Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Deconstructing RGV: Company, Sarkar

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.


  1. Sarkar was crap. I loved Company and Satya and I'm afraid this is one place where I will totally disagree with you regarding Ajay Devgan's character. One interesting facet of RGV's films is that you recall each and every character - their accents, their mannerisms, religion and approach to the underworld. They are beautifully constructed. What I like most about RGV is that he assumes that his audience is intelligent and do not need to be spoon fed.

    Over at rec.arts.movies.local.indian, we've debated on the scene in 'D' when Deshu notices a chap missing from a near-empty compartment in a train (he is pushed off by goons) and then hardly reacts. His character is defined for us at that moment. An amazing scene. This was not a film that could be compared to Satya or Company, but had its moments.

  2. Looks like instead of enjoying the movie, you were watching it with a decidedly critical angle. You miss out real good moments when you wear the critic's cap.

    While Satya is class apart, a performance RGV will not able to repeat, Company was not half as bad as you make it sound. You missed Mohan Lal's brilliance. Strength of Devgan's character is his moments of silence.

    In recent years, these two movies, Satya to a larger extent, have re-defined the cinema on underworld/mafia.

    In comparison (or even otherwise), Sarkar was downright mediocre.

  3. Agreed with your review, Sarkar was underwhelming for me. Despite having 3 of the best actors around (Amitabh has fallen off in recent years) RGV hardly showed much interaction between characters. There is that 1 scene when the family is eating dinner and there is an arguement between KK Menon & AB...but besides that there is nothing. He should have concentrated more on the friction between Sarkar and the older son. The long pauses and brooding looks started with the character of Satya where atleast it was justified. Now he is doing it with all his "realistic films."
    But Satya deserves all the praise it gets - its a landmark film. Kinda like Parinda was in the 80's with its portrayal of the underworld.
    I don't remember much from Company apart from Vivek Oberoi being half-decent and thereby reaching the zenith of his acting capabilities. :p

  4. I had a mini-take on the movie here. The thing about RGVs movies is that there's something interesting in them, and the first half of the movie usually is taut. But there's too much of the "look how cool i am as a filmmaker" stuff going on.

    Because of that RGV makes quite a few fairly good movies.....but i haven't yet seen a great movie coming out of the Factory.

  5. It seems to me that a lot of favourable reviews lead to accusations that the reviewer didn't watch the movie with a critical eye, and unfavourable reviews get the response "Why can't you watch it like a normal viewer would?"

    Anyway, the thing I found the most irritating about Sarkar (as I remember from my one and only viewing months ago) was the absurdly large amount of camera movement (most of it slow pans). It was as if rather than the camera being static and things happening in front of it, not much happened on screen, but the movement was an attempt to make it seem as if it was.

    Sarkar wasn't a bad movie. I just found that the nuances were so overly wrought that they didn't actually remain nuances. I could, however, see why all my friends loved it (and that comment isn't exactly praise).

  6. Hmmm. I'd love to be able to tell you which of the movies you mention I've seen or haven't seen, but I can't really tell. I'm pretty sure that I haven't seen Sarkar and that I have seen Company and Satya, and that overall I thought Satya was the best of the lot, but I couldn't say for sure. And that's my fundamental problem with RGV - I think his self-consciousness is interesting (and a pleasant break from more standard fare) but there's just about enough attitude there to make about half a really good movie. After the first half of Satya you're basically just watching the same movie, again and again. And after a while the deja vu gets you.

    As for Devgan's performance - I thought the whole point was that he wasn't acting - which is quite an achievement in a world where Shah Rukh Khan gets paid to inflict his histrionics on people. Personally, I was so convinced that Devgan would overact that his lack of effort came as a pleasant surprise. Plus to give RGV his due, the character worked, even if the reason it worked had more to do with camera work than any talent on Devgan's part.

  7. Style over substance has defined RGV since he made Shiva in the early 90s,If u want to see an example of this school of filmmaking see films like Daud and Mast ..sometimes when he gets it right ( like in Satya) then the result is great.

  8. i agreed with most of what you said abt sarkar, although i did like ajay devgan in company.

    one point i particularly appreciated was what you said abt RGV's realism.
    his idea of realism is clearly gospel according to lee strasberg. the inexplicable pauses, the stutters, the breaking away of eye contact all of them.

  9. i think the critic's hat is wrought with trouble- damned if you do, damned if you don't. While

    I see the whole 'cool' aspect of RGV's film making, I can't condemn it. An average viewer does not think of 'what the director is trying to do' too often, he only feels what the director is able to make him feel. If that reaction is "oh thats cool" via film making that is also "look I am cool", whats wrong with that?

    As for Satya, it is ruined for you, my friend. there is no way you will be able to see it with the eyes that most people did when it was released. It was a bolt from the blue, something that was wholly captivating, and collar-grabbingly so.

  10. infact RGV has gotten worse as his trilogy progressed. Satya was great.. Company good and Sarkar middlin. Yep looks like u missed Mohanlal entirely.. his brilliant dialogues delviered almost by the way.. gave Company that twist.

    On another note, Drohi directed by RGV and produced by Boney Kapoor,I think, has many shades of Satya without the flamboyance of it and has a distinct RGV touch .. see that too if u have not.

  11. I’ve seen enough of Ajay Devgan elsewhere to know he isn’t a bad actor...

    give me one example of good acting by this man!

  12. even though i agree with what you have said, i think people from delhi shouldn't be allowed to comment on anything related to art, film or literature, simply because they're philistines. uncouth, to the last man.

  13. Sarkar disturbed me because of the way RGV utterly worships his central character. The Godfather films made no secret of their dubious morality; they were simply so focused on the world of the mafia that the break between it and the rest of the world was never a cause for concern. On the other hand, here is Sarkar, a man who inflicts harm and violence on the enemies of his friends - and yet, when he's taken to jail, the visual comparision with Gandhi, of all people, is meant to hit you in the face. The film might have made a statement without the undue justification of Sarkar.

    And I thought Amitabh was completely the wrong actor for the role. There you are in lower-middle-class Mumbai, meant to be steeped in the Dagdi Chawl ethos, I presume, and here is Sarkar with his pregnant thespian pauses and spotless black clothing and benevolent dictatorial presence. Not a bad politician at all, but never a gangster. The only sequences I really enjoyed were KK's, although even he couldn't save it from awkwardness. It doesn't even bear comparision with Maqbool, which did everything it set out to do with ruthless accuracy.

  14. Jabberwock,
    Finally somebody mentions about those really over-long silences with a loud BGM in Sarkar. Talking about those silences (which I don't detest per se), it was in "Naach" they were used as much as in "Sarkar". My take on "Sarkar" here.
    In "Company", Devgan's character is very silent. But apart from that, it doesn't have much of those "ominous" silences or whatever, as far as I remember.
    "Satya" was raw, gritty and my absolute favourite. It didn't use anything of what RGV calls as his "craft" in his recent productions; except those trademark shot compositions, of course!

  15. well your points are probably valid. but then you dont watch films like
    "haan mein ne bhi pyaar kiya hai".

    for the hungry even stale bread is wonderful:) even if the package says its a cake.

    i felt company was better than satya or sarkar.

  16. Sumptuous to say the least! Highly enlightening discussion happening here. Some of your observations Jai are bang on like the long brooding silences meant to add that touch of realism & the self-conscious camera work. But hey you missed out on his cutting pattern though. You see the man has a distinct penchant for jump cuts, which he uses at different points to highlight the intensity.

    Another point to be added is that our man knows his underworld and how! Rarely does one see such command over the intricacies of the characters and their surroundings especially if they belong to the underworld. The nuances of Chandu Nagare and his life in the jhopadpatti are first rate. The phenomena (which RGV said in an interview that intrigued him the most) of the wives and girlfriends of the underworld bhais having no pangs of guilt or repentance infact possessing a sense of admiration for their spouses is fascinating. That way Antara Mali’s character in Company is superbly etched out. Ironically he didn’t do justice to Supriya Pathak’s role in Sarkar knowing that she would have delivered if given the opportunity.

  17. Too much to respond to, aargghh! so here are some random scattered replies:

    Quizman, Sunil, Zero: thanks for the links. Everyone has an opinion on RGV it seems - there’s plenty on him and his films in the blogosphere.

    Shashikant, Aditya, Vague: the critic-vs-casual viewer debate is a never-ending and eventually pointless one. One can easily argue for both sides: watching King Kong last evening and seeing the awed reactions of people around me (some of whom had no idea what the film’s storyline was), it occurred to me that I was probably too jaded to appreciate some aspects of it. Too much movie-knowledge can be a bad thing.

    Falstaff: I’d rather watch the hammiest Shah Rukh performance (actually, make that the third-hammiest Shah Rukh performance!) than the misguided “understatement” one sees many actors indulging in. Back to the “to overact, you need to be able to act” mantra.

    Vivek: the Strasberg school was often precious and over-mannered, and Method actors have often been enormously self-indulgent - but RGV’s lot are in another leagure altogether.

    Apologies to everyone about Mohanlal - yes, he was really good. I’ve probably forgotten many things about Company - my overriding impression of it today is Devgan in those gogs, doing absolutely nothing.

  18. Jai, adding to the confusion. I had the same view after watching Sarkar. I said after emerging from the theatre: Sticking out the camera at bizarre angles scene after scene does not a great movie make. In response, the milieu (thebagchi and tridib included) was like Horror! Horror!
    BTW, Satya, in comparison, seemed to be honest and spontaneous filmmaking.

  19. I am not a critic, nor do I know so much about the fils, as is known by Arjun and few reviewers..FEW.However,I feel that command over a language makes a lot of difference.Hindi as a language is looked down upon, and every few have the time to appreciate and learn it.Very few of us TRY to communicate in hindi.Now magnify this situation and we have the actors, who might never have spoken hindi for more than five minutes at a stretch.Barring few small town actors,listening to the new group of actors is like watching Emilie, where you understand the scenes, but not the language; though here audience is exchanged by the actors.What do you think about this phenomenon Arjun?Either we shift to making English films or the typical potboilers.How do we get the intelligent cinema,which has been reduced to minority????

  20. Arjun, Your blog is probably India's answer to "Boing Boing"!
    Keep up the good work.

    As for Sarkar, I strongly believe that despite the technical wizardry, the characters were just put up for the show. Juniiour Bachchan sucked; senior Bachchan looks like a caricature.

    The only person who reflects the intensity of passion, the anger, jealousy is Kay Kay. He deserves full credit for resurrecting the part of the movie; which otherwise is a total washout.

    Incidentally, Satya was penned by some Anurag Kashyap (if I get the name right). It was left to RGV's direction. Kashyap wanted to turn in an independent director with Paanch- something that was never released.

    As for Company; it was a glamourous take; Vivek Oberoi showed some promise but again it was Mohan Lal who took the cake. His measured performance, accented Hindi et al reflected his on screen presence. Cerebral stuff; specially if one has to learn about the way you establish in the Cinema. Most of the present day actors are hardly actors though.

    This itself is a sad day for Indian Cinema.

  21. You're right about RGV's "patented style"...but before deconstructing him, WATCH 'SATYA'.

    I'll repeat : WATCH 'SATYA.' (goes down on knees)

    I always maintain that Satya is a GREAT MODERN INDIAN CLASSIC because of the screenplay by Saurabh Shukla and Anurag Kashyap, and not because of RGV. But you HAVE to watch it to see RGV's style...it's not as self-conscious, nor showy as his later films.

    It's perfect for the film. It's brilliant. I watched Satya again last night, and an idea popped into my head: Satya is more likely inspired from The Godfather trilogy than Sarkar, which was a piece of crap for me. Cheers to Kashyap.

  22. in RGV's own words in an interview:

    i make some movies to just please the audience to get the oohs and aahs..like Sarkar (and the coming Shiva)..where i know exactly how the audience reacts to every scene
    but there are some movies that i make from my heart like Naach and Satya ..

    So, as ur review actually runs on similar lines..u r pretty close in deciphering RGV..but must tell u that u have seen only one side of him (the audience pleaser)..but plz watch the other stuff too and review them (favorably i hope..i am obviously an RGv fan..who else would watch his interview?)

  23. The only movie directed by RGV which was superb was his "Kshana Kshanam " in Telugu. I have been waiting for him to repeat the magic, but so far none. I have began to doubt whether he really directed it or someone else?

  24. u r wrong dear,pls get ur facts right,rgv didnt went to any film school ,he "studied" movies himself thr watching them just like taratino,i was jsut browsing through ur posts and came to this post but i didnt expect such a factual error from u ,u r one of my fav bloggers

  25. Anon: when I said "he’s probably spent more time than he needed to at film school", it wasn't meant as a factually accurate statement - if I had meant it that way, I would certainly have done the necessary research into RGV's life, and probably named the school too. What I meant was that the tone of many of his films give the impression of someone having over-studied film theory (incidentally I feel that way about a couple of Tarantino's films too, though his work on the whole has a more spontaneous quality).

  26. Jabberwock...do watch Satya...

    Its something that even varma cannot possibly make again...

    Satya is raw and real...
    Its of a time when Varma was innocent..
    after that movie it was all downhill..
    I don't understand how can anyone compare satya with any varma film...
    It is just not possible for him to make a movie better than satya..
    even if he tried with the same cast,writer,music and himself.
    company was not a good movie..atleast to me..and Sarker..well..i cannot waste my time writing about it..
    Hey Jabberwock, excuse me but you not watching satya is because everyone(tom,dick,harry) is praising it, and you thinking that it'll be just okay..after kurosawa and Ray..yes it will be.

    I think you can take a look at it..

    why i like satya:
    first thing it was real, the character of satya was amazing better then bhiku mahatre(the more talked about one)..maybe because bhiku had more dialogues..
    the cast and the acting was superb.


    best scene: when satya sees the cops in the end...just look at him..you can feel his sadness, that whatever good ever happened to him was about to end in a few moments..

    I thank to all the people involved with satya for giving us a very good movie...

    the post was emotional i know but i cannot help it..it makes the rough and tough Jat vulnerable when talking about his favorite movies..i feel the same when talking about ikiru, ordinary people and some more..

  27. I watched Satya again a few days back and my response to it was as emotional as that of a previous poster. Apart from being moved by the utter sadness of Satya's plight and his utter helplessness to build himself a life of substance and honesty despite his valiant initial attempts, I was also moved by the parallel journey towards hell that Urmila's character goes through. After the end credits started to roll, I couldn't help but wonder what Urmila's character would do next; how she'd pick up the pieces of her life again. Her tragedy wasn't that Staya lied to her about his gangster work but the fact that they both loved each other with such intensity and yet, couldn't build themselves a life together- in spite of wanting to life a quiet, honest life.