My tryst with the Underworld
When I first came to Bombay from Hyderabad I couldn’t get over a train ride through the Dharavi slums. It looked like one single roof and I wondered how people live there, how anybody can go in and go out. I saw children 2-years old crawling just about 3 feet away from the railway track while the trains were rushing to and fro. Those things made me understand the nature of the city. The general atmosphere of Mumbai was one thing I was really fascinated right from the time I was making Rangeela, while traveling around doing various shoots.
Once in a while I used to hear the word Underworld. Obviously I knew about Dawood Ibrahim and many of the gangsters, through whatever was revealed in the papers. But I never consciously thought about what exactly is the underworld. Then one day I was sitting in a Producer’s office and he got this call that a prominent person was shot dead by some gang. The producer was telling me that the person who died woke up around 7.00am and had called him in the morning and said that at 8’O’clock he went somewhere, at 8.30 am he was suppose to meet some friend of his etc…. etc.
People have this habit of recounting each and every moment what happened before someone met with a violent unexpected death. While he was talking, since I have this tendency all the time to think cinematically, I thought “If the person who got shot got up at 7 o’clock, then at what time did the killer get up? Did he tell his mom to wake him up because he has a shooting to do? Did he have his breakfast before killing or after killing?” These things were coming into my head because I was trying to intercut the moments of the man who died with the man who killed. Then it suddenly struck me that you always hear about these gangsters only when they either kill or when they die. But what do they do in between? That was the first thought which eventually resulted in Satya.
While being in that frame of mind, I saw some photographs in Times of India of arrested gangsters covered with black cloths on their head. Nothing about their body language looked like how Bollywood portrays them. They are like any ordinary people. The guy walking on the road could be a gangster. Even the guy living next door could be a gangster. The whole point is that they have to mix up in the society and look like anybody else and because of that you will not realize that he is a gangster.
A friend of mine, not a film guy, who lives in Oshiwara on the fourteenth floor, told me about an instance. A guy lived in his building somewhere in a flat above him. My friend used to bump into this guy in the building’s lift once in a while. And they used to exchange pleasantries, “Hello, how are you? Happy Diwali” and things like that. And then one day my friend’s wife told him that this guy has been arrested and taken away as he has been absconding in a murder case in Karnataka or somewhere. He told me “the thing about Bombay is that you may live for ten years as neighbor to somebody yet have no idea who he is”. That was where I got the plot line for Satya. The fact that Urmila’s character lives in a chawl and Satya lives right next to her yet she has no clue that he is a gangster and is having normal relationship with him.
Then one day I met this guy called Ajit Devani an ex-secretary of Mandakni and because of that he reportedly knew and interacted with some of the gangsters. That’s what somebody told me. In my conversations with him he accounted to me an experience he had when he met this gangster whose brother was killed by the police. His brother was also a gangster. Ajit went to meet him. He said that the gangster was abusing his brother’s dead body for not listening to his advice which resulted in his death. That startled me as I have never heard a reaction like that of a person abusing a dead body. Then I thought a gangster lives on power and the brother by not listening to his advice and getting himself killed, he took away his brother’s power to save him and that brought about his anger. His grief came out as anger. I took that as the soul Bheeku Matre’s character. An aspect of this was in when Bheeku Matre laments over Chander’s death.
We are social beings. We say ‘Good morning’, ‘hello how are you’ when greeting someone. We behave civilized. I thought an anti-social element lives by his own rules and he would not abide by the social rules and systems. The way he sits on a chair, the way he laughs, his general behavior… there will be a certain wildness about it. There is a difference in the look between the domestic cat and a wild cat; the eyes just give it away. Bheeku Matre should be like a wild cat. If Bheeku Matre would have gone to school he would have been one of the last benchers and probably he wouldn’t have taken his studies seriously or wouldn’t have taken any kind of advice seriously. So he would want to be a law to himself. Even when he asks a question it should come across like a statement. It doesn’t come as a question because his pride wouldn’t allow him to make anyone feel that he doesn’t know about something.
I went to a beer bar in Borivali to check for some location and happened to meet a guy, who was supposedly an ex-gangster. He made me feel very uneasy with his behavior and attitude. Then later on when I met him while I was shooting in that area, he was very friendly, he looked like a different person altogether. Then I realized that the first time I met him he was trying to play up to an image which he thought I had of him because he knew that I knew who he was. Many celebrities do that… if they think that anyone thinks very highly of them, then his or her body language changes. It happens because they tend to pretend. That is what this gangster was doing. Obviously anything you pretend you can’t sustain it for long period of time. So after some time he became extremely normal. That’s what I took for Kallu Mama in Satya. When the builder comes to meet him, Kallu Mama basically pretends as if he is some big-time gangster… but actually he is a clown in the gang which people come to know later. Since the builder is coming with a mindset or with an awe that he is talking to a dangerous gangster he creates an image that intimidates.
Then one day at a place called Bara Chawl, I met a man who supposedly belongs to Arun Gawli’s gang. There was so much of built up that people gave me about him, but when I met him he came across as a sweet-natured guy. In every sentence he will use the name of Gawli, “Gawli bhai ne yeh kiya, Gawli bhai ne woh kiya, Gawli bhai ne mereko ghar leke diya”. So his whole existence was about his awe of Gawli and he doesn’t have any identity by himself. He believes that and lives on belonging to Gawli. That I took in Chander’s character. So each and every character in Satya was modeled on someone I had met or someone I had heard of or something I have heard from a person not necessarily from the underworld. It could be from some people outside the underworld, even in the film world. Everyone had a reference point.
But the protagonist’s character was the most unclear in my head. He was unclear to me till even after the shooting. I was confused between whether he had a criminal streak in his head or he is just a normal guy who becomes that way.
Once I decided that this is a kind of film I wanted to make, the first person who came to meet me as a writer was Anurag Kashyap. So, I put him on board and he got Saurabh Shukla. We discussed a lot but nothing was clear. So there was no script on the day we started shooting. I went by instinct. And the advantage was that we didn’t have stars, so all the actors were available all the time.
In the first scene we were shooting, this guy comes to Satya for hafta and Satya slashes a knife on his face. In my mind the time he slashes I thought that would be the cutting point. Now Sushant played the goon’s role. Sushant was someone my department had got. I didn’t even know that he as an actor as I thought he was some junior artiste. But since Sushant is a good actor, he improvised and after Satya slashes him before I could say ‘cut’ he screamed, and his scream startled me because I wasn’t expecting him to do that so I forgot to say ‘cut’. Because I didn’t say ‘cut’ this guy who was showing him the koli had improvised saying, “Oh ho pani lao paani lao”. That is when it finally struck my mind as to what Satya should be about. While capturing a scene, all the Directors have a tendency, this is how it starts and this is how it ends. I thought this film should be made in the style of what happened before and what happens after. All realistic performances came in because I stopped restricting actors after that scene. I just wanted them to improvise whatever they feel like. Actors were instructed not to follow written lines but just say whatever they feel like, so most of the times the content was told to them and they kept on improvising and I controlled it on the editing. That’s as far as the shooting part of Satya goes.
The interesting thing to note here is that the style of Satya is largely due to Sushant’s unexpected scream. If he had not screamed or if I had told him before itself that shot will cut on the slash, Satya would not have been the same.
Like I said I didn’t have a clear story. I kept on changing my mind every day ‘what should happen, what should not,’ but I was very clear about the characters. Where Sathya’’s character is concerned things went wrong compared to everyone else was because of my non-clarity as the story was not clear in my head and also what the protagonist was too was not very clear. So I kept on changing it for the convenience of the plot line. Whereas Bheeku Matre, Kallu Mama, Muley… all these people could be consistent because there was nothing for them in the main plot of the film which was primarily the growth and decline of Satya. Satya slashes someone in cold blood in one scene and in another scene shyly smiles at Bheeku Matre after killing Jaggu and when Bheeku Matre is having a fight with his wife, like a zombie Satya stares at them. Why did he do that? He did that because I told him “do it”. The inconsistency kind of disconnected him relatively from the audience while watching the film unlike the other characters. The basic secret of Satya’s performance not coming out so well was due to this.
In the course of the making of the film I gathered so much of information talking to cops and people that I couldn’t compile all that in one film. I met one guy who happened to be an associate with Dawood Ibrahim in the earlier days, he was not an underworld guy, probably only knew him. He told me a line which has really caught my attention “There are so many people who have died in the war between Dawood and Chotta Rajan. They are out to kill each other for such a long time. But the basic truth is that even today if Dawood Ibrahim calls Chotta Rajan on the phone and if Chotta Rajan is smoking a cigarette at that time, he will throw the cigarette and say “Haan bhai”. He has that much of respect for Dawood Ibrahim. They hate each other because they love each other.” That line moved me so much and I thought that the line itself deserves a separate film to be made and that was how ‘Company’ got made.
Now Contract very technically speaking is not so much about underworld, yes it is about the underworld but unlike earlier films where the protagonist is from the underworld, here the protagonist is not from the underworld. There is also a marked change is in the making style around which the story is built. So when people ask me about Contract ‘how it will compare to the earlier films’ I say that when I went to see Casino after Goodfellas as that is the next gangster film of Scorcese after Goodfellas, I half expected to see Goodfellas again. My first reaction was negative because it is not the same. It is very difficult to tear off from Goodfellas and watch Casino as a fresh film. I expect the same thing to happen to the audience in Contract. But that’s a professional hazard I have to live with so no complaints. Contract is different story shot in a different style. So if Satya dealt with that aspect of a certain time period 10 years back of the inside view of what gangsters are all about and Company is an overview of how a gang functions. Contract deals with a completely different aspect. People say Company is realistic and Satya is realistic. But how do they know it is realistic? They haven’t met these people. The connection to the realism is due to the characters. When Bheeku Matre comes home, his wife is upset with him. Many wives are upset with their husbands when they come home. So people connect with that emotion and because of that it looks real. The characters in Satya are projected differently than the characters in Company in spite of that both of them are called realistic films but the personality of the films is markedly different. What actually happens is that each film creates its own mind state.
Contract is different not in terms of emotion but in terms of the subject matter itself and I made it in a very entertaining way. It is not a dark and moody film like a Satya or Company. You can make a gangster film in the style of a Goodfellas or Godfather. I would think that, if Company is Godfather, and Satya is mix of Goodfellas and Scarface, then Contract is styled more closely on a Luc Besson film. It is stylized and the characters are designed to create a high, rather than make you take them seriously in the mood of the Satya or Company. But the fact remains it is taking a step further in to the underworld. One could be staying in chawl, one in boat, one in a mansion… different gangsters will have different lifestyles. I kind of moved away from many things from Satya and company in terms of atmosphere and treatment I have done it very differently from what people are used to seeing and so some people might find it unrealistic as they will take a benchmark from Satya and Company. But this is my take on it.
Somebody asked me if Contract is a trilogy. I wouldn’t say that, because trilogy sounds more like a finale and my intent is to make a hundredology of gangster films.
~ Ram Gopal Varma