The war enters the home

Print edition : July 29, 2005

Abhishek Bachchan and Ram Gopal Varma at a press conference in Hyderabad to promote Sarkar. In the background is a poster of the film showing Amitabh Bachchan. - H. SATISH

Sarkar takes Ram Gopal Varma's exploration of the Mumbai underworld to its logical conclusion, where criminal rivalry invades the blood family.


THEY call themselves the Bhai-log. The Brothers. They come to Mumbai as young men, often travelling ticketless, on trains that criss-cross the country from the hinterland. They emerge into the clamour of Victoria Terminus and blink in the sunshine on the street. With bag in hand and dreams in their hearts, they enter the city.

The city slaps them on the face. Some of them get up, dust off their clothes, and return home. Some stay down. Others hit back at the city.

Ram Gopal Varma's crime and punishment trilogy is about those who hit back.

It all begins when one such man - his name is Satya - arrives in Mumbai. He gets a job serving drinks in one of the city's several hundred drinking joints. A man throws a drink in his face. Satya grabs him by the throat. It is in jail, during another fight, that he meets his first and closest brother. The man who will induct him into the Brotherhood, beginning by getting him out of jail. Bheeku Mhatre.

The Brotherhood is spread across the city. They target builders, execute suparis, share cigarettes, tell jokes. They dance at weddings, shop for diamonds, see movies - and kill the Commissioner. They explode across the city in a long trail of violence, finally burning in the flames they have lit themselves.

As the Brotherhood grows, their operations become more organised. They become the Company. They become more ruthless. They say one thing, and do another. A man pleads with them to take his life - he is ready to die - but to spare his brother. They agree, and shoot him. Then they shoot his brother, get out of the car and drive off in the rain.

As they become more ruthless, cracks develop within the Brotherhood. They are forced out of Mumbai. Operating from Hong Kong, Bangkok, Nairobi, they carve up the city by cellphone: Chembur, Wadala, Antop Hill, Byculla. Once they had loved each other like brothers; now they fight like brothers - like magnates splitting up their father's empire. And as they do so, they carve up the Brotherhood, with gunshot after gunshot cracking out in Mumbai streets. As bodies pile up, they send killers out to each other's continents. Through all this, the softspoken police officer presides patiently over their war like an angel of justice. And then, as brothers do, they make up again, forgiving each other in brief words spoken awkwardly over a police officer's cellphone.

A still from Satya, the first film of Ram Gopal Varma's trilogy on the Mumbai underworld.-


But their hubris lies before them. Like a Brahmarakshasa that knows only one purpose, the killer is waiting outside. Even as the elder Bhai is once again speaking affectionately of the younger brother, he is gunned down by the killer sent - and not yet recalled - by that very brother.

And what about real brothers, blood brothers, brothers born to the same silent woman and the same ruthless father? What about a father who believes in dispensing `justice', even if it is outside the law; even if it is against the law? What of a father who becomes a law unto himself; who becomes the Sarkar?

Sarkar is the final film in Ram Gopal Varma's trilogy about crime and punishment, set in Mumbai. If Satya began with the steady corruption of one young man - and of truth itself - and if Company was about the growth of crime into an explosive, self-destructive war, then Sarkar is about bringing that war into the family. It is about the most insidious crime of all - that of taking the law into one's own hands. It is about that ultimate aphrodisiac - power. Most unsettlingly, it is about legitimising crime by calling it `justice'.

Visually, we are taken from the open spaces of Satya - the rain, the seashore, the grey water, the open sky against which Bheeku Mhatre screams into the wind that he is the king of Mumbai. From here, and from the drunken camaraderie of Kallu Mama's centre of operations, we move to Company, with its monotony of curving flyovers and foreign skylines. Already we feel the restlessness of Malik and Chandu as they pace the floors of furnished apartments in alien cities.

From here to the sepia-tinted claustrophobia of Sarkar is not far. Here, an entire family stakes out within the heavily guarded fortress of the family house, its long shadows and its silences. Subhash Nagare is physically in Mumbai in name only; he seems further removed from life on the city's streets than Malik and his moll were in Hong Kong. Just as potently, he controls the motor of the city from within his house.

And musically, too, it is a progression, from the urgent and frenzied whisper in Satya: "Bheeku! Bheeku!" to the ruthless chant of Company: "Sab ganda hai par dhanda hai yeh!" (It's dirty, but it is business.) Most chilling of all is the "Govinda Govinda Govinda" of Sarkar, where it becomes almost a religious chant as the Sarkar goes about dispensing his violent justice.

The depiction of morality is perhaps most black and white in Satya, where cops are still cops and the gangsters - however human they may seem, and however funny their Ram/Shyam jokes - are still gangsters. First there is Paresh Rawal's sincere portrayal of the just police officer gunned down in the line of duty. Then there is Mohanlal's quietly brilliant peformance, in Company, as Police Commissioner Srinivasan; until the last few minutes of the film, the only things in his hand are first a paperweight and then a television remote control, but he gives the impression of being a man who, if he has to, will kill with that paperweight.

Mohanlal gave a quietly brilliant performance as Police Commissioner Srinivasan in Company.-

It is in Sarkar that moral questions become most troubling. We do not know who Subhash Nagare is, where he comes from, or how he became the Sarkar - we only know that he is the power centre that he is. We are shown a Police Commissioner who can be bought, and has been bought. Worse: we are shown a son who can be bought. A son who can walk into his father's room at night with a gun in his hand, look down at his sleeping father's face, and think of pulling the trigger. Another son, who can give up his relationship for the sake of the empire, and kill his brother - for which act the only twinge of feeling he shows is when he pauses, momentarily, in the corridor outside his father's bedroom - before going in to tell his parents, and his brother's wife, that he has committed fratricide.

What kind of hellish family is this, we wonder. In a recent interview, Ram Gopal Varma said that Sarkar was his version of a family drama. But we are not used to seeing Amitabh Bachchan in a drama where father and son, brother and brother, wage war against each other.

In Satya, too, we saw a family: we saw the brotherhood where the Bhais sang, danced, hugged each other, and where they cried every time one of them died. When we see Bhau kill Bheeku, he is framed by the copper engraving of the Bhagavad Gita on the wall: we know that this is a family war, a Mahabharata. In Company, we saw the family split and then come together again, just before the final moments of its doom. In Sarkar, we see the oldest of crimes: Cain killing Abel and taking over his father's role.

The brothers are always of two types: the impulsive, effervescent Bheeku and the quiet, reflective Satya; the impulsive Chandu and the ruthless Malik; the angry Vishnu and the cold, composed Shankar. For Varma, these are the two sides of human nature. Perhaps this is depicted most tellingly in the last few minutes of Company, when Mohanlal, as the police officer Srinivasan, tries to persuade Malik to give up his life of crime. "Main Chandu nahin hoon (I am not Chandu)," replies Malik, and he asks: "What would you say if I asked you the same thing?" "Main bhi Chandu nahin hoon (I am not Chandu either)," replies Srinivasan. If Malik is the criminal who cannot and will not be redeemed, and Srinivasan is the strong, brave man who believes in upholding the law, then Chandu is the young man wavering between two life choices. He gives himself up at the end, having lost his wife and reason to live. But when Shankar, in Sarkar, is called upon to choose, he knows exactly what it is that he has to do: he coolly takes over his father's role and does it as if it were the most natural thing in the world, putting the old man in a chair on the balcony.

The killings in Satya were immediate and visible. We saw the blood flow from the gash on Sushant's cheek at the beginning of the film. And at the end, we saw the blood flow from Bhau's abdomen and stain the seawater at Chowpatty. In Company, we heard the eager rings of hundreds of cellphones across the skyline as Bhais killed Bhais; we heard the gunshots, saw the body count. But in Sarkar, we see, metonymically, parts of the picture - the dumb-bell, the twitching nerve, the curling palm. We see the slow fall of a living man into clear water, bubbles rising as he falls. And the greatest crime of all - the killing of a brother - is not even shown to us. We are only told about it after it happens.

Perhaps it is the portrayal of women that reflects, most tellingly, the progression in the scale and nature of power and violence across the trilogy. In Satya, we see two kinds of women: Bheeku's sharp-tongued wife, who fights with her man and slaps him on the face; and the musical Vidya who becomes a conscience of sorts. In a dramatic reversal in Company, Urmila Matondkar - who played Vidya in the earlier film - appears in an item song even as the credits of the film roll on the screen. On seeing her son's flat, Chandu's mother exclaims at how he has grown up; and Saroja, with her beautiful, haunted face, unknowingly sets off the quarrel between the Bhais. As for Kanu, she is coopted so completely that she not only insists on becoming a Bhai's wife, but can even hold a gun in her hand and shoot if she must.

But if the women in the earlier two films have some identity as independent agents, the women in Sarkar - mother, wife, starlet moll - have practically none. With a piece of jewellery and just one word - "Rakh" - repeated three times, the Sarkar's elder son buys himself a starlet. Almost all the women are `kept' in one sense or the other; the only one who shows some independence, Shankar's America-returned girlfriend, turns her back on this world. With anguished glances but without so much as a whisper, the women are silent witnesses to the war being waged by the men.

It is a war being waged inside the home, but for jurisdiction over an empire: that is, over the city outside. Sarkar is Ram Gopal Varma's powerful, disturbing tribute to The Godfather, but it is about a man who is not content to be a godfather. It is about a man who wants to be God.

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