7 June 2008

SARKAR RAJ (Dir. Ram Gopal Varma, 2008, India) - The Power of Performance

Indian cinema going audiences certainly don’t need Hollywood genre film making when you have a film maker like Ram Gopal Varma producing and directing exquisite and intelligent populist cinema that reinforces the strengths of home grown indigenous film making today. Though it would be easy to categorise Ram Gopal Varma’s latest film, Sarkar Raj, as purely a star vehicle for Amitabh Bachchan, this would detract from the assured mastery of a director who takes inspiration from Sergio Leone in utilising the close up as a cinematic technique that has lost none of it’s purpose of magnifying the performance of emotion.

Last year, the Indian domestic Top 10 film box office chart was dominated by indigenous film talent, and the only Hollywood film to make it into the Top 10 was Spiderman 3, a film that was incidentally released by AdLabs. India like South Korea are some of the few nations left in the world that have successfully resisted the domination of Hollywood, and though they continue to draw from Hollywood cinema as inspiration, they also ensure that their commitment to indigenous film makers is of the up most priority and that the distribution/exhibition relationship seeks to support the nurturing and development of home grown talent, a quality that should be celebrated and championed by all.

The brilliance of Sarkar Raj certainly confirms the importance of Ram Gopal Varma as a key figure within mainstream Indian cinema, but he is a film maker who has been unfairly and grotesquely dismissed by contemporary film criticism ever since he came to prominence with his breakthrough feature, Rangeela (1995), an enjoyably entertaining critique of both the film industry and petty small time criminals. Unlike Vidhu Vinod Chopra and Yash Chopra, Ram Gopal Varma has been treated by many as somewhat of an outsider and a marginal figure within the wider industry but such a problematic critical position seems to undermine his remarkable contribution to Indian cinema today especially with the exciting, bold and daring approach he has brought to the crime/gangster genre.

Why Varma’s contribution to Indian cinema has not been acknowledged by a widespread consensus of critics is mystifying when you consider he has singularly kept alive the gangster genre and is also largely responsible for reinventing the cinematic language of the contemporary crime thriller so it is palatable for today’s disenchanted youth driven markets. His exploration of the underworld in his loose trilogy of powerful crime films; Satya (1998), Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005) are not only beautifully executed illustrations of genre innovation but should be considered some of the best cinema to come out of the industry in the last ten years.

His unofficial Mumbai underworld trilogy uncharacteristically sympathises with unscrupulous and heinous criminals that are not only romanticised but represented as flawed anti heroes who seem almost righteous in their criminal intentions. Almost all of his studies of crime find some connection to contemporary social reality, and this is where the authenticity of the politics of his films become genuinely convincing and dangerously controversial.

His 1999 crime film, Company is supposed to be based on the real life exploits of the Indian mafia organisation, D-Company, which was run by the notorious Indian gangster, Dawood Ibrahim, who had direct links to the Bollywood film industry. Not so much a traditional rise and fall gangster narrative, Company focuses on the self destructive male relationship between a ruthless, charismatic gangster Malik (played by Ajay Devgan in his best performance to date) and a young outsider and novice to the underworld, Chandu (played with real energy by Vivek Oberoi in his debut role). Company is considered by some to be Ram Gopal Varma's best film, and such a statement may hold some weight as Company is characterised by a perfect summation of key authorial themes like the underworld, power and violence which reoccur throughout much of his films.

So I think it is safe to conclude that there is no doubt that Varma is by far the most exciting, dynamic and versatile film maker working in Indian cinema today, and his understanding of genre film making has benefited him greatly with his own successful production company, (K Sera Sera) that he quickly helped to establish after the critical success of Satya. Venturing into different genres he has become a formidable producer, having made a number of critically acclaimed films like My Wife's Murder, D Company and Ab Tak Chapaan. What has become apparent over the last few years is that Ram Gopal Varma's future seems to clearly lie within supporting and producing edgy, dark and risky mainstream Bollywood film projects which do not see commercialism as a priority or as a measure of success. This is unusual in an industry that has become self obsessed with mediocrity.

Ram Gopal Varma’s latest film, Sarkar Raj, deserves to find a mainstream audience, and it deserves to be a commercial success because it would be a real confirmation of Verma’s viability as a film maker. Interestingly, the film has been reviewed by the mainstream British press who have given the film an uneven set of reviews – this is unusual because not many Indian films are shown to the Western press before they are released in cinemas.
Much of the criticism of the film has been misconstrued, unnecessarily focusing on the stylised nature of the film. The problem with such a critical position regarding the aesthetics of the film is that not many of the critics seem to situate the film in the oeuvre of Ram Gopal Varma’s body of work, nor do they acknowledge his status as an auteur, which suggests a general misunderstanding about the different contexts that have shaped his latest film. This is not surprising considering the bias that exists towards Hollywood and European film making within mainstream western film criticism today. Indian cinema is still not taken as seriously as the cinema of other countries, and though Indian films are commercially successful in foreign territories, they are constantly fighting an up hill struggle to claim some rightful degree of artistic credibility.

Sarkar Raj has been referred to as a sequel by the critics but this has been refuted by those involved in the production of this film, which is a fair rebuke, as the film is not so much a sequel but more of a continuation of a similar theme – that of power and it’s beguiling nature. The political firestorm that is generated by the proposition of a new power plant to be built in Marahastra that will see the displacement of 40,000 people leads to the vilification of both Shankar and Subhash Nagre. Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) feels that the establishment of the power plant will be a progressive step forward for a region in need of inspiration and future prosperity. Though Subhash sympathises greatly with his son’s idealism, both of them overlook the oppositional challenges posed by Sanjay Somji, the Grandson of the benign man of the people, the ageing village patriarch who goes by the name of Rao Saab. Dissent in the form of violent attacks against the men of Shankar Nagre quickly spirals into a tale about political corruption and the abuse of personal power.

Abhishek Bachchan does his best work as a performer when he takes on challenging roles and portrays characters who are morally ambiguous. Both Guru (2007) and Sarkar (2004) do prove that if Abhishek remains committed to intense and complex character studies he is likely to evolve into a brilliant actor. Up against his father, still arguably the best mainstream Indian actor working today, he acquits himself confidently as the idealistic and determined Shankar, a son who has inherited a legacy of patriarchal responsibility that becomes a privilege than a burden.

Varma’s male protagonists tend to steer close to becoming monsters, but they are very much products of the social fabric, and Sarkar is a contemporary anti hero who seduces us with his charismatic style and interconnectedness with the down to earth values of the working class. Sarkar Raj is a testament to the magnificence of Amitabh Bachchan who as Subhash Nagre in the last 30 minutes of the film undergoes a radical transformation, morphing into a menacing figure of hate, becoming a force of absolute vengeance and destruction, turning in one of his nastiest and most devastating works for a long time. Sarkar Raj truly is a film about power, the power of performance.

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