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.