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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Ten awesome TV shows to get over your post-GoT blues

With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

1. Billions

There is no better setting for high stakes white collar crime than the Big Apple. And featuring a suited-up Paul Giamatti going head-to-head with the rich and ruthless Damien Lewis in New York, what’s not to like? Only two seasons young, this ShowTime original series promises a wolf-of-wall-street style showcase of power, corruption and untold riches. Billions is a great high-octane drama option if you want to keep the momentum going post GoT.

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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5. American Horror Story

As the name suggests, AHS is a horror anthology for those who can stomach some gore and more. In its 6 seasons, the show has covered a wide range of horror settings like a murder house, freak shows, asylums etc. and the latest season is set to explore cults. Fans of Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange are in for a treat, as are Lady Gaga’s fans. If you pride yourself on not being weak of the heart, give American Horror Story a try.

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6. Empire

At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

Available starting October

10. Rome

If you’re still craving an epic drama with extensive settings and a grandiose plot and sub-plots, Rome, co-produced by HBO and BBC, is where your search stops. Rome is a historical drama that takes you through an overwhelming journey of Ancient Rome’s transition from a republic to an empire. And when it comes to tastes, this series provides the similar full-bodied flavour that you’ve grown to love about Game of Thrones. There’s a lot to take away for those who grew up quoting Julius Caesar, and for those looking for a realistic depiction of the legendary gladiators. If you’re a history buff, give this Emmy-winning show a try.

Watch Rome Now

For your next obsession, Hotstar Premium has you covered with its wide collection of the most watched shows in the world. Apart from the ones we’ve recommended, Indian viewers can now easily watch other universally loved shows such as Silicon Valley and Prison Break, and movies including all titles from the Marvel and Disney universe. So take control of your life again post the Game of Thrones gloom and sign up for the Hotstar Premium membership here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.