Ask anyone in the Telugu film industry about Ram Gopal Varma and pat comes the response – “Mr Trouble and Mr Controversy.”
But ask Varma about his reputation and he will coolly say that he is least bothered about what others think of him. “I am a filmmaker and I do it according to my vision and conscience and care two hoots about what others think about it,” the 54-year-old director said at a recent event in Vijayawada on the occasion of the release of his latest controversial film, Vangaveeti. “I am not a politician or a businessman but I respect public opinion in whatever form they appreciate my films,” Varma added.
The December 23 release is based on the life of gangster-turned-politician Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga. Varma has wounded the gangster’s family with the unsanctioned biopic. In typical style, Varma has been tweeting and lashing back at the critical response to his film from Congress and Telugu Desam Party leaders. “If I had not correctly portrayed the character of Ranga, let the Vangaveeti Ranga / Radha Mitra Mandali (fan club) raise funds and produce a movie which could even bag an Oscar award,” he tweeted on December 26, 2016.
Vangaveeti is in the vein of Rakta Charitra (2010), Varma’s two-part epic about Rayalaseema gangster and politician Paritala Ravindra and his bitter rival, Maddelacheruvu Suri. Vangaveeti is about the turf war between three prominent Kapu and Kamma families in Andhra Pradesh – the Vangaveeti, Chalasani and Devineni clans – and the anarchy that prevails in the districts of Krishna, Guntur and East and West Godavari as a result of this rivalry.
“I have narrated the true story of Ranga, most of which even his family members – wife or son, were not aware of,” Varma said in pre-film interviews.
Both the Vangaveeti Ranga family and their rivals in Vijayawada issued warnings to the director, warning him of serious consequences. “They have gone to court and also filed police complaints,” Varma said. “I have every right to make a film as I see fit. I am confident that I know more about Vangaveeti Ranga Rao, perhaps better than them.”
Even Vangaveeti Ranga’s rivals disagree. “RGV has shown me as a gangster who smoked, but in reality I don’t smoke and do not even consume coffee or tea,” Devineni Rajasekhar said about the film.
Gangs of Vijayawada
What began in the 1980s as a tussle for control of the lucrative transport business in Vijayawada soon turned into a caste war between the Devineni family from the Kamma caste and the Vangaveeti family from the Kapu caste. Two brothers of Devineni Rajasekhar were brutally murdered – one in a train and another in a vehicle ambush – while several followers of Vangaveeti Ranga were killed. Ranga too was murdered in the early hours of December 25, 1988, a few yards from his home in Vijayawada.
In the violence that followed, crores worth of private property were destroyed in Vijayawada. The violence abated only after Chief Minister NT Rama Rao of the TDP made his MLA, Devineni Rajasekhar, surrender to the police. Until the early ’70s, before the advent of the TDP, Kammas and Kapus were equally divided between the Left parties and the Congress Party. With the TDP’s rise, many Kammas switched loyalties to the party.
Protests raged against Varma’s movie in different quarters. Vangaveeti Radha Krishna, the son of Vangaveeti Mohana Ranga, met Andhra Pradesh’s Director General of Police N Sambasiva Rao and registered his objections. Members of the Radha Ranga Mitramandali raised slogans at cinema halls in Vijayawada and other towns and demanded a change in the title.
“The film is full of half truths and Ranga is projected as a rowdy ignoring all the good work he has done and even the character of Ratnakumari, his wife, is projected in a wrong manner,” said Malladi Vishnu, the former Member of the Legislative Assembly.
Varma gave an undertaking in the Hyderabad High Court that he would remove objectionable scenes and a song that had been released online. Petitioner Vangaveeti Radha had complained that Varma had distorted facts and uploaded the trailer on the internet without certification from the Central Board of Film Certification as per the provisions of the Cinematograph Act. “The song and some scenes of the movie would provoke enmity between the Kamma and Kapu communities, which are predominant in coastal Andhra Pradesh,” Radha had said in his petition.
But Varma stuck to his guns and declared on Twitter that the film was only a portrayal of the evolution of gangsterism in the ’80s in Vijayawada.
Varma looks all set to court further controversy with his next project. Following the death of Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalithaaa, of whom he is a self-declared fan, Varma has registered the title Sasikala, the name of her close aide, for his next film. “I am fascinated by the life story of Jayalalithaa and adore her and hence the movie is on the behind-the-scenes element in her life,” Varma said in an interview.
The film will hopefully fare better than the moderately performing Vangaveeti and Bezawada (2011), which also explored gangsterism and politics in Vijaywada. Bezawada, starring Nag Chaitanya and Amala Paul, was a box office disaster but fared better in Tamil as Vikram Dada.