The grandmaster of Indian Realism, or the maker of cheap horror with sexual thrills? What do we remember Ram Gopal Verma as?

“Mumbai ka Raja kaun? Bhiku Mhatre!”

Mhatre was a household name in the 90s.

A line on the tongues of every cinema-goer in the 90s. Today, Ram Gopal Varma is a name synonymous with snazzy, pulp B-grade cinema – which is sad, because generations today have no idea about this forgotten, fallen legend.

Ram Gopal Varma, or simply Ramu, as he is called, made a mark in the Telegu film industry with his début film Siva, followed by various other works, which eventually led the man to Bollywood. We can see glimpses of his genius in his earlier works, say Rangeela, Satya, and Shool. Back then, he wasn’t a man whose films contained out-of-work actresses in item songs and weird camera angles – he was a man who dared to speak against the conventional norms of Bollywood filmmaking, daring to make films about the underworld – even under death threats.

Films that left an imprint on Indian cinema. Here’s looking in deep.

Dark, gritty, real, and yet entertaining – these were the films made by Ram Gopal Varma. Every scene was genius, and so was every line spoken in Satya and Shool. A then-unknown Anurag Kashyap trained under him, and a lot of Kashyap films that we see today are inspired by Ramu’s style. The films he made shook Bollywood to its core.  While we had a Kuch Kuch Hota Hai on one end, we had the starkly different Satya releasing the same year. 

Shool, Sarkar, and Company were films that dealt with the underworld and told stories that no one was willing to. A new kind of story-telling came into the picture. While many credit Anurag Kashyap for introducing the “realistic” genre of films in the Hindi film industry, I’d say it was Varma who started this movement. Movies about the lower classes of the city and their daily lives were portrayed impeccably by him.

From this…

So what went wrong? 

Attempts at re-gaining past glory: The same thing that goes wrong with every great film-maker.

As hard as Ramu tried fitting into conventional norms, while maintaining an original style, he couldn’t succeed. An item number and a tale about a gangster unfortunately didn’t gel too well. While his later films did contain glimpses of his genius, he couldn’t revive his past glory. And then came a slew of B-grade horror films (Aag included), and his twitter rants, which just pushed him further down the pit.

Affairs with actresses and fights with celebrities now took his name to the headlines while his work quietly took his backseat. The world laughed on, while some observed the fall of a genius.

… to this.

While the film-maker still tries to revive his career by making low budget films, not entirely learning from his mistakes (read: the “Veerappan” item numbers) , one cannot deny that the film-maker has had a huge influence on the way the Hindi film industry makes films. He brought in a tinge of reality that was missing from the movies, showed us that everything isn’t as hunky-dory as it seems. The almost accurate portrayals of lives we had only heard about in the papers, he brought to the screen.

One cannot deny that everyone attempting a film in the realistic genre today, is somewhere or the other influenced by Ram Gopal Varma. His characters, his music, his violence: everything was responsible in shaping what realistic cinema has come to be today. It is unfortunate that he himself is far behind in the game he once was the master of. One can definitely comment on the poor quality of films he churns out today, but cannot forgive his role in the Indian new-wave cinema.

Honestly, I still don’t think it’s all over for the filmmaker. All the man has to do is not stick to conventional norms and break free like he once did, which led to his glory. Till then, I guess we can just put on the DVD and watch one of his older classics, awaiting a new one from this forgotten grandmaster…

Alfred Hirani


Kindly note that the views presented in the article are the author’s own.