Ram Gopal Varma: A Humble Status Enquiry Please!

Why should any film director, let him/her be a seriously famous or crass commercial maker, make a movie like the ’12 O’ Clock’ (2021) while still in the right frame of mind? I’m saying so because the film, placed in the ‘horror’ genre, is ludicrously absurd, inadvertently funny and with superimposed superficial characters. The angst of the viewers is particularly aggravated if that filmmaker happens to be an era-defining and a prolific one for over three decades. I cannot restrain myself from quoting the Hindi teaser that goes like this, ‘Tera barah baj gaya kya?’ (Have you got done with it?) while avoiding the Sardar jokes associated with the ’12 o’ clock’ phenomenon. Mind you, I’m far from trying to be offensive or insulting in any possible manner for I’ve been a devout admirer of the filmmaker since the 90s. As the title suggests I’m just asking as to what may have been happening with him in the recent years. However, it’s a far cry as regards the remotest possibility of this piece ever reaching him.


No doubt, the internationally acclaimed filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma who has almost been institutionalized and iconized as RGV in the new-age Indian Cinema has been a hypercreative and restless celluloid creator regularly shifting from genre to genre and relentlessly experimenting with avant-garde traditions, parallel cinema tenets, seriously song-less commercial ventures and also docudrama. Hailing from the Telugu film industry Ram Gopal Varma burst into the Hindi film industry or Bollywood with his epochal crime thriller ‘Shiva’ (1990) which was a remake of his Telugu masterpiece ‘Siva’ (1989). Moviegoers including this writer had been fascinated with his fresh new techniques in photography and use of realistic background audio combined with the introduction of the Steadicam for the first time in Indian cinema. Very soon, he was hailed as an Indian filmmaker of the neo-noir genre with his ‘Drohi’ in 1992 which was a bilingual movie in Telugu and Hindi.


True to his restless nature, RGV did not stick to his richly acquired genre of noir and shifted to the horror one with ‘Raat’ in which was also a bilingual production in the same year. Perhaps he was inspired by the archaic Ramsay kind of horror movies in India and made a new effort to change the concept permanently with jump scares, moving camera and the amplified use of the audio while avoiding the omnipresent grotesque monsters. Then in 1995 he again shifted to the romantic comedy genre with his unforgettable ‘Rangeela’ starring Aamir Khan and Urmila Matondkar, the latter heroine becoming a permanent feature in most of his later movies. In this super-duper blockbuster music director AR Rahman made his Hindi debut and won awards. In the interlude 1992-1995 Varma went on with his Telugu movies. Then sticking to the comedy genre combined with road adventure he made ‘Daud’ (run) starring Sanjay Dutt and Urmila in 1997 which is a remake of his Telugu cult classic of 1991. ‘Daud’ was an average hit with mixed reviews. This brings us to another characteristic of this filmmaker.


Apart from his ‘creative and experimentalist restlessness’ RGV is also like a cricketer who is often in full form and the next day he is out of form. His movies truly reflect this throughout the last three decades.


In 1998 he switched to the Gangster genre with his era-defining ‘Satya’ starring Urmila and Chakravarthy, and successfully created his Gangster trilogy with ‘Company’ (2002) and ‘D’ (2005). ‘Satya’ earned him international acclaim crowning him with the creator of Mumbai Noir as the movies of the trilogy brought out the layers of the Mumbai underworld. British filmmaker Danny Boyle cited the influences of ‘Satya’ and ‘Company’ in the making of his Academy Award winning ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008). RGV was also featured in BBC World Series ‘Bollywood Bosses’ in 2004. Both ‘Satya’ and ‘Company’—the latter starring Ajay Devgan and Manisha Koirala—won him many Filmfare nominations and awards. As the cricketer in and out of form RGV was somewhat out of form in third movie of the trilogy ‘D’, and as per latest reports he is trying to bring out another sequel or prequel ‘D Company’. In the same year of 1998, he combined with Mani Rathnam to produce the memorable ‘Dil Se’.


In between, the restless creator shifted to the political thriller genre producing the critically acclaimed ‘Shool’ (Spike) (1999) that earned him a National Award for the Best Script. In the same year he experimented with a psychological thriller ‘Kaun’ filmed in just one house and with only three characters, namely Urmila and Manoj Bajpayee. In 2005 he seriously concentrated on the political thriller genre and created another trilogy, starting with the Godfatheresque ‘Sarkar’ (2005) starring Amitabh Bachchan and his son Abhishek which was a huge commercial success as well as critically acclaimed. Again, he started losing his form somewhat in ‘Sarkar Raj’ (2008) and lost it more in ‘Sarkar-3’ (2017).   


Of course, he never forgot his ‘horror’ genre and made a commercially successful ‘Bhoot’ (Ghost) in 2003, following it up in the same year with ‘Darna Mana Hai’ (fear is forbidden) and ‘Darna Zaroori Hai’ (fear is necessary) in 2006. In the year of 2003, he also produced a psychological thriller ‘Ek Hasina Thi’ (there was a girl) starring Urmila and anti-hero Saif Ali Khan. In 2004 he produced a suspense-crime flick ‘Ab Tak Chappan’ (so far 56) on an encounter specialist played brutally by Nana Patekar. He also returned to the horror genre with ‘Phoonk’ (Blow) in 2008 and this was perhaps the last superhit of RGV. Unfortunately, since then the RGV movies have been able to get only mixed to negative reviews except the absorbing political thriller ‘Rann’ in 2010 starring Amitabh Bachchan. The same year his ‘Rakta Charitra’ double-header reminded viewers including this writer prominently mostly of gore and violence portrayed in C-grade Hindi commercial masala movies.


His mistakes have contributed to his being consistently out of form since at least 2010: the mistake of trying to do a remake of the classic ‘Sholay’ that landed him in controversy and he went ahead still with a ridiculous title of ‘Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag’ (the fire of RGV); his misconceived notions of remaking the evergreens ‘Shiva’, ‘Satya’ and ‘Bhoot’; and so on. His supposed docudrama ‘The Attacks of 26/11’ (2013) failed to portray the intensity of the frightening Mumbai terror attack. In fact, the recent Amazon web series ‘Mumbai Diaries 26/11’ from a medical point of view is more engrossing as well as realistic.


Every filmmaker has his/her ups and downs, hits and flops as we’ve tried to narrate in the case of this iconic filmmaker of India who is apparently like the volatile cricketer. However, nothing of this justifies his making of the ’12 O Clock’ movie. Thanks to some Hollywood horror epics we know very well the phenomena of ‘possession and exorcism’. But in this film, this phenomenon has been turned grotesquely on its head without any explanation.


A stalwart theater-cinema actor Makarand Deshpande who has also featured in many of RGV movies has been reduced to a mockery of a character that emotes without conviction. Veteran Bollywood hero Mithun Chakraborty, also roped in as psychiatrist (the character pronounces it as ‘psychiatric’!), does not know what to do most of the times. The supposed exorcist played by Ashish Vidyarthi, before he could offer a solution, gets killed in his own house by the remote-controlling ghost of a psycho serial killer who possessed Makarand’s daughter Gauri. Manav Kaul and Dalip Tahil as cops are entirely wasted. RGV’s final solution to the problem is as horrendously absurd and laughable as the entire movie is inadvertently funny. I had the misfortune of watching this movie because of the RGV tag and that it was available on a streaming platform. 


Of course, Ram Gopal Varma retains his techno-savvy touches, movements and an appropriately effective background music, but is lacking mostly in the story development department. We hope this ever-creative director regain his form like Virat Kohli and bring back his magic in the near future. 


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