Cast: Amitabh Bachchan, Abhishek Bachchan, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Dilip Prabhavalkar, Sayaji Shinde, Govind Namdeo
Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Runtime: 139 min. (citation needed)
Genre: Crime, Drama, Thriller
We’re never told why in Sarkar Raj, not until the last few minutes, and instead we’re assaulted with a barrage of audio visual imposition during the entire length. All the terribly unimaginative evil men seem to care about is wasting the next thorn in the flesh. Nobody boasts of any finesse, any subtlety. They twirl their eyebrows and squint their eyes and a wry smile is always ready on their faces, which intermediately turns into a snicker finally revealing itself into the wicked laugh. You know, they might as well put a cape, a thick moustache, an ugly mole on the cheek, an eye patch, and raise a placard reading a big ‘V’ for villain. That is how the film scampers along, until the end, when Subhash Nagare (Amitabh Bachchan) summarizes by means of an easy explanation to Anita Rajan (Aishwarya Rai) in what seemed like a ten-minute ramble, and my head hung in great disappointment and I sunk deep within my seat in despair, for the realization hit me that a opportunity was lost. This one had every plot element going for it – the current political climate, a little bit of history providing current context and a family drama – and yet somehow nothing works. I’ve never been to a film school, but there’re a few things I’ve picked up over my years at the movies. One of them concerns a screenwriter, and when a script feels the need to neatly thread every single development at the end in order to bring its audience on the same page, I think it is the time to scratch it all and rewrite.
In its labyrinthine denouement lay the germ of a great thriller, a great crime saga, a great moral tale, and most of all a great film. I’m talking about the plot, that is. Sarkar Raj, as an idea, is an infinitely better re-imagining of The Godfather II than its predecessor was of The Godfather. The Godfather II has always felt to me as a lazy film, and Coppola’s ambition to contrast the rule of Michael and Don Vito sure has thematic depth that would fill the Pacific ten times over, but it hampers the pace with its obligatory cross-cutting. And Sarkar was a woeful film, at which I was so livid I left the theatre premises even before it could end itself, for I was ill-equipped to deal with Varma’s excesses and had succumbed to them. But let us leave it at that.
Varma, with his idea here, had done one better on Coppola. The germ must have been influenced by the Enron crisis, if you remember it well. With the construction of a power plant at a village as a backdrop, Sarkar Raj harbored intentions to bring to the fore the father and the son and the differences in their beliefs, together and in one frame. While the Pacino vehicle was always about business, this one stamps its beliefs for the opposite – everything is personal in this world. It is essentially about the clash between them, the two schools of thought. I think, as are most things in the world, a little bit of both.
At least, that was the idea.
But it needed to be realized as a script first. Alas that building block seems to have long been banished from Varma’s films. The story or whatever passes for it here, happens in the first fifteen minutes in a hurry. The so-called differences and conflicts are resolved within the span of a wasted sequence. After that, it is just a great long wait on how it will all be wrapped up as Sarkar Raj, smug in its style, repeats itself over and over relentlessly until our brains suffer a collective hemorrhage. On whatever few pages, which I’m sure was under 10 the script found its existence, the words must have been written real big, in caps and bold. I say this because the actors speak them thus, not conversations but statements each punctuated with a million comas and a zillion drumrolls. It gets to a point wherein you can predict the onset of the drumroll in a sequence, not by the dramatic shape it is assuming but merely by the time elapsed since the last one. It gets to a point where actors deliver all their lines with due regards to the background score. It gets to a point where you instinctively rub your ears in total ire as soon as the lights are switched on.
All that these sentences seem to be concerned about though is people speaking in grim hushed conspiratorial tones, with plans and murders the only keywords thrown at us. Sequences themselves have no meaning, they have no clue to offer, they have nothing to say, except for the fact they exist waiting to be assembled into that final briefing. Whatever developments there are unfold thick and fast in the first quarter of an hour, with us having no inkling how they fit in the bigger picture and why, which is a shame. With lethargic pacing, and a ridiculous emphasis on key scenes, the film is supremely unfocussed in its narrative. Loud and brazen dialogues are given much more of a time and key sequences, like the riots are just hurled at us out of nowhere.
And then, it loses steam and runs out of ideas, and that is when it starts playing out like one of them low grade thrillers, with a twist in the tale that shouldn’t have been in the first place, when it could have been cerebral chess-game like Benegal’s Kalyug. Think of the brilliant Johnny Gaddaar, and how it always keeps us informed. That is the mark of a supreme screenwriter, and a supremely confident picture. Early in the film, a character mentions the Chakravyuha. Unfortunately nobody paid attention why we’re fascinated by that spiral military formation, both in the written and the visual medium. It is because we’re given the big picture beforehand, and in the narrative of its unfolding there has always been breathtaking clarity. The brilliance of a film is not in keeping everything concealed and revealing only at the last minute, but by laying out the whole deck right in front of our eyes, and then surprise us with how they add up. Here the great tragedy is that the cards are laid, but are lost amidst the bludgeoning and pretentious technical indulgences, and gradually we’re made unaware of their existence.
What’s this fetish with awkward camera angles is I would never understand? Good frames are spoilt beyond repair by the use of these angles, and they almost caused nausea in me. And what’s with these super close-ups, which strive to land us with more than a fair chance of familiarizing ourselves with every strand of facial hair on display. The background score isn’t a thing of the background no more; it exists much like those periodic splits of laughter that find their way in most sitcoms. Loud has never been my type, and everything about this film is loud with a capital L. Make that all caps and bold, again. Everything here is shouting in our face as if we’re retards and didn’t get it the first time around. Look, this is a subject and a film that doesn’t need add-ons of style, least of all shots calling attention to themselves. It hampers a dramatic film as this, and we end up noticing the excessive style all around, the way the silhouettes cross each other splitting the frame diagonally, when we ought to be paying attention to the developments. We’re not the ones to fault though, because the film itself is so happy about its frames it is imploring us thus. I’ve always been a believer that the style should augment the film, and not exist just for the sake of it. Consider again, Johnny Gaddaar, a film so perfect and so remarkably spot-on with its usage of stylistic devices that the entire exercise becomes a visual joy.
Tip here for free, again –
One, when you’re constructing a sequence of a shock blast or any such kind, with the thematic and visual focus on a particular character, it is always necessary to hold the frame in medium shot. That is, the character ought to be with respect to the environment, and that is when we notice the contrast and everything can be achieved without a single edit. In an important development in the film, Shankar falls to the ground as a bomb explodes at a distance, and we’re essentially supposed to experience the sequence through him. A kind of black out is what is supposed to be surrounding us. Something akin to when Denzel Washington falls to the ground in The Seige or when Tom Hanks is on the Omaha beach in Saving Private Ryan. Here, the camera moves in crazy clueless angles, but always in close-ups. Hence, to provide us context, it becomes imperative for it to edit to the other reactions, and hence the impact is lost.
You might wonder, if I am committing the same sin as the film, of losing sight of characters for technique. I might well be, and I guess the film had it coming. The film, even before the first frame, has assumed that both of the central men, the father and the son, have been explored enough, and all they end up being is not too different from the effigies of theirs that are burnt. For some odd reason, which I didn’t comprehend even in the first film, Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) walks all angry, often teeth clenched. There’re only two expressions he shows, a kind of binary machine. The other appears only in the vicinity of Anita, where he attains some shred of a three-dimensional structure, and that seems because he has been notified beforehand. It is a weak uninteresting character, for on one hand Varma paints his film exclusively in the tones of sepia, and yet he shows this man as a great moral hero with little or no flaws in him. Yet he sketches him as one who is a sum total of the compulsion of circumstances, and not because of inherent emotions. What does that make him? A superhero? Hardly, for if that is the case, nobody takes any pain to develop him, and everything about him is essentially one note.
Then, there’s the father. What a waste, and what a rescue act by Amitabh Bachchan. The man strives on such larger than life cut outs as these, and his trick is to bring that shred of emotion and vulnerability to such a character. Look at him in Agneepath, as he towers over every single frame. His eyes, when given the chance and familiar territory, speak so much here. I think both Varma and Bachchan realized their blunder with the first film, when the former in his obsession of the angry young man in Zanjeer, created a character with just one expression – anger, total. Here, it is more human, at least the performance is.
Tip for free, yet again.
Silence is golden they say, and much more so during an emotional sequence. At the time of death, the lesser the spoken words, the stronger is the impact. Case in point, Shakti. At the mother’s dead body, Amitabh Bachchan, flanked and handcuffed by cops, walks and pays his respects to her. He then walks towards that man, the father, lonely and desolate, sitting in the corner. The son slowly sits down, and he clutches the father’s arm. Both do not look at each other, but they break down, individually. It is a sequence of infinite brilliance and heart, and it leaves us devastated.
That’ll be the final tip of the day, I swear to all my Gods.
To what was most surprising to me, I was fascinated by the woman at the centre of it all, Anita, and gradually found myself drawn towards her with every increment of a frame. She hails from the United States, she feels highly awkward drinking tea at a stall and holds a condescending view of the politics here. Yet, she is fluid enough to flow with the tide of the river here, and at the same time rigid enough to stand to her own set of principles. Yes, it is a character that is straight out of the writer’s conceit-filled bag, but it is gravitating nonetheless.
I think I was better equipped to deal with Varma this time around. And I understand what the films stand for, not suave gangster flicks, but the intention is to put up a good old fashioned exercise in the loud, to cater to what’re called the front benchers. I respect a film that takes great care to please one particular section, especially the front benchers for I’m one. There’s great joy in such a film, and when done with honesty, like the severely intense Ghatak, the results are electrifying. This one here isn’t one, because it seems to be under the impression that it is an important film, when it isn’t one. It could’ve been, but it isn’t. There’s so much pretense in here, I wanted to throw up, and it spoilt the joy for me.
Please, allow me one tip.
You want to watch one film for the week. Then please, I beg of you, don’t fall for this bloody super dumb bloated sham here, and instead invest yourselves in Aamir, a true gem. And if you’ve time to spare for one more, I would suggest watching Aamir again.