Ram Gopal Varma was always fascinated by ‘The Godfather’, Mario Puzo’s landmark novel on the Mafia, and its subsequent screen version directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Its no surprise that ever since 1972, filmmakers the world over have tried to drink from Coppola’s cup and recreate the gangster classic he made. Invariably, almost all directors have never quite managed to bring that magic to the big screen. That is until 1998, when Varma made his own astonishing contribution to the organised crime canon with the brutal and brilliant ‘Satya’. He managed to rewrite the rules of the gangster genre and set a new benchmark on the interpretation of the Mumbai underworld.
Like Coppola, Ram Gopal Varma gave us a view of mobsters who were complex and human, yet were sympathetic despite the evil nature of the business that they were involved in. Between the extortion rackets and the murders that they carry out, the gangsters lived normal lives and had to endure trials and tribulations like the rest of us. They know that they are involved in a dead end lifestyle. But due to the circumstance in which they live and the dog-eat-dog environment that surrounds them, there is no alternative for them. Either you get tough, pick a gun and survive or you get chewed. It’s as simple as that. You live in a pushing and shoving world and you better learn the rules quickly or prepare to get trampled.
No one knows this harsh reality better than Satya (J.D. Chakravarthy) the protagonist of the film and the man whose life the story revolves around. He is a mysterious loner who drifts into the glitz and glamour world of Mumbai, which he can only see from the outside. For him Mumbai is a place where he has to quickly learn how to survive. Searching for a job he gains employment at a seedy local bar, where he unsuspectedly sets off into motion a chain of events that will eventually draw him into the dark realm of the Mumbai underworld. At the bar he tangles with a low level hoodlum named Jagga who works for a Mafia don called Guru Narayan. While Satya maybe reticent and quiet, he is also a proud man who refuses to be humiliated by anyone no matter what their reputation maybe. Jagga outraged by this upstart, has Satya arrested and sent to prison on a false charge of pimping.
In prison Satya meets the man who will change the course of his life forever. It is there that he meets the notorious Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpai) a don in his own right and a violent thug as well. Whereas Jagga was not impressed by Satya’s boldness, Mhatre, after his own scuffle with the protagonist, takes a liking to the young man and quickly befriends him.
“Mein maut se nahin darta” (I am not afraid of death) Satya says, a personal creed that convinces Mhatre to induct him into his own gang. After getting out of prison Mhatre helps Satya get his revenge on Jagga, by arranging a hit on the mobster. Bhiku Mhatre as it turns out has his own reasons for rubbing out Jagga. It turns out that before he became a leader of his own gang, Mhatre used to work alongside Jagga’s boss Guru Narayan. Both of them worked for the real kingpin of the Mumbai underworld Bhau Thakurdas Jhawle (Govind Namdeo). After Bhau entered politics, his gang split up into two groups, one led by Mhatre and his cohorts Kallu Mama and Chandrakant Mule, while Narayan went his own way. Both the gangs divide up territory in Mumbai where they control local rackets. An uneasy peace is maintained between the two groups, due to the all powerful hand of Bhau.
With Satya’s killing of Jagga, that peace is broken. Narayan wants revenge against Mhatre and organises a failed attempt to kill him. Mhatre being the hot head that he is, in turn now wants to kill Narayan as payback on the attempted hit. But that does not go down well with Bhau, who is standing for local elections and does not want a gang war during such a critical time. He orders Mhatre to put the bad blood aside, which he grudgingly does, for a short while anyway. Satya convinces Mhatre to ignore Bhau’s orders and go ahead with killing Narayan. By doing that Bhiku Mhatre becomes the preeminent power in the underworld and a force to be reckoned with, a fact that does not go down well with Bhau.
While all of this going on, Satya meets and eventually falls in love with a girl named Vidya (Urmila Matondkar). An aspiring singer and hopelessly naïve girl, her goodhearted nature appeals to Satya, probably because it’s the first time he has ever been exposed to kindness and warmth ever since he drifted into Mumbai. Sadly this happiness cannot last forever and Satya knows this, due to the dubious nature of his ‘profession’. He lies to her time and again living a schizophrenic lifestyle in which he goes on being a mobster who commits murders, yet still has time to go out with her and put up a façade that he works a normal job.
To make things more complex for Satya, a new police commissioner named Amodh Shukla (Paresh Rawal) is appointed and with the aid of a zealous inspector called Khandilkar (Aditya Shrivastava) they crack down hard and with brutal force against the criminal underworld.
What makes Satya stand out from the other mobsters around him is his thinking brain. Always able to see an opportunity in any given situation, he comes up with a simple solution to dealing with the problem of Commissioner Shukla, kill him. By doing that a message would be sent to law enforcement agencies of retribution if they dare to take on the local gangs. Satya eventually convinces his gang about the plan and they carry it out to perfection.
At the same time Bhau realises that he needs Bhiku Mhatre’s help in winning the election, patches things up with him, or so it seems. While feeling himself to be all powerful and full of hubris, Mhatre is jubilant at the many successes that Satya has helped him achieve. Satya, on the other hand has had enough of the double life that he is living and wants to marry Vidya, and tells Mhatre about his plan to confess everything to her. Mhatre is appalled and tells him that the life that he is living can never allow him to have a normal existence. Yet, at the same time Mhatre is sympathetic to Satya’s plight. He may be a stone cold gangster but it seems he has some semblance of humanity within him. That and probably his own relationship with his volatile wife Pyaari Mhatre (Shefali Shah) help him see things from Satya’s perspective.
Mhatre tells Satya that he will help him go legitimate and send him with Vidya to Dubai. Satya ecstatic runs home to tell Vidya, in the vain illusion that all his problems are now behind him. But sadly for Satya, just when things seem to be going right for him, his world collapses around him. The police catch up with him and he is forced to flee his home and Vidya. Inspector Khandilkar holds Vidya under detention and tells her the truth about Satya’s real life. All the murders he committed, all the criminal activities he was involved in. The truth leaves Vidya in a state of shock, making her feel as though she was shot in the gut by the man she loves.
Making things worse for Satya, his mentor and friend Bhiku Mhatre has been killed by Bhau. In an act of treachery, Bhau lures Mhatre to a party to celebrate his election victory, where he promptly pumps a bullet into his head. It seems that the kingpin turned politician only wanted to patch things up until his election victory was sealed. Bhau apparently wanted to kill Mhatre for his disobedience. He also wants to kill Satya which he orders Mhatre’s companions Kallu Mama and Chandrakant Mule to carry out. Mule apparently helped arrange the hit on Bhiku Mhatre a fact that Kallu Mama holds against him, as he subsequently kills the backstabber and decides to tell Satya what has happened.
Satya now realising that he really has nothing left to live for decides to kill the man at the top of the tree, Bhau Thakurdas Jhawle himself. He does this with the aid of Kallu Mama during a religious festival in an audacious manner befitting a mafia hit. Satya, however, is injured during the killing and before fleeing the city wants to visit Vidya one last time. Kallu Mama is opposed to the idea, but relents after Satya literally puts a gun to his head and forces him to change his mind.
In the tragic final sequence, Satya returns to the flat in which he lived alongside Vidya, demanding that she let him see her. The frightened girl shudders in her bed and refuses to open the door. Satya breaks down the door but is gunned down by the police who have been biting at his heels. In the end Satya lies in a pool of his own blood staring at the women he loves and the life he wished he had but could never be.
Satya is one of those movies that remains etched in your memory no matter how many years have gone by since you last saw it. A dazzling and claustrophobic look at the criminal underworld, where life is always on the edge and you can never afford to let your guard down. Ram Gopal Varma’s vision of a hellish existence is truly groundbreaking and deserves high praise. In his view, there are no heroes in this movie, only villains. Whether they are gangsters or police officers who have to hunt them down, each side commits atrocities because they feel it is the only way to get things done. Yet at the same time we can sympathise with both sides, because either the system or the way things work, forces them to play the game that way.
Kudos in this film goes the stellar cast and their mesmerising performances. J.K. Chakravarthy does well as the title character, and gives a heartfelt performance as Satya. While his acting may seem a bit weak sometimes, he more than makes up for that in a number of memorable scenes in the film. Urmila Matondkar shows that she is more than just a pretty face and acts very well as the gullible Vidya, showing just the right amount of naïveté required for the role. But the star of the movie, and in his breakthrough performance, is Manoj Bajpai who is quite simply outstanding as Bhiku Mhatre. This is his movie, hands down and was the role that gave him critical acclaim and much deserved recognition. Whether delivering profanity laced dialogue or simply acting out the mannerism of the streets he is utterly compelling. He manages to show a gangster who has a soul, for whom loyalty and friendships mean a great deal. Credit must also be given Shefali Shah for her performance as Bhiku Mhatre’s wife, as well as Paresh Rawal and Govind Namdeo in their respective roles as Commissioner Shukla and Bhau Thakurdas Jhawle. The unsung hero of this film has to be Aditya Shrivastava who deserves praise for his performance as the cold and ruthless Inspector Khandilkar. His role would help book him a seat on TV’s long running CID where he plays Senior Inspector Abhijeet.
Whether Ram Gopal Varma made a movie that equals the brilliance of the ‘Godfather’ films, is left to the viewer to decide. There is, however, no doubt that like Francis Ford Coppola he made an instant classic, one that will be the benchmark for gangster movies in Bollywood for a long time to come.
Raza Ali Sayeed is a journalist at Dawn.com