When you start out somewhere near the top, you can either scale greater heights or plan your descent.
Ram Gopal Varma made a stunning debut with the Telugu movie Shiva in 1989. Varma proved that he was no flash in the pan in subsequent years. His Hindi remake of Shiva in 1990 established him in Mumbai, and he rolled out one smartly directed title after another in both Telugu and Hindi and produced a bunch of films that permanently altered the cinematic landscape in both industries.
Varma isn’t spoken of in the same hallowed tones anymore. His fans shun his recent films, such as the May 12 release Sarkar 3, preferring instead to revisit his earlier and better works. His admirers turn away in embarrassment from his inchoate tweets and intemperate statements. His collaborators speak glowingly of his indelible and generous contributions – the one character or scene rewrite that salvaged the narrative, or the one editing trick that improved the resolution – but the use of the past tense is unmistakable.
Varma always knew when to cut to the chase. When did he lose control of the steering wheel?
Varma’s films when watched at a stretch constitute an Icarus-type tale of achievement and failure. He came into Telugu cinema fully formed. The autodidact distilled lessons picked up from gobbling up movies into a fresh curriculum, one that married the sensibilities of Hollywood with the compulsions and realities of the local milieu. His early films are testaments to his control over storytelling and writing, his astute casting, his use of locations and his ability to handle genres (caper, horror, the gangster film, the road movie). His later films are testaments to his loss of control over the same factors that earned him his reputation.
Perhaps no other filmmaker has systematically eviscerated his own legacy, one that was established with Shiva.
There’s a superb cartoon by RK Laxman on Shiva. It shows a scrawny man walking away after having beaten another man to pulp. The punchline is on the lines of, “He has just watched Shiva.”
A vigilante thriller that has the fleetness of 1970s and ’80s Hollywood crime dramas, Shiva contains the key themes that would animate Varma’s later films – the protagonist who breaks the law to achieve his means, the antagonist with his posse of surly men, the urban setting with dangers lurking around the corner, the doomed romance with a virtuous woman-next door, the bursts of stylish brutality, and moral ambiguity.
Varma based the story partly on the Bruce Lee 1972 movie Return of the Dragon and his experiences of campus violence while studying for his engineering degree in Vijaywada. Nagarjuna is the archetypal Varma anti-hero: more expressive with his fists than his mouth, contemptuous of social niceties and rules, and far removed from idealism. His rage is exposed after he encounters a nasty student union member at the college in which he has recently enrolled. Shiva bashes up JD (JD Chakravarthy, who headlined Varma’s Satya later) and earns a rebuke from the principal. I’m not Mahatma Gandhi to turn the other cheek, Shiva retorts.
As Shiva and his friends, which includes his girlfriend Asha (Amala), take back the campus, JD’s boss Bhavani steps in. Varma has unleashed an array of fascinating villains over the years, but few can match the relentlessly cruel Bhavani, played by Tamil actor Raghuvaran. It’s a great piece of counter-casting, since there is nothing in Raghuvaran’s lanky frame and software engineer appearance to suggest menace. This he does through his sullen face and flaring nostrils, brilliantly captured in the scene in which Shiva finally appears before him and his henchman Nana (Tanikella Bharani) whispers the name in Bhavani’s ear.
The encounter of Shiva and Bhavani, like elsewhere in the film, is depicted through dramatic close-ups. Varma and his cinematographer Gopal Reddy litter Shiva with fabulously tense tightly framed shots and suitably sinister background music (by Illaiyaraaja). Varma brings us close to the characters, especially the hoodlums, by filling the frames with their faces. Even though Shiva is the titular anti-hero’s story, the close-ups ensure that sidekicks like Nana and Ganesh (Brij Gopal) aren’t easily forgotten.
The chase and fight sequences, with the bifs and bams on the soundtrack magnified for effect, have their own fan following, especially the sequence in which Shiva liberates a cycle chain and uses it as a weapon against JD and his goons.
“Throughout the shooting, I wasn’t too sure how the cycle chain-breaking scene would be received because after I got the idea I tried breaking a cycle chain and realized the impossibility of it,” Varma writes in his collection of essays Guns and Thighs (Rupa, 2015). “But I told myself that since nobody would have tried it, it just might look believable. After all these years the number of people who still come to me and claim that they broke a cycle chain after watching Shiva shows how one’s imagination can take over and make one believe that imaginary is real.”
The hero’s name originally belonged to the villain. “In the story development stages, Nagarjuna liked the name so much, he asked me to name his character Shiva,” Varma writes in Guns and Thighs. There’s also a reason the villain has a woman’s name. “I named the villain Bhavani because I based his character on a guy called Radha with a very violent reputation in Vijayawada,” Varma says. “Since Radha is a girl’s name, I named the villain Bhavani which is a girl’s name too.”
Varma shuttled between Hyderabad and Mumbai in the 1990s, producing such popular classics as Kshana Kshanam (1991), Raat (1992), Gaayam (1993), Rangeela (1995), Satya (1998), Company (2002) and Bhoot (2003). His production company The Factory made the debut of several filmmakers possible, including Sriram Raghavan (Ek Hasina Thi, 2004) and Shimit Amin (Ab Tak Chhappan, 2004).
Varma’s decline began in the mid-2000s, when his hold over his productions and the films he directed slackened. Sarkar (2005) takes his obsession with the criminal way of life and his belief in moral ambiguity over idealism to an extreme. Its hero is a man who manipulates the system from the outside – Bhavani, resurrected as a hero.
Varma had the temerity to remake Shiva in 2006 as well as direct the widely reviled Sholay remake Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag in 2007. A string of self-parodic embarrassments has followed since. Like the mythical ouroboros that eats its own tail, Varma has been reaching back into his back catalogue with diminishing effect, recycling plots, characters, and attitudes that are no longer relevant.
Cinematography, one of the highlights of his craft, has become a toy in the hands of the wrong child. He has framed characters through legs and poked the apparatus up a woman’s dress. His on-screen and off-screen objectification of women has a Playboy-level intensity, and isn’t as funny as infuriating.
In Shiva, though, there is no hint of the collapse. Tightly structured and compellingly narrated, it has the power to persuade audiences to ignore its valourisation of violence. The movie doesn’t have the complexity to suggest that in hunting down Bhavani, Shiva begins to resemble his prey. But Shiva does prove that the man behind the camera is a force to reckon with. Or was. At the top of his game, Varma represented the present and the future. He has now receded into the distant past.