After making his first original Hindi film, Rangeela (1995), with Aamir Khan, and his second, Daud (1997), with Sanjay Dutt, Varma wrong-footed everyone by hiring a bunch of nobodies for his next project. Satya’s credits read like an honour roll today. In 1997, an average moviegoer would have been hard-pressed to recognise more than three names. There was Anurag Kashyap, in his mid-twenties, all restless energy and no screen credit to show for it. Saurabh Shukla, with two acclaimed, little-seen films under his belt in a two-film-old career. Manoj Bajpayee, going stir-crazy after months of bit parts and TV work, hungry for a chance to explode onscreen. Vishal Bhardwaj, building a reputation as a composer, nursing a dream of directing one day. Makarand Deshpande and Apurva Asrani, Sandeep Chowta and Aditya Srivastava, all standing around on the ground floor, waiting for the elevator.

It’s perfect, this moment. Satya, before it was a film, before the accolades, a cloud of possibility and potential. Everyone at the start of their careers, drinking cheap alcohol in one-room apartments, complaining, plotting their takeover of Bollywood.

The film opened on 3 July 1998. For the first day or two, collections weren’t encouraging. The newcomers gulped. Varma, too, must have wondered if he was headed for his second failure in a row after Daud. He’d already moved on to Kaun, following the ancient showbiz maxim which says you book your next gig before a release, not after. Would he be able to continue making Hindi films if Satya wasn’t successful, or would this mean a return to Telugu cinema?

To everyone’s relief, business started picking up. People read the reviews over the weekend, went to watch it, came back and raved to their friends. Word got around that an unusually gritty Hindi film was in theatres…

JD Chakravarthy and Urmila Matondkar in Satya (1998).

The immediate influence of Satya was on the gangster film. Hindi cinema had looked at the lives of landless farmers, rickshaw-pullers, army doctors, circus clowns. Somehow, in all this, no one had thought of seriously exploring the life of the workaday urban criminal. Sure, there’d been gangsters in Hindi films, but they’d mostly been exceptions – either camp, like the mob bosses played by Ajit and Prem Nath, or psychotic, like Nana Patekar’s Anna in Parinda (1989), or the larger-than-life Amitabh Bachchan antiheroes. Few filmmakers considered the possibility of an ordinary criminal. And yet, that’s what they usually were – nondescript-looking people who’d simply stopped playing by the rules of society. ‘He could be anyone’, Suketu Mehta wrote of a shooter in Dawood Ibrahim’s organisation in Maximum City, ‘the lift man, the peon in my uncle’s office, any one of the people walking on the sidewalk as I pass in my car.’

Satya imagined what a day, a week, a month might be like for a gangster. It treated them as it would normal people, catching up with them not just when they were on the job but also when they drank and argued with their wives and went on dates. Two years earlier, in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996), Sudhir Mishra had shown gangsters as family men – one of the best scenes was Ashish Vidyarthi trying to talk business while being interrupted by his father, sister and brother. Satya took this idea and went further. Varma’s film wasn’t stylised – the photography was unadorned, the language rough. Much of it was shot in actual locations. All of this encouraged the perception that this was the real thing.

Varma wasn’t interested in the moral fallout of organised crime; he was only trying to show the ins and outs of a cruel and charismatic world. Others soon followed suit. Vaastav (1999) was the first to arrive – similarly tough-minded but closer to the mainstream. Anurag Kashyap’s Black Friday (2004) was an extension of the documentary aspects of Varma’s film. Vishal Bhardwaj’s Maqbool (2003) added some poetry. Varma returned to the genre himself with Company (2002) and Sarkar (2005). For the next few years, crime films kept coming, many of them Varma’s own productions and protégés.

Saurabh Shukla in Satya (1989),

Having only made a handful of genuine gangster films in its first century, Hindi cinema made up for lost time in the 2000s. Satya was the catalyst, but Company, loosely based on the Dawood Ibrahim-Chhota Rajan split, was also an influence in its weaving of fact and legend. Films like D (2005), Shootout at Lokhandwala (2007) and Once upon a Time in Mumbaai (2010) drew from the lives of famous Mumbai dons – like Deewar (1975) and Dharmatma (1975) had in their time.

Other films used the genre as a jumping-off point, venturing into politics (Sarkar) and literature (Maqbool). There were romantic dramas (Gangster, 2006), even comedies (Munna Bhai M.B.B.S., 2003) set within the underworld. With the waning of the Mumbai mafia, the gangster film moved out of the city (Omkara, 2006; Rakta Charitra, 2010; Gangs of Wasseypur, 2012), returning as period spectacle (Bombay Velvet, 2015).

Satya changed Hindi cinema in profound ways, but its legacy also includes those who worked on it, benefitted from its success and went on to change Hindi cinema themselves. Anurag Kashyap has directed a dozen features and made, in Gangs of Wasseypur, perhaps the best Hindi film of the last decade. Saurabh Shukla remains one of the most underrated character actors in the country. With his Shakespeare trilogy of Maqbool, Omkara and Haider (2014), Vishal Bhardwaj created an enduring work of Indian art. Apurva Asrani wrote the National Award-winning Shahid (2012) and Aligarh (2015). Manoj Bajpayee inspired a generation of actors with his performances in Satya and Shool (1999), and another generation with Gangs of Wasseypur.

Like American kids in the ’60s who heard The Velvet Underground and started their own bands, a generation of Indians saw in Satya a call to arms. Rajkummar Rao watched it and spent the next decade trying to become Manoj Bajpayee; the two ended up acting together in Gangs of Wasseypur, Chittagong (2012), Aligarh and Love Sonia (2018). Performers like Kay Kay Menon, trying to break into the industry, found the doors were now ajar (‘If it were not for Manoj’s brilliant performance in Satya, actors like Irrfan and me might still be staring at the ceiling and waiting to be accepted,’ he said years later).

For Varma, who began by making films in his native Telugu, Satya opened up the Hindi industry. Rangeela had been a bigger hit, but its success could be attributed to leads Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar, and A.R. Rahman’s music. But Satya was all Varma. He’d shown he could make a film without stars, item songs (at least item songs that didn’t have grimy bearded men) or a happy ending. Having delivered a sleeper hit, he could have cashed Bollywood’s cheques, cast Khans and Kapoors. Instead, he bet the house on new talent.

For a short while in the 2000s, Varma was practically a parallel industry unto himself. In his films, and through his productions, he gave breaks to a series of unheralded actors, directors, writers and technicians. Sriram Raghavan, Hemant Chaturvedi, Jaideep Sahni, Randeep Hooda and Shimit Amin all worked for him at the start of the careers. Out of his production setup, dubbed The Factory, came hard, exciting films: Shool, Ab Tak Chhappan (2004), Ek Hasina Thi (2004). He worked fast, with one ear to the ground, churning out genre cinema like an Indian Roger Corman. For a while, even his missteps seemed like inspired rolls of the dice.

Excerpted with permission from Bullets Over Bombay – Satya and the Hindi Film Gangster, Uday Bhatia, HarperCollins India.