This filmmaker has not done anything worthwhile for some time. Why, then, do Ram Gopal Varma’s peers still believe he is in experimentation mode?
“Ramu and I were at dinner with a promising young filmmaker,” says producer Sheetal Talwar, “and this director talked about how making a movie consumed him, how it took over his life, and he asked Ramu if he felt that way too. Ramu just said, ‘The last time I felt that way, I made RGV ki Aag’.”
Aag is a special movie. It is remembered for its unique badness. It was so—by most accounts—awful, Mumbai Mirror the next day ran a picture of Ram Gopal Varma perched glumly on a trash bin during the premiere. This film, his nadir, encouraged observers to ask if he had lost it. Undeterred, he continued to create movies that largely failed to draw people in, even if they nowhere near touched the depths of Aag.
A few people who work with Varma, as Talwar has, say that far from having lost it, he’s in exploration mode. A writer who left Varma says, “If he’s doing these movies, it’s because he wants to.” But this is by no means a widely-held opinion.
For the men and women he’s worked with, and who, in turn, helped construct his legacy, Varma’s recent movies have been puzzling. This is because, as one writer puts it, “He still has more talent than 90 per cent of this industry.” Describing his recent run of form, a former colleague, Chandan Arora, says it is like Sourav Ganguly’s patchy period earlier this decade. Another, Jijy Philip, says the director has begun to fixate on style rather than “offering anything new”.
The unease is shared by many. While some maintain that Varma is exploring his world, others believe that the director began to focus on things other than film. This belief stems from the genesis of The Factory, Varma’s production house, which was set up not just to make movies, but to express his view of cinema by and large and reject the prejudices that prevailed in the business. Inexperienced filmmakers and writers with promise, for example, were to be given space to produce the riveting cinema they wanted, even if it wasn’t to his taste. Getting the funding was The Factory’s job, and that was supposed to make it easier for new talent. “Although starting The Factory should have liberated him, it didn’t,” says Atul Sabharwal, who wrote Darna Mana Hai and My Wife’s Murder, “He was far more audacious and independent before.” Adds Arora, “It was a utopian concept, where art had no boundaries. I wish it had worked out right. Had The Factory’s model worked, it would have given rise to film companies with personalities. It’s just that the people he gave chances to couldn’t match his vision.”
Colleagues began to question Varma’s belief that anybody could make a movie, even if they understood its origin. “He saw himself as an outsider who came in, did well, and tried to usher in a new system. But he only gave opportunities to people who he saw a little of himself in,” says a writer who knows him well. Also, most agree that Varma went by his gut on most decisions. “If he felt good about you, you were in. He had this point to prove that it can be done in a new way.”
Besides being instinctive, Varma’s style of decision-making was described as quick, collaborative and decisive, with an emphasis on quick. “I know I’m fast as a producer,” Talwar says, “and he’s the only guy I know who can work faster than me. I shot with him for 160 days this year, and we didn’t have a single production delay… He knows what he wants so clearly that there are no delays, and we often ended up booking places for three days and then paying cancellation charges because he completed his work in two.”
I ask Talwar if that meant Varma was depriving himself of the extra footage that directors arm themselves with for post-production. Talwar agrees: “Yes, it’s a weakness, but speed can be a strength, and he wants to do things quickly.” The opening scene of Rakht Charitra, Talwar says, called for a rural setting. As they discussed it, Talwar grew worried, as producers get, about the money required to make the movie. He was surprised when Varma called in less than a week and said he had shot the scene at Film City. “He made it look like the hinterland of India. Film City! There was no recce, no one saying they’ve got to see different places.” Another time, when it was about a scene where a fake mansion set would be blown up, he suggested a miniature. Instead of throwing a tantrum, as many filmmakers do, Varma went ahead and used a miniature—to great effect.
Varma’s on-the-go approach to filming often means his writers and actors don’t know what the script looks like when they begin shoots. In one instance, an actor didn’t know if he would be present at all in the second half of the movie (although, he says, there are no hard feelings because “Ramu” sounded him out before the movie began that “he didn’t know what the second half would look like”). For Jungle, according to a unit member, the writer Jaideep Sahni kept writing dialogue on the sets.
It’s like an author who begins a book and lets it flow naturally. This, some believe, comes from Varma’s lack of patience with long-drawn and sketched-out depictions. He draws his energy and resolution from narrations, from the mood of his actors, from the environment that he seeks to film. On occasion, it has worked quite efficiently; he practically finished filming Kaun? between the time the Satya film reel was sent for processing and the movie’s release. At times, it has meant a sudden shift. A writer who has seen Varma in action says that if a particular thought excited him, he would return with a rough screenplay overnight.
This is also why, some say, his movies tend to be hit-or-miss. If Company seemed a richer film, says one collaborator, it was because it had a bound script, and practically everything had been worked out in advance. “He otherwise just wanted to film his movie and get on with it.”
Varma’s ability to flit effortlessly from one project to the next reveals another ability: to look at his movies dispassionately. Once, speaking of his failures to Talwar, he reportedly said that movies are like jokes; sometimes people respond, and sometimes they stare blankly. And he would use himself as a test audience. “When I saw him react to his scenes, I saw he had this way of reacting to it like the audience. He would react to the same things. I haven’t seen that in anyone else,” says Arora. This detachment, to some extent, protected him from box office results. “I’m sure it pricked him if a film didn’t do well,” says a former colleague, “but I never saw him show his disappointment.”
Although others also marvel at Varma’s ability to move on, this particular point is debatable—specifically in the case of Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, a movie directed by Arora. One writer, witness to the mood at Varma’s company after the film bombed, says that it affected him deeply. The movie was a trial balloon of sorts—with a short actor who was far from conventionally handsome, a first-time director, and an offbeat story. “I think he didn’t mind a film being called a flop. That was never the issue. But people didn’t even go to watch it.” It struck at the heart of Varma’s beliefs.
According to Sabharwal, when Sarkar worked, “He deduced what people liked of Sarkar, and he added it to Sarkar Raj. I think he tried, for a moment, to break away with Madhuri.” He had dearly wished the attempt had worked.
Rangeela, one of Varma’s earliest movies, is also among his brightest. But he has been known to say that he will never make a Rangeela again. It is unclear whether he says this in defiance or with regret. “I remember him saying to me, ‘Don’t talk to me about it again’,” one writer says. “He was so upset.” Sabharwal, who now writes the Yash Raj TV show Powder, believes that Varma wanted to move on from his earlier works. “I remember him talking about Satya. He’d always end up ridiculing it. He’d find something or the other wrong with it, and I would think to myself, ‘Yeah, he’s right, I didn’t see it that way before.’ I think he reacts to Rangeela because it’s kind of like a book you’ve written at 20, and people are talking about it when you’re 40. But with Rangeela, I think he was not happy with the side of him the movie came out of.”
This is a pattern in conversations about Varma. That his work and his life are inseparable. That his own life guides his philosophy that anyone (well, not anyone, but anyone who knows a little storytelling and what he wants to do) can make a movie. “Is it a coincidence that his liveliest movies came when he was in love with Urmila?” one writer asks. “Is it any wonder he wants to move on from there? I think he was always so conflicted.” He sought approval from the folks he introduced, trying harder when they seemed less convinced of him. One unit member on a set early this decade recalls how delighted he was when a writer told him that a particular scene worked well. “You finally approve of me!” he told the writer happily.
“He was surrounded by sycophants, like all directors,” a writer says, “and he knew how to filter out what they were saying. But when you hear them day in and out, it clouds your judgment. I think they were giving him wrong advice.”
Varma was open to advice, and it didn’t matter where it came from. Raajesh Tondon, an actor who worked on Naach and My Wife’s Murder, once noticed the camera’s position as the unit prepared for the next shot. He said he leaned towards Varma and gently suggested placing it another way. Varma, he recalls, glanced at the camera, shook his head, and did as the actor advised. “When I worked with him, I found him completely open to doing things differently. It wasn’t like his way or the highway.” He wasted no time on specifics: “If he had a shoe in the frame, it didn’t have to be kept a particular way.”
“He’s one of the most open filmmakers I know,” Talwar says, “He’s proud of his work, but he’s not precious about it. I know this because when we argue over something—and by this I mean thrashing it out, not fighting—he sometimes says, ‘But what do I know? I’m the guy who made Aag.’”
Ex-colleagues mention the recent dour period, where his characters brood and are perpetually conflicted, and contrast it with the lightness of his earliest works. “Right now it feels like he’s honing his sound and camera skills.”
This observation can be seen in another light when placed alongside a veteran writer’s opinion of his time working with Varma. “He’s a drama fiend.” Varma made sure others knew it. He once told a writer, “I hate poetry. I hate songs. I hate family.” The writer responded: “I know what you hate. Tell me the things you like.” The writer understood his unpredictability, if not the man. “He would behave possessively with people. But it wasn’t long-lasting. He’d be doing one thing today… something else tomorrow.”
There were also memorable acts of strangeness. One recollection is of him messaging a unit member from another phone, and calling himself a tyrant. “He has no relationships, no friends to speak of,” says a writer. “It’s like he’s exploring his relationships with people around him… I know that all his relationships come with a shelf life.”
And because Varma’s life is so entwined with his work—and what else could explain his daytrip to the Taj Mahal Hotel soon after the attacks of 26 November 2008?—people who know him are hesitant to write him off. How do they decide on a man who hasn’t decided on his own social mores yet? “You know, these are filmi terms,” says a former collaborator. “‘Oh, he’s over, oh, he’s lost it’. If he’s doing these movies, it’s because he wants to. Ramu is what Ramu does. These filmi terms don’t apply to him. Just when you think this is all he can do, he could come out with a mother of a film next year and we’ll all be speechless.”