nature, Varma used any and every technique that helped him tell his story better. In doing so, he trampled a number of stylistic traditions. He admits he did not aim to be a trendsetter. His weird low camera angle shots, that were to become his trademark, shocked industry regulars and traditionalists. It also marked the beginnings of the Steadicam, an equipment that is now the mandatory addition to any film shoot. He adds in his blog, “I read about the steadicam in the ‘American Cinematographer’ magazine and I was talking about it to a camera assistant in the studio that something like that exists in Hollywood, when he shockingly revealed to me that there is one even in Chennai for the past 4 years... I tested it out and wanted to use it but my cameraman was reluctant saying that one can’t center it or balance it, to which I said if we are using it in a chase scene as a point of view why should that matter.”

Shiva also marked the departure from stylistic violence that would define the Bollywood of the 80s. The film opens with a brutally violent scene of a gang bashing a student outside the college. The scene has none of the 'dishoom' 'boom' soundtrack that one often expects in an 80s film. The slow subtle soundtrack enhanced the menacing brutality of the beatdown. Realism was an aspect that would come to define Ram Gopal Varma further. Through films like Satya and Company, he would improve upon his earlier idea of shades of violence being a part of day to day life. In Shiva, Nagarjuna goes through college witnessing his friends accepting brutality as a part of their daily life. One of the iconic action sequences in the film involves Shiva using the lowly bicycle chain to fight the henchmen in his college. The scene would prove to be the biggest crowd puller. It is an instance of how Varma's creative imagination combines with his realistic instincts to enhance a scene. He says “Throughout the shooting I wasn’t too sure how that would be received because after Venkat liked it very much I went home and tried to break the cycle chain and realized the impossibility of it, But I told myself that since nobody would have tried it, it just might look believable. But now after all these years the sheer number of people who come and claim to me that they broke a cycle chain after watching ‘Shiva’ is the ultimate example of how imagination can take over and become a reality in time.”


With a beautiful soundtrack composed by the maestro, Ilaiyaraja, the brooding presence of Nagarjuna and the radically violent fight scenes, ‘Shiva’ became a hit on its release. It spawned a thousand remakes, none of which held the iconic status that Ram Gopal Varma’s cinematic debut achieved. In an age when Indian cinema returns to the brash, bold, theme of experimentation, Ram Gopal Varma remains conspicuous by his absence. The filmmaker who defied conventions and theories of filmmaking through his works is now considered by many to be a lost man. But it is important to remember that many filmmakers like Anurag Kashyap, Shimit Amin, Sriram Raghavan began their careers under Ram Gopal Varma. It was his ability to break through the looking glass that created an opportunity for a new breed of Indian filmmaker. As he said on the 25th anniversary of the movie, “The vision I had was enhanced by people. People say I broke rules but I didn’t know them to break!...If nobody intended then, how did it happen. George Bernard Shaw said ‘Great things happen. I think it fell down from nowhere!”

That it fell down, would be an understatement of great proportions. Shiva was a film that changed Indian perception of cinema and its ability to shock.