The word ‘underworld’ came up from time to time in conversations. I obviously also read about Dawood Ibrahim and his association with the 1993 serial blasts in the papers. But I never consciously thought about what exactly the underworld was.

Then one day, I was sitting in producer Jhamu Sugandh’s (the producer of films like Rangeela, Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam and Lagaan) office and he got a call that music baron Gulshan Kumar had been shot dead.

A shocked Jhamu told me that Gulshan had woken up around 7.00 a.m. and had called him to say that at 8 he was going to meet a singer; at 8.30 he was supposed to meet a friend, after which he would go to the temple and then come to meet him.

When someone dies a violent unexpected death, people have a habit of recounting every moment of his before he died. While he was talking, since I have this tendency all the time of thinking cinematically, I wondered, ‘If Gulshan Kumar woke up at 7 o’clock, then at what time would the killer have woken up? Did he tell his mom to wake him up because he had a shooting to carry out? Did he have his breakfast before committing the crime or after?’ These thoughts were coming into my head because I was trying to intercut the moments of the man who died with those of the man who killed him. Then it suddenly struck me that you always hear about gangsters only when they either kill or die. But what do they do in between? That was the thought which eventually resulted in Satya.

Satya (1998).

While in that frame of mind, I saw some photographs in the Times of India of arrested gangsters with black cloths covering their heads. Their body language did not betray any of the larger-than-life villainous characteristics they were shown to possess in Bollywood films. They looked very ordinary, guy-next-door kind of people. The whole point is that an urban gangster has to mix with society and look like anybody else so that you will not realize that he is a gangster.

A few days later a friend of mine, not a film guy, who lives on the fourteenth floor in Oshiwara, told me about an experience. A guy lived in his building somewhere in a flat above him. My friend used to bump into this guy in the building’s lift once in a while. And they used to exchange the ‘Hello, how are you?’ ‘Happy Diwali’ kind of pleasantries. Then one day, my friend’s wife told him that that guy had been arrested and taken away as he had been absconding in a murder case. My friend told me, ‘the thing about Mumbai is that you may live for ten years as a neighbour to somebody and yet have no idea who he is.’ That was how I got the plot line for Satya: the fact that Urmila’s character lives in a chawl and Satya lives right next to her, yet she has no clue that he is a gangster.

Badalon Se, Satya (1998).

Then one day, I met this guy called Ajit Devani who had been Mandakini’s secretary and because of her one-time liaison with Dawood, he had reportedly known and interacted with some of the gangsters belonging to the Dawood Ibrahim–Chota Rajan gang when they were still together. He recounted to me an experience he had when he met a gangster whose brother had just been killed by the cops. His brother had also been a gangster. When Ajit Devani went to meet him, apparently the gangster was abusing his brother’s dead body for not heeding his advice, resulting in his death. That startled me as I have never heard of a person abusing a dead body. Then I thought to myself that a gangster lives on power and the brother by not listening to his advice and getting himself killed, had taken away his power to save him and that’s what brought on his anger. It was his grief which manifested as anger. I took that as the soul of Manoj Bajpai’s Bheeku Mhatre character and the incident inspired the scene where Bheeku Mhatre abuses Chander after his death.

We are social beings. We say ‘Good morning’, ‘Hello, how are you’ when greeting someone and that’s what we call civilized. I thought an anti-social element lives by his own rules and he would not abide by the social rules and norms. The way he sits on a chair, the way he laughs, his general behaviour would have a certain wildness about it. There is a difference in look between a domestic cat and a wild cat; it’s the eyes that give away the difference. I felt Bheeku Mhatre should be like a wild cat. I thought that if Bheeku Mhatre had gone to school, he would have been one of the last benchers and he wouldn’t have taken his studies or any kind of advice seriously. So he would want to be a law unto himself.

Manoj Bajpayee in Satya (1998). Image courtesy Varma Corporation Limited.

I went to check out a beer bar in Borivali, whose owner was supposedly connected to the underworld, for a location. When I walked into his room, I was startled to see a huge amount of cash lying on the mat in plain sight. As I tried to persuade him to let me use his location, just the sight of all that money lying around made me feel very uneasy. After I came out, I wondered why the sight of that money had made me feel uneasy. After some thought I figured out that it’s a normal reaction to hide the valuables when a stranger comes visiting, but by not hiding the money the beer bar owner was sending a subconscious or conscious signal to me that he didn’t need to be scared of anyone because of who he was.

Then later on when I met him while I was shooting in that area, he was very friendly; he looked like a different person altogether. Then I realized that the first time I met him, he was trying to play up to an image which he thought I had of him. I know many celebrities who do that…if celebs think that anyone thinks very highly of them, then their body language changes. That is what this gangster was doing. Obviously when you’re putting on an act, you can’t sustain it for a long period of time. So after some time, he became normal. This is what I used for Kallu Mama’s character in Satya. When the builder comes to meet him, Kallu Mama pretends he is a heavyweight gangster when he is actually the clown in the gang, which people come to know later.

Saurabh Shukla in Satya (1998). Image courtesy Varma Corporation Limited.

All in all, every character in Satya had a reference point. But the chief protagonist’s character was the most unclear in my head. He was unclear to me till even after the shooting. I was confused between whether he had a criminal streak or he was just a normal guy who became that way.

Once I decided that this was the kind of film I wanted to make, the first person who came to meet me as a writer was Anurag Kashyap. I took him on board and he got in Saurabh Shukla. We had a lot of discussion, but I wasn’t able to clearly make up my mind what exactly to do in the film. So there was no concrete script on the day we started shooting. I went by instinct. The advantage was that I didn’t have stars, so all the actors were available all the time.

In the first scene I was shooting, a goon played by Sushant comes to Satya for hafta and Satya slashes his face with a knife. In my mind I had planned that would be the point at which to cut the shot. Sushant was someone my assistant had got and I didn’t even know he was an actor, just a junior artiste. But since Sushant is a good actor, he improvised and after Satya slashed him before I could say ‘cut’, he screamed in pain. His scream startled me because I wasn’t expecting him to so I forgot to say ‘cut’. Because I didn’t say ‘cut’, this guy who was showing him the koli improvised, saying, ‘Oh ho, pani lao, paani lao.’ So the scene went on beyond its original conception because I didn’t say cut and because the actors improvised.

Like I said I didn’t have a clear story. I kept on changing my mind everyday about the storyline, but I was very clear about the characters. Where Satya’s character is concerned, however, things went wrong compared to everyone else because of my own lack of clarity about the story and hence about the main protagonist. So I kept on changing the character to suit the plot line, whereas Bheeku Mhatre, Kallu Mama, Muley, and so on could all be consistent because there was nothing for them in the main plot of the film, which was primarily about the growth and decline of Satya. Satya slashes someone in cold blood in one scene and in another shyly smiles at Bheeku Mhatre after killing Jaggu, and when Bheeku Mhatre is having a fight with his wife, Satya stares at them like a zombie. Why did he do that? He did that because I told him to. The inconsistency relatively disconnected him from the audience compared to the other characters.

Excerpted with permission from Guns and Thighs, Ram Gopal Varma, Rupa Publications.