Ram Gopal Verma had a fascination for the bullies of his class; their ideology to terrorize, control (by use of force and power) and have an arsenal of followers- has remained an important part of his oeuvre. The way his character behave, the way they are presented, and the “position” they hold in the world of Ram Gopal Verma film’s reflects his childhood enchantment with people who crossed the law or who considered themselves above the law. He belongs to the special group of “Video Generation filmmakers” the likes of whom include luminaries such as Tarantino and Paul Thomas Anderson. However, unlike his contemporaries in “World Cinema” Ram Gopal Verma is not a formalist, and like most Bollywood filmmakers he believes in the power of stories per se.
The seeds of his Sarkar trilogy could lead to one of his finest film Satya. Wherein it seemed he would be one of the power innovator and director of our country. But today, exactly ten years after the release of the film, his stories of crime, punishment and exploration of the minds of the very same “bullies” of his childhood has turned redundant. Sarkar Raj epitomizes everything what is wrong with Bollywood films- complacent, plagiarism (in the form of “inspired” or loosely based), and death of mise-en-scene. First of all, technical superiority should not be confused with the quality of film. Just because you have great pencil, good sharpener, great rubber, amazing quality paper, does not make you a great writer. You can write, believing your writing the next masterpiece, and keep doing so due to lack of criticism (“Any form of art has a tendency to get complacent, and it’s the presence of critical school of thought, that has helped in the evolution of various schools of art), and we Indians severely lack a proper school of criticism since the suffocation, and the chilling air of compliancy is getting tighter each year, a similar feeling one can have in North Korea. Similarly one can make films all his life without understanding form, and even watch them in a similar vein. As one can enjoy a book without consciously noticing the literary style of a writer, and continue arguing on the style, themes and values of criticism and cinema with a generalized vocabulary concerned typically with distinction between “good” and “bad “films on subordinate part of cinema (acting, script) and not inherent to cinema (mise-en-scene).
The problem with the execution of the form, and overbearing necessity to “tell” is the major flaw of the film, and its predecessor Sarkar and the countless other movies being made in our country. For people who consider “Cinema primary goal to narrate” here is the basic storyline of the film: “Shankar Nagare (Abhishek Bachchan) has taken over the running of the family business and become popular as his beloved father Subhash Nagare (Amitabh Bachchan) popularly known as “Sarkar” (government). Anita Rajan (Aishwariya Rai Bachchan) CEO of an International firm has brought in a proposal to setup a power plant in Maharashtra. Shankar Nagare takes up the cause to establish the business, only to realize that the project is not easy as it seems; the plot is simply an exercise of cause and effect, and laughable by the end, since it tends to summarize the whole loose nuts and bolts of the film into an exchange of dialogues, gestures( fake ), and some teasers( two off-screen call in the film marks the end – one Sarkar calls for Cheeku his grandson, and the other of Anita Rajan calling out for a cup of tea in the exclusive mannerism of the family members. Had Ram Gopal Verma devised such schematic usage of space in the mise-en-scene during the film, and not at the end, then the story would be something else- since the end marked the “call” for more indolent filmmaking and redundant stories to come.
Sarkar Raj is built on the foundation of the original film released in 2005, which irrespective of all its flaws had some moments and was watchable- coherent to an extent. Even if the narrative was inspired; as it had glimpses of the leader of Shiv Sena; plagiarized aspects of Godfather- yet it could be forgiven, simply because RGV was dying to adapt this film to the Indian milieu. However, there is absolutely no plausibility for the cause of making this film. Call me obnoxious but this is an ostensibly bad film.
There is no sense of style, narrative flow, and character development whatsoever. Beside, characters are still underdeveloped from first film: the female characters (Avantika Nagare, Pushpa Nagare) still remain a mute spectator. The surprising element being that the Avanitak Nagare (Tanisha Mukherjee) appears in four key scenes in the films (Sarkar, Sarkar Raj), and all we know about the character is: She loves Shankar, he marries her, she is pregnant, and she is killed, breaking down the basic role of women in patriarchal dominated Indian society, and adhering to the clichéd portrayal and role of women. Moreover, Anita Rajan (Aishwarya Bachchan) holds more screen time, and behaves like Shankar’s onscreen wife in the second film, even when his wife was alive. Instead of exploring the role of the former we have more influence of the latter something which is not easily comprehendible.
The lack of ingenuity can be seen when comparing both the films since it’s based on a similar model. In both films the death of a non-existent character (brief appearance) triggers nonchalant moments (for the sake of plot device), which could seem to be seeking for some sympathy, but lacks any real value. Secondly, remembering the death of Vishnu (Kay Kay Menon) in Sarkar Raj seems so out of sequence; the conflict was never established in the first film properly, except for a brief dinner scene where there was a slight tension but nothing else was shown, and the abuse of Vishnu for his father and the silence of Sarkar seemed staged thereafter. Such aspects between father and son highlights the tension, but we never really got to know the reasons behind them, nor could the characters be penetrated as they appear so plastic and opaque that it’s hard to understand their mental frame of mind.
Shankar is muted most of the time, and when he speaks, he is either filled with poetic aphorism or giving advice, he appears a mere refraction of his father, and both characters in the film appear so out of place, since they exist in some other universe. What we see on screen is closely related with what is written in the screenplay, and Sarkar Raj lacks the drive and push due to a hollow screenplay. The important conflicts are never explored; instead they are hurriedly tied in the end to give the film coherence. For eg: The sudden change of heart and defect of the loyal Chander into becoming a mole in the Sarkar faction is never clearly outlined, even if the motives are to be hidden- nothing psychologically is brought forward. A single scene of an argument should not lead a loyal right hand to defect? Even the aspects of jealousy didn’t creep up either in Sarkar or Sarkar Raj until the end. Or could it be an- Exception? Perhaps, Bollywood still could come up with a raison d’être for everything, it always does- by keeping the gun on the shoulder of the audience. Another farfetched moment was the introduction of the shooter through use of off-screen editing tableau (hands, walks, body) but not his face. I mean why such a mystery of the character, when he did not serve or bring any coherence to either the past (Sarkar) or the present (Sarkar Raj) narrative. While each key interior moments are lit in a similar model, with slight shift in the degree of darkness and source of light, which does make it a visually pleasing at times- withreflection and refraction of objects on faces, bodies. But it never really adds any dimension of depth to the space and characters; that is already flattened with tight shooting and plastic acting.
One can see the absence of any form of staging, and mise- en- scene is dominated by television influenced filmmaking where staging has completely dissolved. When Anita Rajan comes to meet Sarkar the entire staging( static) looks like a cardboard cut out; only to come alive in extreme tight close-up- the demise of “staging” in Bollywood can be witnessed, and even the punctuation of editing does not bring back the value and power to the photographic image.
A relation of the character with the space s(he) lives in helps us understand the way he talks, he moves, his mental state and much more, but in Sarkar Raj and multitudinous films there is absolutely no relation with the space which a character inhabits. They both seem so mutually abstract that it makes me wonder why people spend so much money on art direction when there is no intrinsic value attached. A character should have a relation with the space he inhabits, very much like our own lives, where we attached to the car we drive, the cellphone we use, the restaurant we eat, the way we talk everything from the surrounding is part of our life cycle, but in Sarkar Raj and its predecessor the characters where the interior space (house) is such an integral part of the narrative have no relation with the surrounding they live in. Irrespective of the fact, that so many decisions on life and karma are taken every day in the house yet the characters seem so out of place in their own inhabitant. Even Shankar Nagare (Amitabh Bachchan) tilalk, his dressing code, and rudrakash are mere prop to give the character its authenticity to the source of its derivation (Bal Thackeray), than making the prop part of his everyday existence.
Ram Gopal Verma could be a maverick in the way he produces films, chooses the topics, and gives way chance to new comers in his films, however, he is still part of the same Bollywood pantheon of filmmakers who are mere craftsman and work with an industry text book way of shooting ala mise-en-scene clichés. And there is absolutely no creation in the mise-en-scene wherein the only “creative” and “greatness” of the director lies in creating a visual language. Robin Wood summed it up well in one of his first published articles (it appeared in DEFINITION 3 in 1960):
“A director is about to make a film. He has before him a script, camera, lights, decor, and actors. What he does with them is mise-en-scene, and it is precisely here that the artistic significance of the film, if any, lies”
Sarkar Raj is filled with mise-en-scene clichés of our industry, whether it’s an exterior shot which is always accompanied by a forward, backward camera movement, slight swish pan or how oblique angles, shaky camera are employed for the sake of nothing. Even the protruding close-up is so plastic and flat that one feels cheated watching the whole film. During the conversation of Shankar and Sarkar regarding the interest of the power plant the basic pan, cut, light, and the obstruction in front of the camera takes away everything what the cinematic space could have brought out in the conflict of interest. Similarly, the montage is used in Bollywood to condense everything what could not have been explained or shot.
In Sarkar the final montage sequence is a prime example of lazy filmmaking because when the entire film was spent on finding, hunting, and knowing the culprits, the end was rolled into one single montage sequence with a superimposition of the actor accompanied by the leitmotif soundtrack of Govinda, Govinda, Govinda, exactly a similar sequence occurred at the end of Sarkar Raj, where Subhash Nagare is seen in a similar montage sequence. But what purpose both the montage serve? Since it seems unreal that people who opposed such a powerful man or created such a conspiracy could be taken down so easily, where were their goons, where was the money they flaunted? Why wrap it all up in such a hurry?
Montage is a sequence made with the collision of images to create a meaning, but here it has a clichéd stationary function, that the collision or collage of images does give rise to a meaning, which is nothing but a hollow vessel. Beside no Bollywood film is complete without the circular camera movement and it happens right in another montage sequence when Anita Rajan and Shankar Nagre tour around village to talk about their power plant plans. Each and every sequence including some of the more open wide shots are so static and plastic that it makes you wonder and question the sheer liberty these directors take on the audience, for eg: There is a sequence in Sarkar, where Shankar is talking to Avantika, and we have this sudden jump cut from her profile to her frontal shot; which clearly establishes the way our industry thinks of us(fools), if the director is believing in giving us a polished tale, then let the editing flow unconsciously like Hollywood films why keep such rough edges and have silly ellipses. And if the director believes in experimentation than it should show in the work, which it sadly does not.
There is another mise-en-scene cliché of our industry that gives the director power to shift between spaces without having the option to move them: rack focusing, used in such manner even in this film that one keeps wondering if any of the ground of space exists. Shooting the film in a tight close-up, with a longer focal length lens, it allows the cinematographer and the director not only to shift focus, but keep the attention on the character who is talking. But what is the use of the close-up, and giving the film its visual flair which is a bastardized coded version of chiaroscuro effect when nothing at all actually sublimes to give the film a sheer drive or energy in the plot and the overall narrative of the film.
When one sees a close-up of Guru Dutt even the slight expression on his face can be experienced first hand, and everything works in unison to create that: lighting, staging, script, acting, but when we are bombarded with only close and extreme close of characters who do not emote anything; perhaps, they like keeping their emotion within and appearing deadpan, no wonder I was amused whenever Shankar Nagare or Subhash Nagare would get angry or appear calm- since it seemed so fake whether I compare and relate with images only from the world of filmic expression, gestures or look for clues in the world we live in. Most people found the film visually arresting, but it limited the entire flow of the film, the look did not add any grittiness or rawness to the narrative, since the image (visual) was mutually exclusive to the story (narrative) on most counts, and the film didn’t pack a single power punch like the visual depicted. Therefore, most set-pieces in close or extreme close could never bring out anything at all, what a single close of Guru Dutt can emote even now, the entire film and countless Bollywood films of today cant do in any forms of shot.
In retrospect, everything remains very much the same- Aishwarya Rai Bachchan can’t act, Amitabh Bachchan looks out of place a number of times, and the power actor in Abhishek is yet to be explored after Yuva. The visual with its post production effects and shades of darkness and hard punctuated lighting is unappealing, almost every second film these days look like this. As for Ram Gopal direction is concerned, things have turned from bad to worse, and I’m betting that his new film Contract would again mark the return of clichéd mise-en-scene, visual flair, archetypes and stereotypes of from his own filmic universe. The only thing we have is the choice to avoid this film- Sarkar Raj, and the ability to go and choose some of his better works, and reminisce what could have been, or what would be, had Ram Gopal Verma remained true to himself and not turned into a factory of images and stories.
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Writers: Prashant Pandey (writer)
Ram Gopal Varma (story)
Running Time: 1 Hour 25 minutes: Language: Hindi Country: India.