This was long overdue, but I managed to watch Ram Gopal Varma’s Sarkar on TV the other night. Hands up everyone who thinks this film, and Varma’s gangland trilogy in general, is overrated.
No hands? Okay, I’ll plough on alone.
I still haven’t seen Satya, which everyone raves about – but if the tone of that film is the same as that of Company and Sarkar I’ll probably be underwhelmed. I saw Company when it was released a few years ago and thought it interesting in many ways (I’d been out of the Bollywood scene for years and it was an eye-opener that movies like this were even being made). But it was also an unspeakably self-conscious film, one in which the director seemed to have framed nearly every shot in such a way as to shout out to the audience, “See what I’m doing here with composition? And see the use of lighting here?” Watching it, I rarely got the sense of a film that was allowed to breathe. It felt more like a collection of setpieces neatly arranged together like dominoes.
It was irritating enough that some of the most ostentatious attention-seeking moments were “inspired” from foreign films, but what was more annoying was the static, ponderous way in which RGV presented them. The long shot of the car in the rain, for instance, with the windshield wipers: that was a classic example of a scene that cried out: “Look at me!” (And lots of people did look at it; it’s been referenced in at least three of the reviews I’ve read.)
At the centre of it all, and emblematic for me of everything that was wrong with the film, was a spectacular non-performance by Ajay Devgan as the underworld don. Now as a movie reviewer one is used to hearing opinions that are completely different from one’s own; one assimilates them, shrugs and thinks noble, empathetic thoughts about how varied the human race is and how differently we all respond to things; but to this day I’m staggered by the acclaim given to Devgan’s performance in Company.
This wasn’t bad acting by any means, it was just no acting at all. Much of it consisted of the actor being shot in profile, in silhouette, in dark lighting, the cameraman doing all the work to make sure that the character conveyed the right amount of menace. Or Devgan just staring non-committally into the middle distance (that is, in the few scenes where he wasn’t wearing sunglasses) – a recurrent image that made me think of the famous Kuleshov experiment where a shot of a blank-faced actor was intercut with shots of a bowl of soup/a child playing/a dead body, so that the audience interpreted the actor’s expression as showing hunger/fondness/pity (though of course he had no idea what he was meant to be looking at in the first place).
But of course, as a seer once said, to be able to over-act you at least need to know how to act. By the same token, non-performances are often praised as great examples of “understated acting” – nowhere more so than in Indian cinema, where people are so starved of genuinely understated acting that they are quick to hail anything that remotely resembles it. I’ve seen enough of Ajay Devgan elsewhere to know he isn’t a bad actor, but he messed up this performance - with a little help from the man behind the lens.
Anyway, back then I was inclined to look at Company as a one-off, as an example of RGV being too earnest, and I figured that the next few films he made would be more relaxed. Watching Sarkar, however, I realised that this is probably the man’s patented approach to filmmaking. Almost every frame of this film was full of the same (over)careful composition of shots, the same stately gloominess, the same (over)long, (over)meaningful silences. (Seriously, without actually deleting any scenes Sarkar could easily have been 20-25 minutes shorter if it had been better paced.)
And oh oh oh, back to his direction of actors. In RGV’s world there has to be an element of barely suppressed hysteria in nearly every performance (except for the performances that require the actors to mostly sit around looking intense: Devgan in Company, Abhishek Bachchan in Sarkar). There are lots of pauses, lots of uncompleted sentences. A character will start to say something, stop abruptly, grit his teeth, look away, look back, start again. Presumably this is a stab at realism, an attempt to approximate real life where we don’t all speak like our lines have been pre-scripted for us. But it doesn’t ring true: you can’t achieve realism when you’re straining so hard, and so obviously, for it. (Some of us don’t achieve it even while living out our own lives!) I don’t know to what extent this is the director’s fault and to what extent the actors’, but both Company and Sarkar contain several moments of embarrassing faux-intensity masquerading as realistic acting. Worse, in the middle of all these careful attempts at understatement are inserted tired, melodramatic character tics – like the wicked sadhu in Sarkar, who moves a lock of his hair to one side after making a pronouncement.
And now, having said so many negative things about RGV’s films, let me retract a little. I didn’t actually regret watching either Company or Sarkar, the way I normally regret wasting my time on a film I didn’t like. Like I said before, there were many interesting things about those movies. There was enough in them to suggest that they were made by someone who knows his cinema very well. RGV counts among the directors whose films I’d always want to watch once, however dissatisfied I might be with them (another such director is M Night Shyamalan). But he’s probably spent more time than he needed to at film school. He has his theory down pat. Now he has to learn to make movies instead of textbooks.
P.S. since I haven’t supplied a review of Sarkar here, do read this fine one (albeit a favourable one) by Baradwaj Rangan, one of the best film writers in the blogosphere.