Satya turns 25: Ram Gopal Varma's film showed underworld's enduring romance with Bollywood
Ram Gopal Varma's 1998 cult gangster film Satya effectively used Bollywood movies to humanise its gangsters and soften its edges.
Ram Gopal Varma's 1995 film Rangeela was a keen study of Mumbai's duality. It bridged the gap between the city's streets that speak tapori language and the big bad world of Bollywood. Ramu's 1998 film Satya, despite being tonally very different, further underlines the love for Hindi films. The love shared by him, us, the city and its gangsters.
It's no mystery that the underworld was in bed with Bollywood back in the 1990s. From Sanjay Dutt's involvement in the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts to Gulshan Kumar's assassination in 1997, the Hindi film industry was inextricably linked with the world of gangsters. A don is seen ghost directing a Bollywood film in Satya, before he gets shot at.
But Ramu was no Madhur Bhandarkar. He didn't use Bollywood as a bait or as tadka. Hindi movies are organically intertwined with the life of gangsters. They're not shown as a homogeneous community for whom Bollywood exists only for extortion or glamour. Like us, to them, Hindi cinema is a way of life.
It's what connects homegrown gangsters like Bhiku Mhatre (Manoj Bajpayee) to outsiders like Satya (JD Chakravarthy). Along with their forced physical proximity owing to Mumbai's cramped apartments, Satya and Vidya (Urmila Matondkar) also bond over their love for Hindi movies and music. Vidya, a middle-class struggling singer is able to find her voice in the crowded city through ownership of public properties like beaches, temples and movies.
‘Bachchan hai kya?’
When Bhiku meets Satya for the first time, in jail, the latter gets into a physical altercation with him. Looking at Satya brood the Angry Young Man energy, Bhiku asks him while grinning, “Bachchan hai kya,” referring to Amitabh Bachchan's iconic prison scene from Tinnu Anand's 1981 action thriller Kaalia, where he utters the famous line, “Hum jahan khade hote hain, line wahin se shuru ho jati hai.”
Jurassic Park wali chhipkali
In a lovely scene with the film's four leads dining at a restaurant, Pyaari Mhatre (Shefali Shah) struggles to pronounce the name of Steven Spielberg's seminal 1997 Hollywood fantasy film Jurassic Park. But both she and Bhiku can't help but marvel at the different kinds of chhipkalis (yes, dinosaurs) in the film. The scene helps humanise them like any other moviegoing couple taken in by Spielberg's immersive world.
Bollywood music: Altaf Raja to Yash Chopra
Satya covers the entire spectrum of a Bollywood music earworm. It shows gangsters enjoying bar dancers shaking a leg on Altaf Raja's 1997 rager Tum Toh Thehre Pardesi. And in the very next scene, Bhiku's middle-class Maharashtrian family's living room is steeped in ‘Are Re Are’ from Yash Chopra's 1997 musical Dil To Pagal Hai. Gangsters aren't all about the Ae Ganpat, Chal Daru La life.
Dream sequence songs like Rangeela Re and Tanha Tanha lend themselves organically to Rangeela. But there are a couple of those in Satya too. Urmila Matondkar as Vidya, a struggling singer, is seen in simple cotton saris in most of the film, but in the romantic dream sequences, she graduates to Manish Malhotra chiffon saris, owning every song like it's her music video.
Sapno Mein Milti Hai
Veteran lyricist Gulzar has often said that he wanted to write a song that's true to the way Bambaiya gangsters think and speak. Hence, a song like ‘Kallu Mama’ finds an organic place in Satya. But the film also has one ‘Sapno Mein Milti Hai,’ a Punjabi song with words like ‘kudi’ and ‘munda,' but filmed on a Maharashtrian couple. In an interview to me, composer Vishal Bhardwaj had narrated the song that was initially made for Gulzar's Punjab-set film Maachis because Ramu wanted a thumping dance number. When Vishal questioned how Ramu would use the Punjabi song in a realtisic Mumbai film, Ramu replied, “You leave that upto me.”
When Sapno Mein Milti Hai pops up in Satya, it doesn't jar at all because by then, Ramu has deftly established the cosmopolitan realm the film operates in. It's a space where Maharashtrian gangsters and their families know Punjabi songs inside out and love shaking a leg on them. Also, the fact that women like Pyaari Mhatre are dressed from head to toe in traditional wear doesn't let us forget the Maharashtrian setting.
Border - Uphaar tragedy reminder
Towards the end of the film, Satya and Vidya watch JP Dutta's 1997 war film Border in a packed cinema hall. When the hall is sealed by Mumbai Police as they want to nab Satya, an empty gunshot firing leads to stampede that kills over a dozen. Ramu uses this particular film to reflect the Uphaar cinema tragedy in 1997, when many lost their lives due to a fire that erupted in a houseful show of Border in Delhi's Uphaar cinema hall.
Like the lives of these gangsters, Bollywood also comes with its share of joys and trauma. Ramu pens a love letter to movies in Satya, but also shines a light on the lifelong anguish caused by the obsession with cinema. He doesn't leverage filmmaking to glorify gangsters. Instead, he leverages movies to humanise them. So, you know what to answer the next time a Bhiku Mhatre screams from the edge of the sea,
“Mumbai ka king kaun?"