TALKING FILMS

Film flashback: ‘Shiva’, from the days when Ram Gopal Varma was truly great

The director’s downward spiral, most recently seen in ‘Sarkar 3’, is nowhere in evidence in his remarkable debut in 1989.

When you start out somewhere near the top, you can either scale greater heights or plan your descent.

Ram Gopal Varma made a stunning debut with the Telugu movie Shiva in 1989. Varma proved that he was no flash in the pan in subsequent years. His Hindi remake of Shiva in 1990 established him in Mumbai, and he rolled out one smartly directed title after another in both Telugu and Hindi and produced a bunch of films that permanently altered the cinematic landscape in both industries.

Varma isn’t spoken of in the same hallowed tones anymore. His fans shun his recent films, such as the May 12 release Sarkar 3, preferring instead to revisit his earlier and better works. His admirers turn away in embarrassment from his inchoate tweets and intemperate statements. His collaborators speak glowingly of his indelible and generous contributions – the one character or scene rewrite that salvaged the narrative, or the one editing trick that improved the resolution – but the use of the past tense is unmistakable.

Varma always knew when to cut to the chase. When did he lose control of the steering wheel?

Varma’s films when watched at a stretch constitute an Icarus-type tale of achievement and failure. He came into Telugu cinema fully formed. The autodidact distilled lessons picked up from gobbling up movies into a fresh curriculum, one that married the sensibilities of Hollywood with the compulsions and realities of the local milieu. His early films are testaments to his control over storytelling and writing, his astute casting, his use of locations and his ability to handle genres (caper, horror, the gangster film, the road movie). His later films are testaments to his loss of control over the same factors that earned him his reputation.

Perhaps no other filmmaker has systematically eviscerated his own legacy, one that was established with Shiva.

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Shiva (1990).

There’s a superb cartoon by RK Laxman on Shiva. It shows a scrawny man walking away after having beaten another man to pulp. The punchline is on the lines of, “He has just watched Shiva.”

A vigilante thriller that has the fleetness of 1970s and ’80s Hollywood crime dramas, Shiva contains the key themes that would animate Varma’s later films – the protagonist who breaks the law to achieve his means, the antagonist with his posse of surly men, the urban setting with dangers lurking around the corner, the doomed romance with a virtuous woman-next door, the bursts of stylish brutality, and moral ambiguity.

Varma based the story partly on the Bruce Lee 1972 movie Return of the Dragon and his experiences of campus violence while studying for his engineering degree in Vijaywada. Nagarjuna is the archetypal Varma anti-hero: more expressive with his fists than his mouth, contemptuous of social niceties and rules, and far removed from idealism. His rage is exposed after he encounters a nasty student union member at the college in which he has recently enrolled. Shiva bashes up JD (JD Chakravarthy, who headlined Varma’s Satya later) and earns a rebuke from the principal. I’m not Mahatma Gandhi to turn the other cheek, Shiva rerorts.

As Shiva and his friends, which includes his girlfriend Asha (Amala), take back the campus, JD’s boss Bhavani steps in. Varma has unleashed an array of fascinating villains over the years, but few can match the relentlessly cruel Bhavani, played by Tamil actor Raghuvaran. It’s a great piece of counter-casting, since there is nothing in Raghuvaran’s lanky fame and software engineer appearance to suggest menace. This he does through his sullen face and flaring nostrils, brilliantly captured in the scene in which Shiva finally appears before him and his henchman Nana (Tanikella Bharani) whispers the name in Bhavani’s ear.

Bhavani finally sets his eyes on Shiva.
Bhavani finally sets his eyes on Shiva.

The encounter of Shiva and Bhavani, like elsewhere in the film, is depicted through dramatic close-ups. Varma and his cinematographer Gopal Reddy litter Shiva with fabulously tense closely held shots and suitably sinister background music (by Ilaiyaaraja). Varma brings us close to the characters, especially the hoodlums, by filling the frames with their faces. Even though Shiva is the titular anti-hero’s story, the close-ups ensure that sidekicks like Nana and Ganesh (Brij Gopal) aren’t easily forgotten.

Brij Gopal as Ganesh.
Brij Gopal as Ganesh.

The chase and fight sequences, with the bifs and bams on the soundtrack magnified for effect, have their own fan following, especially the sequence in which Shiva liberates a cycle chain and uses it as a weapon against JD and his goons. “Throughout the shooting, I wasn’t too sure how the cycle chain-breaking scene would be received because after I got the idea I tried breaking a cycle chain and realized the impossibility of it,” Varma writes in his collection of essays Guns and Thighs (Rupa, 2015). “But I told myself that since nobody would have tried it, it just might look believable. After all these years the number of people who still come to me and claim that they broke a cycle chain after watching Shiva shows how one’s imagination can take over and make one believe that imaginary is real.”

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The cycle chain fight sequence.

The hero’s name originally belonged to the villain. “In the story development stages, Nagarjuna liked the name so much, he asked me to name his character Shiva,” Varma writes in Guns and Thighs. There’s also a reason the villain has a woman’s name. “I named the villain Bhavani because I based his character on a guy called Radha with a very violent reputation in Vijayawada,” Varma says. “Since Radha is a girl’s name, I named the villain Bhavani which is a girl’s name too.”

Varma shuttled between Hyderabad and Mumbai in the 1990s, producing such popular classics as Kshana Kshanam (1991), Raat (1992), Gaayam (1993), Rangeela (1995), Satya (1998), Company (2002) and Bhoot (2003). His production company The Factory made the debut of several filmmakers possible, including Sriram Raghavan (Ek Hasina Thi, 2004) and Shimit Amin (Ab Tak Chhappan, 2004). Varma’s decline began in the mid-2000s, when his hold over his productions and the films he directed slackened. Sarkar (2005) takes his obsession with the criminal way of life and his belief in moral ambiguity over idealism to an extreme. Its hero is a man who manipulates the system from the outside – Bhavani, resurrected as a hero.

Raghuvaran as Bhavani.
Raghuvaran as Bhavani.

Varma had the temerity to remake Shiva in 2006 as well as direct the widely reviled Sholay remake Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag in 2007. A string of self-parodic embarrassments has followed since. Like the mythical ouroboros that eats its own tail, Varma has been reaching back into his back catalogue with diminishing effect, recycling plots, characters, and attitudes that are no longer relevant. Cinematography, one of the highlights of his craft, has become a toy in the hands of the wrong child. He has framed characters through legs and poked the apparatus up a woman’s dress. His on-screen and off-screen objectification of women has a Playboy-level intensity, and isn’t as funny as infuriating.

In Shiva, though, there is no hint of the collapse. Tightly structured and compellingly narrated, it has the power to persuade audiences to ignore its valourisation of violence. The movie doesn’t have the complexity to suggest that in hunting down Bhavani, Shiva begins to resemble his prey. But Shiva does prove that the man behind the camera is a force to reckon with. Or was. At the top of his game, Varma represented the present and the future. He has now receded into the distant past.

Nagarjuna in and as Shiva.
Nagarjuna in and as Shiva.
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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.