By Damian D'souza Jul. 03, 2018
Long before RGV Ki Aag and Guns and Thighs, Ram Gopal Varma gave us a masterful Mumbai gangster movie like Satya. Crime films need characters, not caricatures – they need real grime, not artistically recreated versions of it. They don’t make films like Satya anymore.
Years before he flipped out and slid into cinematic insanity, Ram Gopal Varma had all the trappings of… dare I say it… genius. Ramu, who recently went “full retard” with Guns and Thighs and God, Sex, and Truth, once gave us gems like Ab Tak Chappan, Company, Sarkar I. But before all of this – and the reason we can forgive him for RGV Ki Aag and Sarkaar 3 – is the OG Mumbai mafia movie, Satya. The film turns 21 today.
Mumbai’s status as the country’s financial and entertainment capital makes it ground zero for crime, but rarely does a movie do justice to this fabulous seedy side of the city. Suckered in by the possibility of untold riches, with dreams that are chambered to a .45 , young men still flock to the land of opportunity, like moths to a flame. Their meeting with the inevitable facilitated by the khaki-clad grim reaper has been romanticised countless times in books and film. But none has managed to capture the grittiness in all it’s gory glory better than Satya. The mafia milieu perfectly captured by its motley crew of characters that represent the ’90s, a period of time in Mumbai’s mythology when the city was in the throes of a passionate yet violent, torrid affair with shady men with guns, on both sides of the law.
Crime films need characters, not caricatures, they need real grime, not artistically recreated versions of it.
Satya is the story of a nobody, played by JD Chakravarthy, who along with millions of others like him, moved to Mumbai willing to do whatever it takes to make it in this city. Cliche? Yes. But what turns this cliche on its head is Chakravarthy, who is distant, almost indifferent to the mire that surrounds him. You think you’ve seen the brooding leading man? Well you haven’t until you’ve watched Chakravarthy as Satya. His face locked in a perpetual “lost boy” gaze as he strikes out by himself, to make a living using honest means.
You can see shades of Chakravarthy all around Mumbai: He could be the quiet, slightly timid Uber driver who informs you that it’s his first day on the job while you pretend to give a shit about anything outside your little bubble. He’s not the modern-day cliche of the many overtly badass gangster films Bollywood has attempted to make, where Emraan Hashmi always seems to have a smart, crowd-pleasing one-liner before dispatching an opponent.
Chakravarthy is nothing like Hashmi. He remains understated, straight-faced, emotionless, and you can’t tell whether he’d piss his pants or walk out unscathed of a firefight, leaving a bunch of dead bodies and debris in his wake. He starts off as a waiter at a beer bar where he encounters a sub-species of Mumbai’s populace: Local “shaane log” or pawns of the mafia, who’ve sworn fealty to whichever gangster holds sway in their locality and who do what pawns to best, become cannon fodder. Running afoul of these gentlemen Satya is taught a lesson and winds up in jail in the process, then retaliates by killing the man responsible after being released. It is in jail that he meets the only other reason to watch this movie, Bhiku Mhatre, who goes on to become his friend, mentor and boss when he introduces him to the ballet of bullets that is the underworld.
Bhiku is the archetype of the Marathi manoos, he still lives in a chawl with his typically Marathi wife. He’s got the typically skewed moral compass that guides the middle-class in Mumbai to it’s true north, money. Bhiku, the man who would be king, makes his intentions clear while posing a rhetorical question out to the sea, “Mumbai ka king kaun?”. “Bhiku Mhatre,” says Manoj Bajpayee whose role in Satya eclipses his now-cult role as Sardar Khan in Gangs of Wasseypur.
If the sea could speak, it’d probably tell Bhiku that he wasn’t the first to harbour such delusions of grandeur and he certainly wouldn’t be the last. In stark contrast to our modern day mafiosos who carry themselves with grace and style, Bhiku is the wandering vagabond. He dresses like he’s just come back from a Ganpati visarjan or a dingy dance bar, belying the fact that he was indeed a feared crime boss, who started off as a lowly underling. While his cinematic counterparts choose to upgrade their lifestyles, Bhiku chose not to. While millennial gangster films set in the same period have the boss being driven around in a Mercedes or something similar, Bhiku’s mode of transport is the Padmini Premier or the Omni, the workhorse of the middle class.
Alongwith his associates, comprising the multifaceted Makarand Deshpande and Saurabh Shukla, who play Advocate Chandrakant and Kallu Mama respectively, Bhiku and his bunch of merry madarchods set out to grab their piece of the pie. Willing to kill for what’s theirs and set themselves up as the lords of the land, backed up by the powerful Bhau, or the Don Corleone to Bhiku’s Santino and Chakravarthy’s would be Michael.
Even Urmila Matondkar, who plays Satya’s love interest Vidya, is neither mother nor moll as is the norm. She’s a poor singer trying to hack it in the big bad world of the 90s when playback singers, gangsters, cops and politicians were all willing participants in this crime orgy. If this premise were played out today, Urmila might probably have been cast as a dancer who shakes her bosom in a backroom until she is “rescued” by the anti hero. In this way again, Satya was before its time, because Vidya and Satya come together on their own terms, independent of each other, each with their own baggage that neither wants the other’s help to carry.
It’s climactic finish, set in the rains during Ganesh Chaturthi, is as Mumbai as Mumbai gets. There’s no swish action choreography with gunfights featuring people flying through the air, there’s coup de grace with dialogue that is smart for smart’s sake, and there sure as hell are no big explosions and brouhaha as the antagonist and the proto-antagonist square off. There’s just Mumbai, veiled in it’s damp grey shroud.
Crime films need you to see the muck smeared on the sides of cars that have ferried crime bosses to silent meetings. They need the grit that comes from using the red hue of a dimly lit bar or whorehouse as the setting for illicit deals with different devils and not as the background for item numbers. Crime films need characters, not caricatures, they need real grime, not artistically recreated versions of it. All said and done, they don’t make films like Satya anymore.
Damian loves playing videogames. If all the bounties he collected slaying zombies were tangible, he wouldn't need to write such bios. Seriously though, Damian used to be a cook who wrote, now he's just a writer who cooks.