Saturday, July 16, 2005

The Ideology of Sarkar

"Sarkar" means "government," so it's no surprise that the trailers to Ram Gopal Varma's latest gangster film (along with the image above) allude directly to politics. With taglines like "There is no good and evil, only power," and "When the system fails, a power will rise..." Varma is marketing a gangster film that seems to be channeling Nietzsche.

He also wants to remind you that he's perfectly aware of the fact that he's ripping off The Godfather, so he takes the rather unusual measure of announcing it at the opening of the film with another on-screen quote: "This is my tribute to The Godfather" (as if Varma has done anything but that since Satya!). Still, this film is unusual because it is explicitly a double-adaptation, blending two mythic backgrounds into one image of absolute power. "Sarkar" is played, of course, by Amitabh Bachchan, here even more impassive and bloated than he is in the other fifteen films in which we've already seen him this year.

Sarkar is really not a very great film (last year's Indian gangster movies were better, especially Maqbool, an adaptation of Macbeth, and Ab Tak Chappan), though Varma's double-adaptation plays interesting games with its sources, including the career of the real life political figure it is (loosely) about, Bal Thackeray, as well as of course the Corleone family in The Godfather.

The Fantasy of Absolute Power in an era of confusing democracy

First of all, why is Puzo's idea of Vito Corleone so attractive? Corleone is a civilized gangster, to whom loyalty must nevertheless be absolute. He is a family man, with strong, almost indissoluble, blood ties -- but who makes exceptions to add in people who are either not family or not Sicilian (i.e., Tom Hagen, "Consiglieri"). The Godfather is, in short, an iconic patriarch, whose absolute honor, loyalty, and authority is the hallmark of his effectiveness as a leader. He's a superman, a savior, and the paragon of capitalism: Jesus Christ in a tux, stepping out of a stretch limo.

People fantasize about such figures when more modern modes of doing business or politics seem to be leading nowhere, when the vagaries of the political process lead to a disputatious and demoralized public.

In the 1970s and early 80s, this was undeniably the case in both India and the United States. It's no accident that The Godfather was released as a film in 1972, after 8 years of indecisive leadership over the war Vietnam and the direction of American democracy. With Vito Corleone and his war-veteran son Michael (though it was an earlier war, the parallel is not an accident), there is no protracted war for control of the mafia -- no pathetic "peace with dignity." Everything is decided via a show of overwhelming force, which requires that the Son, Michael, murder all enemies at once, including his own brother.

A similar failure of governance opened the way to the emergence of the Shiv Sena in Bombay, led by Bal Thackeray. With Bal Thackeray, there were no pieties about reform, inter-ethnic harmony, or Nehruvian secularism. There were just decisions: caps on non-Marathis in city government, restrictions on non-Marathis getting government contracts, Marathi as the official language, the renaming of everything, and so on and so on. The big difference between Thackeray's political power and a gangster's power -- a distinction Varma ignores in the film -- is that Thackeray's power was always strongly supported by millions of working class and lower-middle class Marathis.

Thackeray's populism was also tied to the event for which his actions cannot be forgiven or simply 'understood' as doing what a political Boss Has To Do to stay on top in Bombay. I'm referring of course to Thackeray's well-documented role in fomenting the riots of 1992. Varma's attempt at making a slick gangster movie has no space for this aspect of Thackeray's evil, and in fact reverses it by throwing in a plot involving a Muslim terrorist smuggling in bombs from Dubai (who is in league, improbably, with an evil, cigarette-smoking "Swami" who is out to get Sarkar). It is a truly perverse rendition of reality to take a man involved in the deaths of thousands of innocent people and turn him into a vigilante fighter of terrorism, as Varma does in Sarkar.

Fortunately, Bal Thackeray is on his last legs, and his political machine is faltering. His son Uddhav is no Michael Corleone -- more like Puzo's "Fredo" (soon to be exiled to Vegas) Without Bal Thackeray's charismatic presence, it's questionable whether the Shiv Sena will continue to be a force in Mumbai in the next political cycle.

(Incidentally, there is an interesting controversy about the Dubai terrorism plot in the film, which has led the film to be banned in the UAE. See this)

* * *
The other defining event playing into the myth of The Godfather was the rise of feminism, which good Godfathers naturally dismiss with a gesture ("we don't discuss business in front of the women"). Threatening the code of masculine power, in The Godfather Puzo has Vito's son Michael go off to college, where he marries a WASP girlfriend ("Kay") with modern ideas. Michael is sympathetic to feminism and modernity, and frustrated with his family's backwardness, though he eventually dismisses all of it too at the end of the story (brilliantly filmed by Coppola: Michael closes the door on a bewildered and terrified Kay, to discuss Family Business with his father's henchmen).

Some of that anti-feminism is also at play in Sarkar, though here the 'outside' influence is America. Katrina Kaif (with markedly 'Anglo' features; see my post on Parineeta) plays the NRI girlfriend who simply doesn't understand the ways of the Family. What Varma does with this is pretty formulaic: the hero rejecting the 'modern girl' in favor of the 'traditional Indian wife' (here played by Kajol's sister Tanisha!) is a universal theme in Bollywood films.

* * *
Character actors
Ram Gopal Varma has always good at finding memorable character actors -- people like Rajpal Yadav (the bumbling anti-hero in Mein Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, and a ubiquitous 'comic relief' presence otherwise), as well as many idiosynratic gangsters. Here we have "Silver Mani," a stuttering Tamilian (an odd choice for an ally for Sarkar, considering the Shiv Sena's notorious anti-South Indian rhetoric in the 1970s). Also quite memorable in Sarkar is the glowering "Chander," whose role as Sarkar's enforcer is similar to the "Luca Brasi" character in The Godfather. Tough as steel.

Also great is the 'evil Swami' character, complete with huge glasses, crazy hair, and the afore-mentioned cigarette. Where does he get these guys?

* * *
The Bachchan factor
Amitabh Bachchan is incredibly boring to watch. Varma spends endless hours with close-ups on his star, which go absolutely nowhere. Actors like Brando and Pacino use this blank space and fill it with power -- a hint of menace, the snarl of contempt -- but Bachchan simply seems to be staring off into space, looking vaguely constipated. Fast-forward, yaar. Please fast-forward.

Abhishek is a little better. As with Yuva, he has an interesting darkness about him that differentiates him from the current generation of bland male stars (i.e., the ultra-bland Saif Ali Khan). That darkness is emblematized by his beard, which has generally been considered taboo for lead actors in Bollywood. Bearded, snarling Abhishek was interesting in Yuva, where he had a pronounced vulnerability that had to do with class resentment and insecurity. But this is a smaller role and a lesser film, and that edgy potential isn't doing much here. It won't be long before Abhishek is cast in thousands upon thousands of crap roles like his father (and probably the beard will not last long).

Ah well. There is still hope is for the character actors -- the 'sideys' -- of whom I can never get enough. (Rewind!) Ramu-bhai, please give us more cigarette smoking swamis with sinister smiles. I've had enough of these tired Bollywood stars.

(Ok, wishful thinking. I'm sure I'll be back at the Indian multiplex in North Bergen in a week or two...)

UPDATE: Thanks to Aswin for the link to the Frontline article by Uma Dasgupta about Ram Gopal Varma's gangster trilogy.

Since posting, I also came across (via Feedster) an interesting article by Sudhish Kamath (from an article published in The Hindu, I believe), comparing The Godfather to Sarkar, with additional reference to Mani Ratnam's Tamil adaptation, Nayakan. Pretty good reading.


aswin said...

A review of this film in Frontline ( doesn't dwell on tracing links b/w Sarkar and The Godfather. Instead, the article looks at Sarkar as the last of RGV's trilogy (Satya, Company, and now Sarkar). In fact, the reviewers claims that it is in Sarkar that "moral questions are most troubling."

3:30 PM  
Amardeep said...


Thanks for the link. It's a well-written piece, but I think Uma Dasgupta is missing the key difference between this film and the first two. Those films were about crime; this is about politics, though RGV is either trying to avoid it or simply unaware of it (which would be worse).

I also think it's top-heavy with the star-power. The first two films in the trilogy were more adventurous, perhaps because the actors were of a lesser-stature, and were more willing to do shocking stuff.

I think one of the weakest moments in Sarkar is the missing fratricide sequence. Perhaps he thought he was being understated or restrained, but that's the key to our understanding of Shankar's (Abhishek Bachchan's) character, and it's a major let-down that he skips it.

5:42 PM  
anangbhai said...

I think after company is about where Verma crossed the line from being different (if not hard hitting/real/hardcore) to falling into his own trap vis a vis he remained steeped into the plot points and stereotypes he created when he was trying to break the usual bollywood stereotypes.
The film isn't really about Bal Thackeray, no matter how many similarities between the characters may be, because I doubt even RGV has the proverbial steel balls to go after a figure such as this in his own city, even with thinly (or thickly) cloaked metaphors substituting gangs for politics. (I always thought the similarities between the police and gangsters were more apt. Like agashe says in Chappan, "40,000 ka gang hai mere paas, pata nahi chalega kap mar gaya".
Another film like this Kurosawa's The Lower depths, that gave corporate structures and politics a gang mentality (the opposite of what RGV does here) but failed because Kurosawa delved too much into the personalities and the characters and rarely paid attention to the big picture (which was the strongpoint in this particular film, and the linchpin of the plot, according to him) and the film did horribly.
Armytabh can't give a good performance. If he's dividing his time between 20 films a year, then what else can be expected.
There is one issue that very few touch on when discussing the godfather and the subsequent gangster films that imitate it or were inspired by it in that large machiavellian atmosphere. The godfather was made in the 70s as a response to the studio system (most obvious in the opening scene when Vito is asking the film producer to give his nephew a role in the film and the producer declines). This is also obvious in Coppola's characterization of the mafia, who were previously characterized as cigar munching pinstripe suit wearing fast talking gun toting misoginysts. Coppola wanted to break an older stereotype by introducing another, the dapper don who barely lifts a hand because he's the true power, who doesn't need to use uncivilized weapons to display his power.
Subsequent characterizations of the mafia have always remained in the shadow of the Godfather, never realizing that coppola was just breaking stereotypes, and it wasn't really how the mafia behaved even in the 40s.
I've always wanted to see something that may never be addressed in a bollywood film, what is called the "terrible triumph of society" in that the people are the ones who allow evil to propogate for their own petty concerns without giving a scarce thought as to who they're inviting in their own house.
RGV always chooses great actors in filler roles. I still hold hope for Abishek.

9:44 PM  
Ms. World said...

I have nothing to add except I love Abhishek!

12:19 AM  
Jayesh said...

A RGV movie today is not about telling a story. Its more about sequences of brilliance interspersed with footage to complete the movie. It will have a great marketing gimmick and some actors in characters they have never done before. But RGV is the antipode to the Yash Chopra-Karan Johar axis of Bollywood. Every movie of his will also ridicule a Chopra-Johar style of film-making. Catch the scene where KK tells his hero not to put too much lipstick ( A reference to SRK). Lets face it RGV makes movies to entertain himself (he keeps saying that in every interview). We keep seeing flashes in his self-indulgence.

My review of Sarkar is on ""

1:34 PM  
anangbhai said...

Its all about loving your lovies!
Mind you, its not a love story, ITS A LOVE SAAGAA!

6:56 PM  
Bhushan Y Nigale said...

Dear Dr. Singh,

It is a pity to see you getting a fact wrong in an otherwise well-written piece. Marathi was not made the official language during the Shiv Sena regime, but was so when Maharashtra gained statehood in 1961. Also, judging by the fact that you have clubbed this statement with other acts of the regime, you seem to have issues with Marathi being the official language of the state (and thus it's capital, Mumbai).

Further, why was renaming the city from 'Bombay' to 'Mumbai' a negative act? Is it wrong to erase shameful signs of colonialism and to return to what was rightfully ours? Why this agonizing over the end of a very prominent sign of our slavery in the guise of projecting our liberal, cosmopolitan attitude? To me it seems that a surer way of establishing one's intellectual credentials, while speaking about Mumbai, is to term that city as Bombay and despise everything about the Shiv Sena.

Balasaheb and Shiv Sena may certainly have done many wrongs, for which they should be condemned, but the fact that they worked tirelessly for the upliftment of the opressed, neglected and oft-ridiculed Marathi Maanus cannot be ignored.

12:03 AM  
isac asimov said...

if you followed all the interviews given by varma ,over the years,it becomes clear that he is influenced by popular culture.from stephen king,ayn rand,ridley scot etc,.
so,without belittling the intelligence of the rgv ,it can be said that ramu does not have the inclination (or even sheer intellectual strength) ,to make politically sensitive films.
in fact ,once asked about his opinion on DDLJ ,he remarked that he liked the climax very much."its nice that the lovers, instead of eloping from their parents,are hell-bent on securing their assent.its so cheap ,eloping, you see"
but the problem with DDLJ is exactly that.the young couple ,by insisting on the approval from their families,have deviated from one redeeming feature of hindi fims.that ther will be rebellion of love, against authority.
now i enjoyed ddlj too.often whenever bored.but it does not mean ,i did applaud the regressive content of the film.
it is curious to see that rgv ,more often than not,gets good reviews.not all of them ,may not be receiving bribes from "factory",
but some definitely do get.probably they dont have much talent in writing reviews .
to see that varma is somehow different from a karan johar(&sharukh khan),or a yash chopra camp,is missing the point.
in the end ,i end my comment ,by offering the resaon for critics rating for the rgv being over-the-top:these critics also have come from having the similar backgrounds:having watched the intellectually spineless film like 'basic instinct' many times over.

9:21 AM  
Arvind said...

okay!! good article, this.

As for those charecter actors, the Swami is a telugu actor named Jeeva and the guy who plays Selvarmani is one of the finest present day charecter actors in telugu industry. He answers to the name "Kota Srinivasa Rao"

Pip Pip,

4:08 AM  
tilotamma said...


That swami character you liked (and I really didn't) is "Suchak Saab" from ABT. He was great there

Remember when Imtiaz has to shoot Nana Patekar and goes "SUchak saab ka order hain"?

3:49 PM  
Anonymous said...

U know what?
all u have is very poor knowledge of the history of maharashtra, marathi people, their culture etc. Get ur facts cleared first. The fact is that Balasaheb THackeray had majorly opposed to the biharis and the Up-ites who come in hordes in maharashtra every year( 1 lac every year). these people are ready to work for very low wages and are ready to leave in slums etc for a sufficiently long period. Since low wages mean 'a dream come true' for the capitalists & the baniyas, it is the resident workers who are shown the door. So what do we do? Reduce our wages? start living in slums?
Again, marathi people are a peace loving, forthright lot of tolerant people( values fostered by a long list of saints, in the face of mughal tyranny). We are not cunning like the marwaris, gujrathis,or aggressive and dominating like punjabis, biharis ; nor are we regionalists like the tamils, bengalis etc, who dont compromise at all with their culture, language etc.That explains the high social security in maharashtra that 'outsiders' want to benefit from. For long, we marathis have been assimilating people from other states and have compromised on our culture, language the bargain. Now ,its high time that we declare our feelings for our culture, language and our love for maharashtra mainland, or else we face the danger of losing our rich culture to these barbarian biharis &Up-ites etc . We also face the danger of losing our prime cities of Pune,Nasik, Auragabad ,kolhapur etc to these en-mass invaders from other states.
Tell me, what is mumbai today? A den for underworld dons? a pack of sleazy bollywoodwalaahs, who churn out mindless themes? A city with a pace of life so fast, with no time to think why,where,when? Was it so 15 years ago? Certainly not !, 'Outsiders', it seems, have contibuted a lot in making mumbai 'what it is today' !!!
Remember, Maharashtra is where the the agitation first started against the oppressive rules of 'outsiders' like mughals & british!

10:28 AM  
Jane Sunshine said...

Astute. I thoroughly enjoyed your analysis of the political undertones. I thought Silver Mani was unforgettable as well, 'Style South, operation North'. Priceless!!!

And I thought I was the only one who was beginning to think that Abishek could act. Plus he's CUTE.

7:18 AM  

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