In Sarkar, released in July 2005, a grief-stricken father shows up at the doorstep of Subhash Nagre (Amitabh Bachchan in an inspired performance) to seek justice. His daughter was brutally raped and he has come to the court of Sarkar only after the legal justice courts have failed and even mocked him. In a film where the lines between murder and morals and good and evil are blurred, this scene sets the moral undertone in what is otherwise a stylised life of crime and violence. The sequence, stylishly shot by director Ram Gopal Varma, does its best to justify Subhash Nagre a.k.a Sarkar as the benevolent dictator and extrajudicial authority who can take law into his own hands in the event that the law is compromised by those in power or with money clout.
With this opening scene, RGV quickly establishes early on what to expect from Sarkar – an updated Bollywood version of Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather but with a local touch. The film may be inspired by the Coppola classic but Varma, the edgy film genius that he was, made it his own. Sarkar’s characterisation drew comparisons with Balasaheb Thackeray, the late Shiv Sena supremo which Varma, at the time, defended by saying, “If Balasaheb can exist, so can a man like Sarkar.”
Unlike The Godfather, Varma’s Sarkar is allowed emotional flourishes and components of anger while Don Vito Corleone (played by Marlon Brando) remains coolly distant. Take The Godfather’s opening scene. The undertaker Bonasera approaches Don Corleone to help him seek vengeance against his daughter’s tormentors. Taking time off from his daughter’s wedding reception which is underway, Don Vito promises help. It’s not charity. It’s transactional. Varma’s Sarkar, on the other hand, sees this issue purely from the point of view of moral justice. So what if it’s street justice?
Varma, who gave us the critically acclaimed Company and the ground-breaking Satya, both gangster Hindi movies at their finest, has long been attracted to the murky mix of family, politics, revenge, organised crime and the division between the world of men and women in The Godfather. Even Satya, his seminal film on Mumbai mafia, could not escape The Godfather comparisons.
When Sarkar released, many critics found it an exciting change from Varma’s otherwise failing filmography. It was also easy to point out that RGV was on terra firma with Sarkar. Violence, crime, mafia, politics, morality, social corruption, media, sex and the film world itself have been his subjects and in Sarkar, he found a way to blend these together.
Sarkar (2005) was one of the earliest Hindi films starring the combined father-son star power of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan. Shaad Ali’s Bunty Aur Babli had also released earlier that year. In that film, the two men were at different ends of the spectrum with Big B’s cop in hot pursuit of the con artist played by Abhishek. In Sarkar, Abhishek is a version of Michael Corleone, Sarkar’s son who’s had no truck with his father’s politics.
By the time we come to Sarkar Raj, the second instalment in 2008, Shankar (Abhishek) is at the forefront, very much a player and seemingly in control of the empire. With the eldest Nagre – the colourful and volatile Vishnu played Kay Kay Menon – out of the picture (Shankar walks in on Vishnu’s plans to kill Sarkar towards part one’s end) it is Shankar who alone can now take the Nagre legacy forward. In Sarkar’s climax, Varma hints at Shankar’s rise to the top seat. His reign, of course, would be short-lived. As Big B’s Sarkar takes a backseat, the camera pans to a woman pleading Shankar for justice for her husband, much the same way that we saw in the beginning. Only this time, the transition of power has shifted slowly from father to the son.
In Sarkar Raj, it is around Abhishek’s Shankar that much of the action is centred. Once again, Varma borrows from Maharashtra’s politics. The controversial Enron power plant that had dominated the news through the 1990s becomes the political minefield on which Varma sets his narrative. At one point, Shankar who has people’s interest and welfare at heart, tells the CEO of a power plant company played by Aishwarya Rai that people live under the foolish impression that life’s mission is to make money. “It is to bring change,” he sermonises, a barb directed at her entrepreneurial greed. “You need money to build the power plant,” she reminds him. “Exactly,” Shankar says. “You need money for the plant. Not money from the plant.”
It’s easy to see why Aishwarya Rai, being a major star in her own right and a Bachchan family member, managed to get a semblance of a presence in Sarkar Raj, paired with her husband and father-in-law. Sarkar, otherwise, is no country for women. From the first Sarkar itself, it is quickly apparent that the Nagre women are relegated to household activities. Whether it is the massively gifted Supriya Pathak whose job it is to supervise the kitchen or bless visitors to the fortress or Vishnu’s wife whose duty it is to tend to the kids, the women are kept away from the grime and glamour of the politics.
With Sarkar 3, releasing this week, RGV completes his trilogy of Maharashtrian politics. Both his sons dead, Subhash Nagre now has his grandson Shivaji (played by Amit Sadh) for company. In the new film, you will find new faces and new situations. Jackie Shroff who plays a character reminiscent of tainted businessman Vijay Mallya and Manoj Bajpayee (Bachchan’s co-star of Aks, Aarakshan and Satyagraha) are latest additions to the mounting Sarkar cast. What hasn’t changed is Amitabh Bachchan. All the Sarkar films have been pretty much his show. In pre-release interviews, Varma has said that Sarkar is in some way a continuation of Bachchan’s Angry Young Man. The trailer declares Bachchan as a wounded lion (a sly nod to Balasaheb Thackeray’s tiger?) and as “angrier than ever.” Asked by a Bollywood website for an explanation, Varma noted, “I feel, in the last decade, filmmakers including me, have forgotten what both we and the audience primarily loved Bachchan for, which is about both his power and menacing anger. This is what I have attempted to bring back.”
Those viewers who have seen the two Sarkars must be understandably excited about Bachchan’s performance in Sarkar 3. Bachchan has been the highlight of all Sarkar films and the one constant factor in its enduring popularity, if not success (according to Box Office India, the first Sarkar was a semi hit while Sarkar Raj fared below average), even as the Nagre dynasty keeps marching on. For the cinema-goers, this is one character that’s all too familiar. There’s the red tikka, rudraksha around the neck, the habit of slurping tea straight from the saucer, long silences, the raspy voice that’s a cross between Agneepath and Don Vito and of course, the angry stares (almost volcanic). As for “stylist” RGV’s fans, Sarkar 3 will hopefully have his signature raw style (sometimes employed in excess and over “substance”, as popular criticism of his movies go), the Govinda Govinda chants designed for heightened drama, Varma’s ear for dialogue with bone-dry sense of humour, the close-ups, low-mood lighting and disorienting camera angles.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)