Article Hindi

Ram Gopal Varma: A man who loved bullies


Over the past 100 years, Hindi cinema has largely been a purveyor of escapist fare, with honorable exceptions. One of the exceptions in the 1990s and 2000s was a man called Ram Gopal Varma. RGV dared to tread through the dark bylanes of Mumbai to deliver cinema that would sear itself onto the consciousness of viewers.

Mayur Lookhar

Over the past 100 years, Hindi cinema has largely been a purveyor of escapist fare, with honorable exceptions. One of the exceptions in the 1990s and 2000s was a man called Ram Gopal Varma. RGV dared to tread through the dark bylanes of Mumbai to deliver cinema that would sear itself onto the consciousness of viewers.

Having established himself in Telugu cinema in the 1980s, Varma stepped into Hindi cinema with a remake of his superhit Shiva (1990). A crime thriller highlighting the criminalization of politics and politicization of student elections, Shiva came as a breath of fresh air in Hindi cinema. The film also made Telugu stars Nagarjuna and Amla household names in the rest of India.

Shiva had its romance and revenge tracks, but it struck a chord with audiences for the realistic portrayal of student life and political violence. Its success made Varma hot property in the Bombay film industry. He followed it up with Drohi (1992), a remake of Antham (1992), the love story of an orphan contract killer, played by Nagarjuna again.

RGV experimented with other genres too with Raat (1992), Rangeela (1995), and Bhoot (2003), but his creative genius was most evident in his gangster paradise dramas. Daud (1997) was his maiden foray into dark comedy, without the bullies. Shiva and Drohi had mean bullies like Bhavani (Raghuvaran); but with Daud, RGV introduced us to Pinky, an antagonist with a dark sense of humour. Seasoned actor Paresh Rawal played what many consider his finest role as a villain. Pinky pokes fun not just at his victims, but even mocks his own henchmen, Pushkar (Manoj Bajpai), Taarzan and Putlibai. 

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Crime has been an integral part of Indian cinema over the decades, but what is it that has made Ram Gopal Varma the Francis Ford Coppola of Bollywood? 

It must be recalled that RGV’s fascination for the dark world stems from his early days. The director was once quoted in an interview as saying that he was fascinated by people, particularly by bullies, right from his school days. He considered them to be gangsters. He wouldn’t behave like one, but he wanted such bullies by his side as friends. He even adulated them as heroes.

Bajpai was an unheralded actor in those days. Few would have imagined that this ‘henchman’ would turn into a star a year later. The crime ghettos shifted from Hyderabad to Mumbai, as RGV launched a Telugu star, Chakravarthy, with Satya (1998). However, it wasn’t the titular character, but Bhiku Mhatre, who became the toast of the nation. It was rare to have a mainstream Hindi film with bearded men as its protagonists. Bajpai's looks, mannerisms, and humour defined his Maharashtrian gangster. Bhiku Mhatre was not only a cold-blooded murderer, but also a romantic, loyal friend. 

Remarkably, a year later RGV scripted a socio-political drama Shool (1999), in which Bajpai played a righteous cop from Bihar. Shool bagged the National Award for Best Feature Film in 1999.

Later, RGV projected Bajpai as the eerie character Sameer Purnevale in Kaun (1999), a psychological thriller. Remarkably, Varma chose his muse Urmila Matondkar to play the mysterious psychotic killer. 

After a brief lull, however, Varma returned to his beloved subject, organised crime, with Company (2002). The film marked the debut of Vivek Oberoi. It was also the first time Ram Gopal Varma had cast Ajay Devgn in his film. Company was critically acclaimed and appreciated by audiences as well. Devgn’s look was inspired by that of fugitive gangster Dawood Ibrahim.

Real-life inspiration took definitive shape with the political thriller Sarkar (2005), which was hailed as the Indian version of 'The Godfather'. RGV did what many filmmakers hadn’t dared to do — create a character that was loosely based on the persona of Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray, who was alive then. The only actor capable of pulling it off was Amitabh Bachchan, a close friend of Thackeray.

Sarkar produced other great characters as well. Swamiji, inspired by controversial godman Chandraswami, and Selva Mani, played by noted South Indian actor Kota Srinivasa Rao. The latter proved very popular with Hindi film audiences. Sarkar also provided a fillip to budding actor Zakir Hussain’s career. Zakir Hussain played the antagonist Rashid. After Sarkar, Varma made a few more crime dramas, including the sequel to Sarkar and a remake of Shiva, but these films proved to be pale shadows of his earlier works.

Last year, the filmmaker made a film on notorious bandit Veerappan. That film didn't end his lean patch, but maverick filmmaker will pin his hopes on Sarkar 3 that releases on 12 May.