Interview Hindi

People feel Satya is real because it was true to its time: Saurabh Shukla

Marking 20 years of Satya, the actor spoke about the elements that made the film real, cult, and impactful even two decades down the line. 

Shriram Iyengar

The sight of Manoj Bajpayee, chest puffed out, screaming at the waves at Bandra's Bandstand, "Mumbai Ka King Kaun? Bhiku Mhatre! (Who is the king of Mumbai? Bhiku Mhatre)" was one of the several outstanding moments in Ram Gopal Varma's Satya (1998). A visceral, riveting story about the inner life and workings of the underworld, the film was also a turning point for the Hindi film industry, which was stuck in a rut of senseless commercial cinema at the time. 

While there are multiple factors that put Satya as a special film at the turn of the century, its function as the focal point of multiple creative minds makes it a key film in the narrative of Hindi cinema today. The film saw names like Vishal Bhardwaj (composer-turned-filmmaker), Apurva Asrani (editor), Manoj Bajpayee (actor), and a 23-year old Anurag Kashyap co-write the film with Saurabh Shukla. 

There was also the litany of memorable characters in the film that felt, for once, real and immediate. The introverted Satya, the ebullient and gregarious Bhiku Mhatre, the eccentric, and jovial Kallu Mama, the scheming politician Jhawle — these are familiar for anyone who has walked down the streets of Mumbai's sprawling metropolis. 

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Speaking with in 2016, Shukla had recalled, "We were all young newcomers. We had no pressure, nothing to prove. Right from the actors, writers, the director himself, we were all people who thought alike. We all just wanted to make the film which we loved. It was not a very planned thing, that we will get critical acclaim, or we will break a new ground." 

But the film did break new ground in terms of its content, style, and performances. Without a prominent name headlining it, the film about shabby, gauche gangsters managed to upstage films like Karan Johar's Kuch Kuch Hota Hai (1998), Vikram Bhatt's Ghulam (1998), David Dhawan's Bade Miyan Chote Miyan (1998), and Deepak Sareen's Jab Pyar Kisise Hota Hai (1998).

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Satya won six Filmfare awards, including the Best Movie, and Best Actor for Manoj Bajpayee. As opposed to the usual divide of gangsters as bad and cops as good people, Satya managed to create a microcosm of the underworld that was filled with characters who were normal in their actions, behaviour, and emotional outlook.

We contacted him again to speak on Satya and its 20th anniversary (the film was released on 3 July 1998). Shukla was emphatic that realism was the key to the film's memorability. 

Manoj Bajpayee and JD Chakravarthy in a still from Satya (1998)

"Why does Satya feel like a real film, or why people think it is so is because it is true to its time," remarked the veteran actor-writer. 

Having confessed that he was a 'reluctant writer', Shukla added that the team had approached the project as a film they liked and wanted to make, not as a project that would immortalise their status in cult cinema. 

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"Nobody thinks that. You don't create a cult film by thinking you are going to create a cult film. You just like something, and do it, and it is liked by people and somehow, the audiences react to it," he said. However, the actor went on to point that the film did mark a key point for Hindi cinema as it was "a film in those times which we thought was right, and we could make it without any interference of the market guidelines." 

Satya cemented Ram Gopal Varma's legacy as one of the most radical filmmakers in the 1990s. It also launched the careers of Anurag Kashyap, Manoj Bajpayee, Vishal Bhardwaj who have since become mainstays of the Hindi film industry. 

However, the film also was a key point in the rebirth of the gangster genre. Later, Varma himself tried to recreate the magic through films like Company (2002), D (2005) and Contract (2008), among others. He even attempted a sequel, Satya 2 (2013), which was rejected by the audience.

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Since then, Indian cinema seems to have moved on from the gangster genre into a more conscious issue-oriented cause. Shukla believes it is a sign of the changing times. 

"Why does Satya feel like a real film, or why people think it is so is because it is true to its times. Those were the days when the penetration of the underworld was great in the society. Now, that structure of the underworld does not exist. I mean it's not true, if you are trying to create it in today's time," he said. 

The veteran actor himself has carved a unique space with characters that have become memorable. But it is the character of Kallu Mama where it all began. On being asked about his reference point and the success of the character, the Shukla revealed, "My reference point was the real life. All human beings, more or less, they all are of a similar kind. They have envy, happiness, a moment of truth, a moment of escapism. Some people have a little more of envious qualities, while some have more of humour." 

From the kind-hearted inspector in Barfi! (2012), judge Tripathi in Jolly LLB (2013), the cunning astrologer in PK (2014) or the absolutely ruthless Tauji in Raid this year, Shukla has been on a roll of memorable characters. However, Shukla shrugs off any implication that he picks and chooses his characters. 

"It is not that I pick characters that way," he says, "Through the journey with that set of mind, I look at characters as human beings. I am not being judgemental about them. I accept that act. That act may be wrong, but that does not make the human being strange." 

Over the last 10 years, Indian cinema has slowly turned towards the power of stories and characters over star power. Artistes like Rajkummar Rao, Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Swara Bhasker, Radhika Apte have emerged as the new face of a content driven industry. But it all began with one tale of bloodlust and ambition 20 years ago with Satya. 

Watch our full interaction with Saurabh Shukla, recorded in 2016: