“The whole world loves a maverick and the whole world wants the maverick to achieve something nobler than simple rebellion” – Kevin Patterson
The quote itself contains a strange dichotomy. The world loves a maverick because of his unorthodoxy and independent mind. To expect the maverick to achieve something nobler or to expect anything at all, is to go against the factor that brought the . Cinephiles fell in love with Ram Gopal Varma because he shattered the prevalent rules of movie making. The Steadicam he introduced in mainstream movies reflected his gaze. They called him a path breaker. Years later when the Steadicam was not able to match pace with his flirting gaze, he moved to the now infamous ‘rogue’ camera movements in Department. This time he was termed a lunatic. The truth, I believe, is not in either of those labels. This was a man determined to bring his ‘vision’ on screen. The output, if anything, was incidental. If the content of Shiva did not work, the Steadicam would have gone back to the dusty archives of some studio. The problem with Department was not the jerky and rogue movements but bad story and screenplay.
A celebrity once said, ‘Ram Gopal Varma WAS’. Believing in that statement is like writing the premature obituary of a film maker who has the prolificity of a rabbit in the wild. In terms of quantity at least. To keep looking for a Satya or Shiva from RGV is akin to looking for the teenage innocence in a fully grown adult who has been through life. Innocence is bartered for experience. You can never go back. Once you shoot Amitabh from the insides of a tea cup, a normal close up shot would just do it for you.
Keeping the ‘story’ of his movies aside, something he himself seems to be doing, there are things that you cannot take away from the film maker. He has always taken a path not travelled. That is what gave us Shiva ( a welcome breath of reality amidst the prevailing hyperbole), Satya (a look at how gangsters actually are , as opposed to suave and dapper filmy stereotypes) and Rangeela (a satire on the generic song and dance romances, with hummable songs and sensuous dances). Noteworthy it is that when he did a satire on the song and dance routine, he showed the industry how to do it with finesse.
When he invested in the story, he directed/ghost directed cult classics like Kshana Kshanam, Sarkar, Anaganaga okka roju, Money ,Company, Bhoot, Gayam, Govinda Govinda – which make up a spread on a movie buffet that any cinephile will feast on. There are film makers whose entire filmography is shorter than this minor sample from RGV’s. And yet there are paeans dedicated to them. Then there are the movies coming out of his factory (directed or written or produced) like Jungle, Raktha Charithra, Ek Hasina Thi, Ab Tak Chhappan, Kaun, Shool, Darna Marna Hai, The attacks of 26/11 which are experimental and interesting to watch. Off late there is the ‘hire the best celebrity look alike’ movies that he seems to be engrossed with. Laxmi’s NTR, Amma Rajyamlo Kaddappa Bidaalu. Killing Veerappan, Vangaveeti and the upcoming Powerstar.
Fuelled by shrewd casting and fanned by controversies these are more like his guilty pleasures. In the rare case that he tripped upon a story, Killing Veerappan turned out be a decent film. There was also a phase of zero budget and low budget films. The movies were far from pathbreaking but movie making technique was. It paved the path for a generation of content creators who were looking for an economical way of bringing their stories on screen. As a minor footnote, there were the announced today, dropped tomorrow projects like 2 web series whose trailers were released before web series were a fashion. He reached the finishing line before the rest but dropped the baton and moved away from the track, probably distracted by a different set of guns or thighs.
Storytelling as an artform is not always about the ‘story’, sometimes it is about the ‘telling’. Varma chose ‘telling’ as the canvass to experiment. The camera angles got weirder, the background music made way for noise, Assamese tea estates became unnamed product placements and heroines became sexier or vulgar depending on your stand on the scale of hypocrisy. He named his production house, factory and he produced in bulk. Sometimes the same product was recycled with minor changes (Bhoot, Phoonk, Vastushastra). Sometimes the same content was remade in a different language (Sarkar in Hindi/ Rowdy in Telugu, Antham in Telugu/ Satya in Hindi). One fine day, maybe he will decide to remake Aag and end up making a deserving tribute to Sholay. With RGV that is not a far-fetched conjecture.
Try putting the auteur theory to test. An auteur leaves his mark on his work. In case of RGV, he is not satisfied with leaving his prints on the frame but goes ahead and contaminates it with his bodily fluids. The main hypothesis of the auteur theory is that the director has subjective control. In his movies, it does not look like he lets go of the wheel for anyone. The music director, actors, technicians are limited to fleeting moments of back seat driving. If he decides to go over the divider, he will run the car over the suggestions and the divider. You watch any film out of RGV factory, ones he has directed, ghost directed or just greenlit, and you will know it is an RGV film without seeing the credits.
Let us then look at his contributions to Indian cinema, again purely incidental while he was on his movie churning spree. RGV is what happens to cinema while it is busy planning the progression from K Balachander/Guru Dutt to Myskin/Anurag Kashyap. A filmmaker more conventional and revered like K. Balachander is always lauded for the talent that he groomed , from the greatest stars like Rajnikanth and Kamal Hassan to the bevy of assistant directors and actresses. Barring the fact that revering RGV would irritate him the most, the list of talent that came from the RGV factory is a power list in itself. The biggest directors of Tollywood like Poori Jagannath, Krishna Vamsi. Actors like Manoj Bajpayee, film makers like Anurag Kashyap, Sriram Raghavan and Shimit Amin, all have come out of the RGV factory. Filmmakers past their glory days, often reminisce about the talent that emerged from their pool. RGV is too busy with his next project to take any appreciation for the past.
Great filmmakers are many a times asked to take masterclass. There is a video of him on YouTube where he addresses film makers on the process of making a low budget film and releasing it without having to go through the expensive channels of promotion and distribution. This was 5 years back, before the OTT revolution and democratization of content creation. More recently, during the current pandemic film makers were either painting gloomy pictures of the future or reminiscing their work from the past, RGV went about doing what a film maker is supposed to do. He picked up content after content, shot them faster than TikTok content creators and designed the entire distribution network for release. Climax might not be Satya, but it should inspire aspiring film makers to the same extent. That if you want to make a movie, just go about making it. There is your masterclass ‘Cinema in the time of Corona’.
Art also makes people uncomfortable. Especially in our country where we wear our double standards with pride. We populate like wild rabbits but copulate on screen and our moralities are hurt. Voyeurism is inherent in general Indian psyche -from peeking through the neighbour’s window to poking into their personal lives. But, publicly we will draw the line at Bigg boss. The voyeuristic gaze in Naked is more private. The number of people who have trashed it in public is far outnumbered by people who have privately logged in and watched it online.
As a nation, we like to paint people in uncomplicated shades of white and black. He will always be treated as the prodigal son who turned over to the dark side. In case of RGV, the joke might well be on the detractors as he churns out one movie after another. From underworld to voyeurism, from true crime stories to titillating content, from political satire to loud horror no topic would remain virgin with the auteur in him on the prowl. Amidst the cacophony of content, there might be a stray stream of ‘classic’ cinema. But that would be binding the maverick to the morose rules of ‘plots’ and ‘expectations’. All the while he will be busy making movies, undeterred by the premature obituaries and exposing the fallacy in its ‘Naked’ absurdities.