By Subhash K. Jha, IANS
The messiah's scion glares contemptuously at the drug dealer from Dubai. "I didn't have to be here to kill you personally. But I didn't want to miss out on the pleasure of watching you die." The line, so stringent and sarcastic, defines some of the most prominent and passionate moments in Ram Gopal Varma's latest and by far best work.
In SARKAR nothing is as apparent as it seems. Take a look at the plot. A messianic saviour-of-the-masses hero, his two heir-apparents-the Bad Son and Good Son, the tussle of power between the two sons located in a world that Varma has over the years, patented and portrayed inside-out. Dark gleaming ominous corriors hiding aeons of anguished pain.... characters who look like they could do with a bath... and an oil massage to release some of the nervous tension that comes from a blurred perception of crime and morality... such are the preponderant 'given' in a Ram Gopal Varma. SARKAR too takes us through a world governed by the rules of survival of the fittest. You either pull the trigger or get killed... as simple as that. So what makes this film the most special achievement of Varma's prolific and pathbreaking career? It's the father-son combination of Amitabh and Abhishek Bachchan, furnishing Varma's ebony vision of world gone morally awry with the kind of blazing and bridled intensity that one last saw when Dilip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan played father and son in Ramesh Sippy's Shakti. SARKAR is a far more complex jigsaw of patriarchal intensity, filial crises and familial obligations. Its ethical complexities go far beyond politics and cinema to embrace a kind of multi-dimensional secularism where religion is not about gods but definitions of goodness.
Who's the real villain? The people who rape society, or the ones who check crime and corruption by means that are extra-constitutional? The socio-political issue becomes more tangled in the light of the septic corruption that has crept into the governmental structure. Politicians have become crime-lords, cops have become rapists and bureaucrats have become scamsters. Into this world comes Bal Thackeray, the Shiv Sena chief who provides a parallel justice force within Maharashtra to those who cannot afford or obtain justice through official channels.
Thackeray's name is changed to Subhash Nagre. But the power and the socio-political positioning of this fascinating messiah remains unaltered in the movie version of his life. In fact Verma has elevated and strengthened Thackeray's messianic image by getting Amitabh Bachchan to play the bewildering fascinating enigmatic man of the masses.
No other actor in the universe could've played Bal Thackeray's screen version, or done the astonishing things that Bachchan has done to the character. Moving diametrically away the flamboyant and underlined performance in BLACK to create yet another imperishably vivid character, Amitabh Bachchan plays Subhash Nagare, the frail and yet all-powerful man, the politician-poet in layer after layer of deeply resonant echoes.
What you see of the messiah on screen is definitely not all there is. Bachchan spins an enigmatic cosmos around the man who defines politics and governance strictly according to the rules of his conscience. Varma allows Bachchan's image as the super-hero to coalesce smoothly and slyly into the Thackeray legend, so that when you saw the hopeful multitudes waving to their god and benefactor on screen you're never sure whom they are saluting to: Thackeray, Bachchan... or is it Marlon Brando whose GODFATHER act provides a prototypical starting point for Subhash Nagare, one of the most entrancing heroes ever in Indian cinema.
Varma brings out the protagonist's power and glory through a demeanour that never screams for attention. Little gestures and nuances, agreeable and yet sinister, swathe the screen in a splendid arc of life and vitality. Abhishek Bachchan as Shankar, the quietly faithful, duty-bound younger son destined to take up the strange family business -a role that has its roots in Al Pacino's character in The GODFATHER -- is so in-sync with his character and the senior Bachchan's prismatic persona that you wonder if genealogy and inheritance are an integral part of true worth as an artiste.
Abhishek's delicately balanced facial expressions, his projection of the characters fierce unquestioning loyalty towards his father's politics, is done with such rare care and sensitivity that you cease to look at the actor. The son is all you see. Varma makes sure that the characters, big or small, emerge out of the actors in a pyramid of power-play and familial bonding. The delicately drawn relationship between father and son never needs underscoring. There is an unstated lyricism between the Bachchans, a bonding we've never seen before, and never shall see again.
Kay Kay Menon as the archetypal son gone to seed remains understandably outside the two-member circle created so vivdly by the Bachchans. His villainous grimace seems a trifle exaggerated in a film where the main characters express themselves in small-print rather than italics.
Another over-the-top character is the Chandraswami-styled god-man with a wig that mocks the muted makeover of the main characters. The background score by Amar Mohile hammers in the emotions of every scene.... You wonder why subtlety and delicacy are qualities that need to be counter-balanced to be fully effective!
Wisely Varma has constructed the story of Subhash Nagare's political and domestic drama as a crime thriller. The happenings in the second-half are swift sudden and jolting. The narrative sweeps you into an embrace that sucks the life and breath out of viewers as they are sprung into a series of incidents indicating the coming of age of Shankar.
There's no dearth of gut-wrenching sequences in SARKAR, moments that haunt you and gnaw at your senses until you no longer care if the goings-on are factual or fictional. The mounting tension of the second -half as Subhash Nagare's empire threatens to fall apart under pressure from the villainous caucus, is so palpable that you salute the storyteller in Ram Gopal Varma.
Never before has his narrative powers been so inspired. Never before have we seen a crime drama that counter-balances the conscience of the State with the state of the conscience. The plot's high-drama and nerve-wracking tensions are flawlessly converted in the frames.
Art director Sunil Nigvekar's detailing of the patriarchal messiah's home-life is meticulous and yet ostensibly casual. Our attentions are riveted to the characters even as the environment serves as a flawless foil to their feelings. Amit Roy's sepia-toned cinematography is exceptional to the last frame. In top shots or in clenched close-ups the two Bachchans are captured as a family of two, supported by an extended wing of caring and callous family and foe. The ladies, for example Rukhsar as the elder daughter-in-law who supports Subhash Nagare rather than his truant son (shades of Smita Thackeray) though shadowy are dignified.
There's little in SARKAR that qualifies as superfluous. The editing (Nipun Gupta/Amit Parmar) cuts across the saw-toothed narrative like a knife. Sequences of violence such as the one where Kay Kay Menon guns down a film's hero in front of the aghast unit, take the punch out of the act of violence to replace it with an appalling anguish.
Varma isn't fearful of silences. Though the film's sound design (Kunal Metha/Parikshit Lalwani) invites a clamour of sounds into the narrative, there is a strange wordless echo reverberating between the father and son who are bonded by blood-and not just their own. In that one sequence where Shankar returns after slaying his treacherous brother as the whole family huddles around the ailing patriarch's bedside is so redolent with a tragic Shakespearean grandeur that you wonder why Francis Coppola didn't think of such moments in The Godfather!
SARKAR actually has one super-hero Amitabh Bachchan, and two heroes Abhishek Bachchan and Ram Gopal Varma, lending the goings-on a glory that repudiates glitter in favour of something far more deep and precious.