Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice. In this episode, Shruti talks with Uday Bhatia about Hindi gangster films, particularly “Satya” and its legacy. They discuss vigilante cops, corrupt politicians and other movie tropes, as well as how the Indian gangster film has evolved over time. Bhatia is a film critic and writer with Mint Lounge. He has previously worked with Time Out Delhi and The Sunday Guardian. His writing has appeared in The Caravan, GQ, The Indian Quarterly, The Indian Express and The Hindu Business
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Ideas of India is a podcast in which Mercatus Senior Research Fellow Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. You can subscribe to the podcast on Apple, Spotify, Google, Overcast, Stitcher or the podcast app of your choice.
In this episode, Shruti talks with Uday Bhatia about Hindi gangster films, particularly “Satya” and its legacy. They discuss vigilante cops, corrupt politicians and other movie tropes, as well as how the Indian gangster film has evolved over time. Bhatia is a film critic and writer with Mint Lounge. He has previously worked with Time Out Delhi and The Sunday Guardian. His writing has appeared in The Caravan, GQ, The Indian Quarterly, The Indian Express and The Hindu Business Line. Bhatia is also the author of “Bullets Over Bombay: Satya and the Hindi Film Gangster,” a book about the iconic Indian film “Satya” and its legacy.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, a podcast where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and today my guest is Uday Bhatia, who is the author of the book “Bullets Over Bombay: Satya and the Hindi Film Gangster.” Uday is a film critic and film writer with Mint Lounge. He has previously worked with Time Out Delhi and The Sunday Guardian. His film writing has appeared in The Caravan, GQ, The Indian Quarterly, The Indian Express and The Hindu Business Line.
We talked about the iconic Hindi movie “Satya,” the Hindi cinema tradition of gangster films and vigilante cops, Mumbai in Hindi cinema, nonfiction film tradition in India, film music scores, Uday’s intellectual influences and much more.
For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references, click the link in the show notes or visit Discourse Magazine DOT COM.
Hi, Uday. Welcome to the show.
UDAY BHATIA: Thanks for having me on, Shruti.
‘Satya’ and the Hindi Gangster Film Tradition
RAJAGOPALAN: I had a really great time reading the book [“Bullets Over Bombay”]. You really situated “Satya,” the movie, in two really important film traditions. One is the Hindi gangster film tradition, and the second is the Mumbai City film tradition within Hindi movies. Can you talk a little bit about how the Indian gangster movie—or even more specifically, the Hindi gangster movie—compares or fits stylistically compared to other gangster genres, like the Hong Kong genre?
There is, of course, the Hollywood version, which has changed over the decades. The Martin Scorsese genre seems to be one unto itself and, probably, the most prominent and most influential in our minds. Same for the South Korean, the Japanese movies, which we’ve now started getting more access to. I know that “Satya” is not directly inspired by these movies or these genres, but can you just situate the movie and the larger Hindi film gangster tradition within that?
BHATIA: It seems obvious to say, but the one thing that distinguishes Indian gangster films from ones made everywhere else is that we are the only people who make gangster musicals. This is our biggest contribution to the genre—that we can make convincing stories about organized crime that also have songs and dances. No one else does that. That might be the one thing that an Indian gangster movie would give you that you cannot get in any other tradition.
Having said that, the gangster genre in India has been a lot slower to develop, as compared to nearly everywhere else in the world. You could probably take it back to the early ’50s, to the Navketan Films, which were noir-thriller-comedy hybrids. Not really gangster films, but you could see the influence of gangster films on them.
They had a lot of nods to the Hollywood films of maybe two decades earlier or one decade earlier. They weren’t hard-boiled. They were a lot sweeter. Mostly, a lot of them starred Dev Anand. A couple of them starred Guru Dutt, Ashok Kumar, even Shammi Kapoor, a couple of them. These were your original Hindi crime films, but you wouldn’t really call them gangster films.
This continues through the ’60s, and we reach the ’70s with Amitabh Bachchan. You start getting films which were based on real-life dons. That’s when the genre starts at least acquiring an outline because you have real-life figures to base your character on. You have Bachchan doing a version of Haji Mastan in “Deewaar,” or you have Pran as a version of Karim Lala in “Zanjeer,” or you have Prem Nath as a matka gambling kingpin of the time crossed with “The Godfather” in “Dharmatma.”
That’s when you started getting gangsters of a sort, even though it was way different from the kind of gangster films that one had seen in Hollywood and other countries by then. It was only in the ’80s that the gangster film actually started taking shape in India, when you started getting not only the bona fide gangster characters but also the surroundings, the other genre stylistics as it were, which then started to go through films like “Arjun” and “Ardh Satya.”
Then, finally, at the end of the decade, you get “Parinda” and “Hathyar,” which are bona fide, proper gangster films. Then, a decade later you get “Satya,” and everything takes off from there. Though the original model was the American gangster film, it really took a long time to flower in India, and “Satya” was, in a sense, a before-and-after moment for the genre.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think another difference—especially the sweet Navketan movies, where you’re really talking about petty criminals; you’re not really talking about big-time gangsters—is also somewhere the sort of Gandhian nonviolence influence.
Other gangster movies are incredibly violent. In fact, the selling point of the genre is that this is violence, and parts of the violence are glorified. In India, it’s hard to do that during the Nationalist Movement and in the post-independent era. Hindi films really start getting violent only much later, with Sunny Deol and Sunil Shetty. That’s when you see the action is not cheesy and campy, and you start getting slightly gruesome-looking movies.
Now, with Anurag Kashyap—and there’s a whole generation inspired by Tarantino in India—it’s gone to another level. But I think an important distinction in the Hindi film genre is also just how non-gruesome the gangster genre was. It was mostly quite campy in the mainstream.
BHATIA: That’s absolutely true. The action would be limited to a few knife fights. Maybe a couple of guns would go off at the end. Nothing very violent. Even through the ’60s when color came in, it was still not very violent because by then, they started trying to ape Bond films instead of the color gangster films. They were making slightly campy, slightly bright, beautiful films. It never got really violent until the ’80s, as you point out.
I think “Ardh Satya,” though not exactly a gangster film—it’s a cop film. The cop film and the gangster film are twin genres. That was a turning point in terms of just situating it in a very gritty, very realistic and very scary milieu, very violent. There’s a scene which made a huge impression on me when I first saw it, in which a man is just burning at the side of the road. That kind of scene was just unknown outside of documentary film in India at that time.
Bombay and Mumbai City Film Tradition
RAJAGOPALAN: What is also quite interesting is, there are certain cities that lend themselves to this kind of violence. All cities have some kind of criminal underbelly, but in some it’s quite insignificant, or it’s not very notable. It’s not very cinematic. There’s something very special about the Mumbai underbelly. The same with Hong Kong, or the same with New York.
What is going on with Mumbai as a central geographical location? Is it because it’s a port, and gangsters need to smuggle goods in and out? So Hong Kong, Mumbai, some parts of Malaysia, South Korea, New York—they just make sense. Same with some parts of Italy, which is the origins of the original gangster genre.
It could be there’s prohibition taking place in the 1950s, so way before any other city, Mumbai gets a very Al Capone-esque underbelly that starts developing, which also makes it a slightly more interesting city. It’s only much later through, say, Kashyap, you learn about Dhanbad and the coal mafia being important or gruesome, or a gang in itself. What is interesting about Mumbai to you cinematically, to be such a perfect location for gangster films?
BHATIA: Two things which you mentioned are very relevant. One, the port city, which has supported so many films on smuggling because the smuggler is a huge figure within the Indian gangster film, and Mumbai is the city where most of your smuggling films are set because you have ports.
Also, the prohibition, again, though you could not show alcohol on screen—definitely, in the ’50s, you couldn’t. Maybe somewhere in the ’60s that was loosened up, but that just plays into the whole idea of organized crime because that was also a stylistic part of the genre itself. The whole bootlegging angle in Hollywood gangster films was such a motif. You see one of those scenes, and you know that it’s a gangster film immediately.
Another thing that might have contributed to Mumbai being a good city—you said gangster stories—is that a lot of people traveled to it. Different people—when they come to one place which is cosmopolitan and provides a lot of opportunities, but also has a lot of competition for resources—there’s a lot of factionalism. There’s a lot of rivalry that happens.
Some of it’s related to pride of where you’re coming from, and if you want to establish yourselves in a new place like the Pathans did. Some of the most significant early gangs were of these Pathan men, and Karim Lala became the first great don of Mumbai.
There were a lot of small gangs like this, and I think that also has created its little myth, which you see even in the early Navketan films. You’ll have this chaku gang and this small Christian gang here and Parsi gang here. These are all small little neighborhood rivalries which acquire a mythic sheen when put on film.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think the density also plays a role. The underbelly is best shown through this dense and highly chaotic living, as opposed to big cornfields. Not to say you didn’t have bootlegging in essential food grains and things, but it just cinematically doesn’t quite have the same feel. I think only in “Udta Punjab” you follow the contraband in a way that has very little to do with urban density.
How much does a city matter as a cinematic venue? I can think of some movies where the city is very important, but the films were so great, even in another city they would have been fine.
Think of something like, say, “Before Sunrise” and “Before Sunset,” which I know are two films both you and I are quite fond of. In the first one, the city is important because, literally, they decide to get off at a particular city, Vienna. The second one, they decide to meet in Paris, but it feels like that movie would have been sparkling and lovely no matter where they had done it.
On the other hand, you can’t imagine “Satya” outside of Bombay. You cannot imagine “Taxi Driver” anywhere outside New York. So, what does it take to make the city a character in a film?
BHATIA: It’s interesting to think of whether cinematic cities are great because they have some inherent quality that drew the movies there, or whether it’s just that—because the movies were there, and they’ve been looked at so closely by people who work there for so many years—that they acquire these charms.
For example, Los Angeles, Hollywood—what did it offer filmmakers when it started out? It offered climate, and it offered a variety of locations. You could go to the beach. You could travel 20 miles—you’d be in the mountains. You could travel 20 miles—you’d be in the desert. They realized that they could just shift the writers and directors over from New York or San Francisco, wherever they had to, and so that was what that offered.
Mumbai—maybe you could say it offered some cosmopolitanism. It offered the supply of people from the theater scene—Parsi theater, which was there. Hindi was spoken out here. There was the sea. But did it have, say, a quality that another city—Hindi-speaking—say, Delhi, does not have? That, I’m not sure. It’s just that we have seen Mumbai over so many years, over 10 decades now, through the eyes of so many filmmakers that it’s acquired this character of its own.
I feel that if, say, Delhi or another city had offered those same opportunities to become a place where films are made, rather than just a place where films are shot, it would also have that kind of reputation. If you look at the other great cinematic cities, they are mostly places where films are made: Hong Kong, Paris, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Rome. The example of a cinematic city where films are just shot, but not made, are very few.
‘Satya’ and the Vigilante Cop
RAJAGOPALAN: I watched “Satya” again last night after maybe 20-plus years. One strand which I had completely forgotten about all these years, which came back to me, is the vigilante police subgenre, which has become a big thing in India now. Paresh Rawal [playing Amod Shukla in “Satya”] and his big speech about the system, and how his job is necessary, and he needs to break the rules, and wiretapping, torture—all these things just need to be done and are part of the toolkit.
There’s always been the Hindi film hero, vigilante hero. That’s been a trope in Hindi cinema, but the way we think about police procedurals—breaking procedure, specifically, because that system just doesn’t work—that, I think, is a more recent, last 20-, 30-year phenomenon. It feels like “Satya” is also the beginning of that.
I think Ram Gopal Varma has a lot to do with it because right after “Satya,” he made “Shool,” “Ab Tak Chhappan.” These are very clear, they’re not gangster movies. They’re police, vigilante justice movies, with “Ab Tak Chhappan,” especially, glorifying the encounters, which are police extrajudicial killings, as the heroic feat in itself. What do you think about “Satya” in this larger arc? To me, that might be the lasting legacy in some sense.
BHATIA: I don’t know if I’d describe Amod Shukla or Khandilkar as vigilante per se, since they stay within the broad parameters of the law by Hindi film standards, [laughs] which is not very high, so a little bit of torture, an encounter here or there. We don’t even really think of that as a vigilante cop. It’s pretty much by the book, but Khandilkar does become something of an encounter cop—as we say in India—by the end of the film.
If you look at the newspaper print right at the end, after everyone dies, they call him the “new encounter king,” which was something that they were calling cops in Bombay who had a lot of criminals shot.
BHATIA: Extrajudicial. Khandilkar’s trajectory is actually somewhat close to, again, “Ardh Satya,” a film that Varma admired a lot, and which he based his first film, which was “Shiva,” largely on. That is, a law-abiding cop loses his bearings towards the end of the film, and he kills a criminal in cold blood.
In “Satya,” of course, our sympathies are with the criminal. In “Ardh Satya,” our sympathies are with Om Puri’s cop, even though he is quite far from redemption. It’s difficult to root for him at the end. It’s just that he is at the center of that film. It’s true that, as you say, the vigilante film has acquired a lot of significance in recent years with films like “Simmba,” and “Mardaani” and its sequel. These are very crude films at one level, but they’re also very disturbing at the other level in their triumphant celebration of these people and their “victories” over crime.
Whereas, something like “Ab Tak Chhappan”—even though you suspect that Ramu, Ram Gopal Varma, is pretty much on the side of the cops who are killing criminals without due process, they still have enough of a gray area to have some doubt, whereas the newer ones that are coming up have no doubt at all.
RAJAGOPALAN: For me, there’s a third thing. It’s almost as if real life mimics cinema, and cinema mimics real life. When you have these horrific rapes taking place—the case in Hyderabad, for instance—the very next day, everyone demanded that the accused be taken care of, and the police actually just went and shot him, and it was a hugely popular move. This is loosely the script of “Simmba.” The movie made a lot of money. It’s one of the most popular heroes in Indian cinema. It’s almost as if it’s fueling a new kind of narrative.
To me, the more interesting thing about the police genre in India is, cops have always been portrayed as only one of three or four things. They are honest versus corrupt, or they are just plain incompetent. This is the ’70s movies, where the cops always show up 10 minutes after the event. They’re almost an afterthought. The third is the cop as this vigilante hero.
We don’t have a tradition of proper police procedurals. Something like “Delhi Crime,” for instance—someone who has a very quotidian life, collecting evidence in the most difficult circumstances possible, and needs to navigate that, however one does. The cop genre, in one sense, is missing from India altogether, and any subgenre that exists is just vigilante.
BHATIA: Pretty much. You’ve mentioned how Varma went from films about gangsters to films about cops. For me, I think he sees them all the same way. I think he looks at them as rebels, and his sympathy is always with any form of rebel who comes, whether he’s a college thug—which is his first film, “Shiva”—or he is the taporis in “Rangeela,” or he is the gangsters of “Satya” and “Company,” or he’s the cops of “Ab Tak Chhappan” or “Shool.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Also, these are people who are breaking the mold a bit, and I think, in that sense, they are a little bit autobiographical for Ram Gopal Varma.
Quotidian Lives of Gangsters in Cinema
RAJAGOPALAN: The everyday life of the criminal and the gangster has become this lasting genre unto itself. “Satya” comes out in 1998. I think that’s the first time you see this happening in India. Someone—where they go and eat, where they go on a date, they’re having coffee, they’re chatting, they’re telling jokes—and bam, in the middle, there’s a shootout. You really see that starting the following year in something like “The Sopranos,” and after “The Sopranos,” I think every single TV series is a wannabe “Sopranos” in some shape or form.
You see it done quite differently, and maybe even better, in “The Wire,” but this everyday life of the gangster and how he gets yelled at by his wife at home, or struggles with his daughter’s college admissions. This is a trope that Hollywood and Bollywood seemed to have found.
BHATIA: That’s absolutely true. There was one film before “Satya” that hinted in that direction, which was Sudhir Mishra’s “Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin,” which has gangsters as more fully realized people than the ad men who they brush up against in the film, which I thought was a nice little bit of class commentary out there. You really see that change after “Satya” in something like “Maqbool,” in which the characters are so fully realized that being a gangster is a very small part of their personality.
I think the film—if they had changed the profession to something slightly different, it really would not have made that much of a difference because it’s not the point. The whole idea is that these are interesting people, and just because they’re gangsters, it doesn’t mean that they have to act in ways that you expect them to. I think you really saw that just a couple of years after “Satya”—the things started to change in that.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not just Indian. This is more true for Hollywood—that it’s not just a post-“Sopranos” thing. There seems to be some fascination with the gangster who is also a little bit terrified of his wife, and all the tropes that you see in Bhiku Mhatre seem to be very popular. I don’t know how they landed on that at the perfect time. They seem to have come upon it thanks to Tarantino, in some sense. Those are the movies which have influenced Kashyap. Where is this coming from?
BHATIA: Interesting, because I think Kashyap would probably have been watching Tarantino at that time, for sure. I think Saurabh Shukla was still looking at Scorsese, because he kept talking about “Goodfellas.” His reference was always “Goodfellas.” I don’t think Varma was really looking at either of them much. Varma was still thinking of “Godfather” because he’s very fond of “The Godfather.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, we know. He’s made it many times.
BHATIA: I think it’s all mixed up a little bit out there. There’s nothing that I would trace directly back to Tarantino besides the torture scene, which I really thought had that thing, though Varma denied it, so I really don’t know. But that really did have a Tarantino feel in the sense of that really grisly scene that becomes comic, and then it becomes dramatic, and then it turns back to grisly, and then in the end it becomes funny again.
That really felt like “Reservoir Dogs,” but in that sense, the quotidian life of the gangsters is something that was entirely new to Hindi gangster film. It had been explored in smaller ways outside, though—as you said, “The Sopranos.” Because you’re spending year after year after year with these people, you see their lives in great detail, which a film was never able to do, even if it could, but for Hindi cinema this was definitely something very new.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s funny you mentioned the influence of “Goodfellas” because, to me, Bhiku Mhatre has that same frantic energy as Joe Pesci, almost in the scene-stealer way. There’s something a little bit savage and manic about him, and when he comes in the frame, everyone is a little bit nervous. It’s unpredictable. You don’t know exactly what’s going to happen. I can’t think of too many actors like Joe Pesci, and Manoj Bajpayee seems to be the Joe Pesci of “Satya” in some sense.
BHATIA: Yes, you can definitely, I think, draw a line from there to those. I’m sure Bajpayee could be very happy if you suggested to him that he reminded you of Joe Pesci in “Goodfellas.” He’d probably say, “Yes, I definitely wanted that effect.”
‘Satya’ and the Ensemble Movies in Hindi Cinema
RAJAGOPALAN: Another interesting theme in “Satya,” which you’ve spoken about a lot when you discuss how the film came together, is that it also kicked off, or at least revived, a tradition of the ensemble movie cast in a film or a cinematic tradition, which is typically boy-girl or boy-boy-girl or girl-girl-boy love triangles or family dramas. This is really the mainstay of Indian movies. Usually, there isn’t much of a role for a big ensemble cast. It seems like, after “Satya,” that became a new thing. Everything that we do today, whether it is “Khosla ka Ghosla” or “Peepli Live” or even “Luck By Chance.”
Say, something like “Khosla ka Ghosla”—no major film hero headlining it.You have Anupam Kher, like Paresh Rawal in “Satya,” which is one or two big known names. Everyone else—you think you’ve kind of seen them, but you can’t quite remember their name. The same is true for something like “Peepli Live.” The same is true for “Ankhon Dekhi.” In that sense, it’s really a tradition starting with “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.” Very memorable characters, fantastic actors who do those bit parts, and something emerges which is greater than the sum of its parts. Is that a good way to think about “Satya”?
BHATIA: I think that’s absolutely correct. I think one of the bigger contributions that’s never really talked about, because it’s weird to think of it like that, is how “Satya” brought about a revolution in the way casting was done and the way actors were fitted for parts. You can see that within three years of “Satya,” things are entirely different for that mid-range sort of film. It wasn’t just that they looked different or they talked different. It was that they had the right people in the right roles.
Suddenly, the value of a good role in a good film started to seem very attractive to young actors, rather than a small role in a very big film, in which they’ll be completely sidelined. I’ll give you the example of Sushant Singh in “Satya.” He has a two-scene part in this. He just about hustled his way into the film. He really wasn’t on anybody’s radar because he’s a theater actor. He’d come from Delhi. He was in Bombay. He was a struggler.
Somehow, he managed to get his photos through to Anurag Kashyap, who then took them to Varma. The small part that he had to play, which is of this goon whose face Satya slashes at the start of the movie—that part was already cast, but Varma liked his look. He had a buzz cut—
RAJAGOPALAN: Tough guy.
BHATIA: —and he looked tough, and Varma was like, “Okay, let’s try it out.” So, he got that really small part. He improvised something in that scene. He screams after Satya slashes his face, and that scream wasn’t really planned. What happened was that Varma was so surprised, he didn’t call cut, and the scene went on, and it became a lot richer and funnier after that, because of that scream.
After that happened, Varma said that scene changed his whole approach to the film because he realized he had to make it looser. He had to allow actors to improvise. He had to make it look more natural. He said, “That scream changed my whole perception of how I was going to direct this film.” Sushant Singh went from two scenes in “Satya” to the third lead in “Kaun,” which was Varma’s next film, just on the basis of having improvised that small move.
RAJAGOPALAN: Even other actors. I watched the movie again last night. I had no idea Manoj Pahwa was in “Satya.” If you had told me, I would have been like, “What? I have no idea he appeared.”
BHATIA: Right. Sanjay Mishra, also.
RAJAGOPALAN: Sanjay Mishra is there, under the Bajaj scooter—he gets stuck in the torture scene. But you see Manoj Pahwa, and you’re like, “Wow.” Someone got him a bit role 23 years ago, so then you have the right actor in “Mulk” or “Article 15” or something like that. You needed all these people who showed up in Bombay to at least get tiny parts to keep them going.
To that extent, I think that’s another big thing that Ram Gopal Varma did, which is, every tiny part is cast by . . . I was surprised by how many really great actors are there in a blink-and-you-miss scene in “Satya.” Not just the really well-cast immediate Bhiku Mhatre crew.
BHATIA: Do you have a favorite side character in “Satya”?
RAJAGOPALAN: I think Manoj Pahwa is my favorite very, very, very on-the-fringe character. There is something really delicious about this. The context is that Satya shows up. The first scene, you see him show up at the train station, and this big panning-out shot, where he could be anyone who showed up. After that romantic gesture, the next scene with Chakravarthi is him spending the night in what is effectively—what is a description of his living digs?
BHATIA: Tabela, a cowshed.
RAJAGOPALAN: A cowshed, right. Actually, someone is milking cows and there is a butcher, and all this stuff is going on. Basically, the butcher is also his landlord of some sort. This guy is taking money, and the way he’s selling it to Chakravarthi is that you don’t need an alarm. [laughs] “The cows will start mooing in the morning, and you’ll just wake up, and you’ll get to work on time” is the sales pitch.
I love Chander. I think that character—he just wins you over. I think also the way he dies and Bhiku Mhatre’s reaction to Chander’s death—you feel for this guy. I think Namdev, in the last scene when his body is flapping about—that’s an extraordinary performance. It’s a great character, right?
BHATIA: Namdev is really good. He has maybe four scenes in the movie. He makes all of them count because he’s built up. He’s like Bhau [brother in Marathi] Aayega, Bhau ye karega, woh karega. Whenever his scenes are there, it’s just really solid.
RAJAGOPALAN: He has that presence, and I think the screenplay is also very clever in that his presence looms large in the movie because, even in the scenes where he’s not there, he’s talked about a fair bit. I think the guy who plays his bodyguard is fantastic. He’s just terrifying. He’s a Telugu actor. I can’t remember him.
BHATIA: That guy is fantastic. His name is Banerjee.
RAJAGOPALAN: Banerjee. He’s so good as the heavy. He’s the muscle for the don.
‘Satya’ and the Criminal-Politician
RAJAGOPALAN: Speaking of the Namdev character, I just wanted to once again zoom out into the larger description of ‘Satya.’
In the ’70s, all your criminals are these smugglers and dons who are literally hoarding gold because gold is controlled, or they’re bootleggers because alcohol is prohibited. They have these ridiculous dens. They have horrible costumes and things like that. To my memory, ‘Satya’ is the first film where now the role of the gangster has changed.
You can also read the academic literature on this. Milan Vaishnav has a book called “When Crime Pays,” which is talking about how there is the evolution. Initially, it was the criminals and politicians getting together, and after the 1980s, the criminal becomes the politician because that vertical integration has a lot to do with campaign finance and how elections are conducted in India.
You see that with Bhau, and you see that with Bhiku Mhatre. Bhau used to be the Bhiku 20 years ago. He’s the criminal who has now come up and become the corporator or standing for elections and things like that. One day he’s touted to be the chief minister. I think that’s a very interesting pivot in “Satya.” You see that in movies after. You don’t see that in movies before.
“Satya” is also a very interesting movie about the criminal underbelly in that it’s one of the first post-liberalization movies about crime. You can immediately see that difference.
All their gang work—their conversations are film financing because film finance actually gets liberalized in 1998, and banks—the RBI notification that banks can lend money for a film project only comes in 2001.
RAJAGOPALAN: Until 2001, and you really see the effect after. For a couple of years after 2001, you still see “Vaastav” and gangster-financed movies which made gangsters larger than life. Then the gangster financing just disappears from Indian cinema. It also shows criminality. It’s a very interesting point in Indian economic history in some sense.
BHATIA: The gangster as a heavy for a politician was in the works, you could say, even in the run-up to “Satya.” It wasn’t completely realized, but you do see it in ’80s films, especially mid-to-late ’80s films. In “Arjun,” Sunny Deol is a heavy. He is not exactly a gangster, but he’s going in that direction. He’s a heavy for a politician played by Anupam Kher, who, initially, thinks he’s a good man trying to change society, and then, in the end, he turns out to be a corrupt politician.
The same was there in “Shiva,” which, again, borrowed heavily from “Arjun,” in which Paresh Rawal, who plays the upstanding cop in “Satya,” was the crooked politician in “Shiva.” So you did have a few instances of gangsters as heavies for politicians. To my knowledge, only one film actually brought the builder figure into the nexus before “Satya,” although there must have been more, but I only came across one, and that was this very interesting to film called “Angaar” with Nana Patekar and Jackie Shroff. That does the builder-politician-mafia nexus a good six years, I think, before “Satya.”
RAJAGOPALAN: I’ll add another, which is “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro.” I think that is another movie which does the builder-politician nexus—it’s not a gangster film—and “Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro” is written at a time when cement is controlled and you are relying on politicians for the permits to build an extra six floors or whatever. You know that great scene in which Pankaj Kapoor is in the elevator?
BHATIA: Right, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: That outdoor elevator, and he’s talking about how they managed to finagle the right permits, and all the illegal things that they’re doing. That’s another movie that comes to mind with the builder-politician nexus.
‘Satya’ and Post-Liberalization Hindi Cinema
BHATIA: That’s absolutely true. Since you’re talking about post-liberalization films, also, I think it’s useful to mention: Ram Gopal Varma, three years before “Satya,” made the ultimate post-liberalization film, which is “Rangeela”—
RAJAGOPALAN: “Rangeela,” yes.
BHATIA: —which captures the euphoria of liberalization, as opposed to three years later, the more sobering realities of liberalization, which is there in “Satya.”
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s also weird, his take on it, right? Because Aditya Narayan’s rap, [laughs] if you can call it that, in the title song of “Rangeela,” is quite literally talking about this. A child doesn’t know how to function in a post-liberalization world with all this choice and so many consumer goods. At the same time, you have the woman who’s talking about all the aspirations and how the world is suddenly gone into technicolor. It’s quite an interesting song.
BHATIA: If you think about it, Chander picks it up from there because he’s, “Ek TV diya, ek Fridge diya, ek bhagwaan bhi diya.” [Hindi language]
RAJAGOPALAN: [laughs] That’s such a great line. It’s interesting, also, because telephones got liberalized. I think this is one of the first few gangster movies where you see the cell phone being used, for instance, the first time they’re thinking of killing Guru Narayan. In older movies, it would have been a hankie being dropped, or someone waving a newspaper, like “The Day of the Jackal” or something like that, right? This is really the first time you see people on the go in a van, calling each other from really clunky, almost brick-like cell phones, but that’s the time of the movie.
BHATIA: Absolutely. It’s nice, that scene, not only because it really marks that period in time—you really know which years it’s probably taking place—but also because it looks back and forward. One of the very early noir films, which was “C.I.D.” with Dev Anand, starts with a command from a small gang boss to the functionary to commit a murder, and that is done over landline telephones. There is the ghost of that in this. Of course, later, in “Company,” there is another very elaborate kill that is ordered, which is again done over cell phones from another country.
RAJAGOPALAN: The cell phone thing also makes the movies less campy and more realistic, right? Because what do we think of earlier smuggling dons? They’ll tear the ₹100 note and will meet at Madh Island, and then the two halves of the torn note have to be put together. There’s a coordination problem when you are picking up [laughs] supplies from all these drug lords and issuing kill orders.
I think it’s nice. There’s something very funny and cinematic about the dropped handkerchief and the half-torn note being joined in Madh Island. But I think this brings that realism to how these businesses were actually conducted.
Background Scores in Hindi Cinema
RAJAGOPALAN: One thing that drove me bananas yesterday when I watched the movie again is—and you talk about this a little bit in the book—is how the background score is. Actually, musically, it’s quite interesting. There are bits where Sandeep Chowta is almost doing funeral-esque music, like a requiem—those kinds of shades, or the tabla is playing. Some very interesting things are going on, but it is so loud, and it is in every scene, [laughs] and sometimes you can’t hear the dialogue.
What is going on with the background score in this film, and more generally in Hindi films? I’ve just started finding them unbearable.
BHATIA: I think because we have such a rich tradition of composing songs, we just didn’t find the need to have another rich tradition of doing background music. [laughs] I think all our energy and intelligence went into creating soundtracks, and we just never figured out how to do scores. The good scores in Indian films—I think they’re the exception. You can really count them on a small list of 20, 30 films that have—
RAJAGOPALAN: Which are your favorites?
BHATIA: That’s interesting. The Ray films have lovely scores.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, that’s Ravi Shankar, and they know what they’re doing. [laughs]
BHATIA: Yes. Unfortunately, I can’t think of examples from Hindi films at all. Some of the recent ones have had much nicer scores. An unlikely one, but it was an excellent score, was Vasan Bala’s “Mard Ko Dard Nahin Hota.” If you heard that, it had a lovely score. There have been some very nice ones by Alokananda Dasgupta, who did the “Sacred Games” theme and scores a lot of these films.
RAJAGOPALAN: I even like something like, say, “Swades,” where I think the overall movie soundtrack is very good, so the score lends itself well, but it’s one of those movies where it’s brimming with emotion all the time, and it’s not very obtrusive. You’re not noticing the score all the time. I think my bigger problem is when the score is so overwhelming, you don’t know what to think, and it’s so badly mixed, and it is so loud.
BHATIA: I do have mixed feelings about the score because I think it’s very effective in certain scenes. The scene, for example, where Mule has come to tell Satya and Bhiku that Bhau wants to see them—this is just after they’ve killed Guru Narayan, and there’s just these sort of taps on the tabla, and they sound a bit irritated, like someone is pacing, and that irritation feeds into Mule’s body language and, later, Bhau’s body language.
It’s like a little warning that even though you’ve achieved the victory, things are not actually going well for you. Some of the themes at the end, also the flute theme when Satya’s dying was a very nice theme. It obviously could be mixed a lot better and could be 50% softer, but it is, as a composition, very nice.
‘Satya’ and Death in Hindi Cinema
RAJAGOPALAN: The thing you just talked about, when Satya is dying—to me, I don’t remember too much from the first time I watched the film. I remember “Goli Maar Bheje Mein” being like this—the thing I walked away with, which was amazing. The Uphaar thing was very chilling because I’ve grown up in Delhi.
But the lasting memory from “Satya” was just how Bhiku Mhatre died. It happens in a split second. I almost feel like, “Oh, we missed something, and he’s going to stand up.” That’s what Hindi film heroes do, or even the villains, the good ones. No one just gets shot and just dies in the blink of an eye. I don’t remember too many death sequences like that before “Satya.” This is another big change that “Satya” brought about, which is just how to effectively kill people, and how to do this properly on screen.
BHATIA: No, I can’t think of a single instance of a death like that, of a main character in a film—just suddenly, music cut off, everyone’s stunned. I don’t think it has any predecessors.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and it doesn’t even pan to Bhiku Mhatre once he’s dead. The camera actually pans to Kalu Mama’s reaction to his death. It’s like everyone in the frame has moved on very quickly. No one cares that there’s a dead body there. It’s a very jarring scene.
I feel like it’s another great contribution of “Satya,” not that we’ve suddenly evolved as a cinematic tradition overnight, or even over 30 years, but we have slightly more [laughs] realistic deaths today than we had pre-“Satya,” in some sense. No long monologues at temples.
You do have that with Chakravarty, who’s hanging on for his dear life before he sees his love one last time. That one is very Amitabh Bachchan-esque, like the walking wounded at the end of “Deewaar.” You have some of that going on, but I don’t remember what Manoj Bajpayee did being done before this.
BHATIA: No, both in terms of deaths and in terms of killings, I think “Satya” was something new. The producer’s killing at the start of the film—again, it’s done so quickly. It feels like a longer scene, but it’s actually really short. Everything, from the setup to the killing itself to the getaway—everything is over, I think, within five minutes.
RAJAGOPALAN: The getaway is a sign of things to come in all Varma and Kashyap movies. Eventually Danny Boyle. Like the running sequence to escape the cop—that comes back in a big way in “Black Friday.” It’s there in “Gangs of Wasseypur.” It becomes a thing of its own that Varma seems to have started.
BHATIA: Yes, absolutely. I don’t think Kashyap thought so. He was a little defensive when I asked him that. I showed him the scene, and he said, “No, it’s different in ‘Black Friday.’” I see that echoed definitely in “Slumdog Millionaire” and in so many other films, just that run down the gully, knocking over the milkman, and the way he comes out on the other side. It’s a very modern Mumbai film.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s the chase sequence done right. It’s not like the heroic running that we do in slow motion. It’s like actual running—bumping into things, falling down, picking yourself up. It’s almost comical in parts, where he’s running. He’s also Pakya from “Rangeela.” You almost expect some of that comical thing to emerge. Of course, this is a different movie.
You talked about the killing of the producer. That is another big thing that Bollywood has now gotten rid of. Of course, the most shocking one is Gulshan Kumar’s death, who was like the music magnate of India and had his hands in all sorts of pies, from film financing to greenlighting movies to, of course, distributing the music, and so on. But it also changed the way the film [“Satya”] was made, even though this particular scene is not inspired by his death, but it seems to be a very important moment in Indian film history.
BHATIA: It definitely changed this film. Even though it didn’t inspire it, I think it changed something in the alchemy of the film itself. Definitely, it changed something in Varma because his focus was shifted to how the gangsters’ lives must have been before and after they went and shot Gulshan Kumar. And that gave him a slant which is very different from the kind of gangster films that were there before.
As you said, for the industry also, this was a line in the sand because until then, there had been threats and extortions. There’d even been attempts on the life of producers and financiers, but there’d never actually been a killing of someone in such a high place. That really did bring the underworld up and in the foreground, as it were. Saurabh Shukla said, “When that happened, it was the first time we actually realized that we are making a film on these guys, and they’re right here.” Because it wasn’t abstract anymore.
Gangster Influence in Producing Hindi Films
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you think the quality of films in Bollywood has changed now that the gangster financing has gone away? There are two, three aspects to it. One is, of course, the gangster had some role in casting and said, “This hero is my friend,” or “My girlfriend wishes to be an important member in the movie industry, and so you have to cast her.”
Also, how the financing came in fits and starts because it’s not organized. When the payday comes for the criminal activity, is when these things will eventually reach the film—you have real problems with continuity. You can’t plan budgets, and you need to portray gangsters or villains in a particular kind of image without much nuance.
All of this seems to have reduced, if not disappeared, once the financing system in Bollywood changed, not to mention better movies started getting greenlit with independent studios. What do you think is going on there?
BHATIA: I think, as the underworld influence waned in Mumbai and in the Hindi film industry, finance was anyways getting regulated. Because both of these things came together in the mid-2000s, they started to have an effect.
I do think that, maybe because there wasn’t that much of a hold of the underworld as the 2000s went on, it was possible for casting and for financing to become more professional, and for films to also become a little more on schedule and maybe closer to their original conception, as opposed to something being demanded by an underworld figure financing it remotely.
I think the other big impact it has, is that the gangster film itself, which was always in Mumbai, almost exclusively in Mumbai—the Hindi gangster film moved out of Mumbai, which you saw in films like “Omkara” and then on to “Rakhta Charitra” and then “Gangs of Wasseypur,” and on and on. Now you have the—
RAJAGOPALAN: Tamil cinema, Malayalam cinema have had their own genres for a long time.
BHATIA: They’ve been doing their own gangster films, which are now much better than the Hindi gangster films.
Documentary Influence on ‘Satya’
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s one interesting element of “Satya” and Mumbai as the backdrop, which is the documentary nature of looking at Mumbai. In fact, a lot of the wider city shots were shot even before the cinematographer, Hooper, knew much of the script. And they took the visarjan shots when they were available, as opposed to when they were actually shooting them, which was recreated.
There are some very interesting things going on, taking a lot of different kinds of realistic aspects of even the building collapse, which is, you show up like vultures the moment a building collapses and get some real-life stock.
Both the cinematographers actually are partially rooted in the nonfiction background, but you also see this a little bit in “Salaam Bombay.” How do documentaries more generally influence how we see these cities in film?
BHATIA: As you said, both the directors of photography—that’s Gerry Hooper and Mazhar Kamran—had a documentary background. At the same time, there isn’t too much photography in “Satya” which one might say is a documentary kind of photography. The scenes which are like that are very visible as that kind. In the opening montage, for example, the small shots of kids running, and dogs, and people playing cricket and stuff.
As you said later, the visarjan scenes—not the ones that were recreated, but the actual visarjan, which they shot during the month. Those were scenes where Hooper just headed out with a camera because he liked Mumbai, and he went and he just shot things. Not the visarjan, which he was actually sent to shoot, but for the other things, he just headed out, and he did it on his own.
They had the bright idea of inserting that into their film. I think whoever had that idea was onto something because there is this distinction that Mazhar Kamran made when I spoke to him, that realism is a style. It doesn’t mean going and shooting whatever is out there. That is something very different.
What one might see is that “Satya” is realistically shot, but I think I would make the distinction that it’s not exactly documentary photography. Rather it’s very realistic photography, into which you have these documentary inserts that further create the impression that it’s drawn from real life.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s also the way the film is lit. The way mainstream Hindi cinema is lit, it is so bright. And there are maybe three or four shots, which are the romantic shots between Urmila and Chakravarthi, which are lit that brightly.
BHATIA: Which Mazhar Kamran was forced to do. [laughs]
RAJAGOPALAN: Everything from how you light a scene to how you situate the camera—when I say documentary film influence, I don’t just mean you go out there and you just shoot real life, like a news crew or something. I meant more in terms of the stylistic choices you’re making that somehow come in from a slightly different tradition which has smaller budgets, less equipment, is not used to this blinding light and perfect teeth and perfect hair. There’s something going on that makes “Satya” look the way it is, and then makes Bombay look the way it is.
BHATIA: It’s true, and I think all credit to Varma for suppressing his natural instincts, which are not to stay at a respectful distance from the actor and to avoid weird Dutch angles and upside-down cameras and fish-eye lenses—all of which you will see before and after “Satya.”
RAJAGOPALAN: After, yes.
BHATIA: Not in this film. He realized something. Maybe the cinematographers pointed it out. Maybe Hooper had some influence and said, “Look, I think we should have less lighting,” or something. But I think it’s also Varma just realizing that, for this particular story, it might be best if he stays out of the way of the actors, stays out of the way of over-stylizing his frames.
He was smart enough to realize that it would work if he didn’t impose himself on the film, which also has fantastic results when he does that. “Company,” for example—Varma imposes his style on every frame, and it’s stunning. It’s completely different from “Satya.” It gives it an entirely different energy. It’s kinetic, also sleazy. It’s just weird, whereas “Satya” feels a lot closer to life, a lot grittier, and it suits that story much better.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and “Satya” is about foot soldiers who are literally walking on the streets, taking the trains. “Company” is about the big bosses making decisions, and that’s percolating through the system. You have weird angles through which you get at them. There’s something going on there even about the nature of the film and the nature of the protagonist.
BHATIA: Absolutely. The worldviews in “Company” are very warped. There’s a lot of dislocation, both physical dislocation and emotional. I think the style reflects that, whereas “Satya” is a little more straightforward in that sense. I think that also comes through in the style of this film.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, “Satya” doesn’t have too many close-ups with the quivering lip and the quivering eyes. Maybe the last scene with Urmila has a little bit of that, but mostly, you don’t have these tight close-ups of people, and the beads of sweat, and their eyes twitching, which is a very Ram Gopal Varma style of doing things, which has gone horribly wrong in [laughs] more recent films.
BHATIA: I like both Varmas. I really do. It’s just that the crazy, style-heavy Varma is, I think, 90-95% of his filmography, and let’s-stay-out-of-the-way-of-things Varma, I would say, is “Satya.” Maybe the parts of “Rangeela” that aren’t the song sequences are fairly restrained, not too many others.
RAJAGOPALAN: Honestly, “Rangeela” has survived. You did a wonderful piece when “Rangeela” came to 25 years, recently. We chatted about it when you wrote that piece. It’s another movie which I hadn’t watched in 25 years that was just so clear in my memory. It’s also a Bombay film. It’s looking at movies with a particular kind of wide-eyed naiveté.
The women work in both the movies, which is also uncommon for female leads of that time. Incidentally, both have jobs in a movie business. There’s something quite sweet about both movies, that it’s about very ordinary people who are in whatever circumstances that they are. Whereas all the other films that he made are about the extraordinary cop, and the extraordinary rebel, and the extraordinary mafia don. The once-in-a-century Dawood Ibrahim kind of character.I think that’s another thing.
It’s weird that the two movies where he suppresses his tendencies the most seem to have been the lasting legacy of Ram Gopal Varma in some sense.
Bumbaiyaa Bhashaa (Bombay Speak)
BHATIA: I agree. They’re my favorites of his. I’ve always found it interesting how both of them have a language that can very easily be identified as Bombay speak, but are so different. Both of them are immediately recognizable as a Mumbai bhasha [language in Hindi], but “Rangeela,” because it’s a musical comedy, it has more rhythm. It has a musicality to it. “Satya” is very direct. It has an economy of words. Even when Chander is speaking, there will be a lot of words, but they’re all hitting the mark. Nothing is really more than what is needed.
The amazing thing to me is that Mumbai is this . . . “Rangeela’s” writers were both people who are from Bombay, whereas “Satya” has two writers from UP. It’s testament to how India has grown up hearing variations of Mumbai speak in the movie that people who go there for even a short period of time manage to appropriate it so closely. Not only appropriate it so closely, but make one of the most quintessential examples of Mumbai dialogue. That film has become the example of how people in Mumbai speak, and those lines are quoted, and it’s by two guys from UP.
RAJAGOPALAN: Even the lyrics. “Rangeela” has a quintessential Mumbai tapori song, which is “Yaaron Sun Lo Zara.” It’s got jeena ho to apun ke jaise hee jeena [Hindi language] You don’t hear words like this. Normally, you don’t hear lyrics like this, which are all a little bit Urdu-heavy. The quintessential Bombaiya-speak song in “Satya” is, of course, “Goli Maar Bheje Mein,” which is, again, written by an Urdu poet from Punjab. [laughs]
That story is quite wonderful. You tell it in the book so well. But it’s a different kind of Mumbaiya language. It’s also a little bit more realistic in that you know a guy who sells tickets in black is going to be quite different and far less violent than the guy who is torturing rival gang members for a living. The harshness of “Goli Maar Bheje Mein,” which is literally about shooting people, [laughs] is quite different from apun-tupun, the kind of things that you hear in “Yaaron Sun Lo Zara.” It’s quite a sweet song.
BHATIA: Absolutely. Yes, that sweetness is perhaps only there in the few moments with Bhiku and Pyari, and Satya and Vidya. Satya and Vidya becomes a bit schmaltzy for my taste. I don’t particularly like the Satya-Vidya scenes, but I do like all the Bhiku and Pyari scenes. I think those are where the chemistry actually works.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think so, too, and it’s partially because of the Vidya character. She is just this sweet, do-gooder, extremely naïve person, which doesn’t quite fit. I mean, she’s a woman out in the world. Her father is paralyzed. She’s been making it on her own for a really long time. She’s awfully trusting [laughs] of a complete stranger. When you think about it, there’s something very off about her character. This is not a Mumbai girl who is out and about in the world and knows how to make a living. Even the Urmila of “Rangeela” has more street smarts than this one. [laughs]
BHATIA: It’s really not much of a character, which is strange because she was the only star in the film. I think she’s just there so that Satya can die at her feet in the end, which was the idea that Varma actually started this whole enterprise with. He had that scene.
RAJAGOPALAN: He has some conflict, some inner conflict going on in the film to make him a little bit more interesting, I guess.
BHATIA: Yes. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Vidya character. I don’t think there’s anything that makes her very interesting. Luckily, everything else around her is so interesting that it doesn’t really matter, and she can just be this sweet, nice person.
Nonfiction Cinema in India
RAJAGOPALAN: I want to go back to the documentary aspect that we were talking about and how nonfiction film is an important genre in itself. You’ve written a great piece about the Pathé newsreels and capturing some of the greatest moments in India. Of course, some of that also is about Mumbai, about the Indian Freedom Movement, things like that. How is the nonfiction film genre developing in India?
BHATIA: Unfortunately, I don’t think nonfiction film has come along the way people were hoping when digital cameras came along, because that really freed up nonfiction film elsewhere. To an extent, it did in India as well, but it’s very tough for nonfiction filmmakers out here. They never get a theatrical release, and it’s difficult, obviously, to get funding. People don’t understand how they’re going to sell your film because it doesn’t have stars. Producers don’t know how to make back their money.
A lot of the time, the subject matter is also something that comes under censorship, or the government doesn’t like it, or someone else doesn’t like it, or someone puts a stay on it, someone takes them to court. There’s a lot of things going against nonfiction film being successful in India. It’s developed slowly.
There have been some really great films recently—not really recently, but maybe the last five, six years. There was an excellent one called “The Cinema Travellers” by Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham. This was just a fantastic film. There was one called “Katiyabaaz,” which was set in Kanpur, which was about one person who steals electricity [laughs] from the main power grids, which was absolutely unique. I thought that one was great.
There are a lot of smaller examples of documentaries, excellent ones that have come out. Anand Patwardhan, every four years or so, comes out with a big epic work that gets banned by whichever government is in power. So, it’s not like there aren’t very good documentary makers. It’s just that there is no support and no distribution, and it’s very difficult.
That crossover, which should happen between fiction film and nonfiction film, where directors should be able to go from one to the other, like Scorsese does or Spike Lee does—you see them, every so often, just making a documentary in the middle and then coming back to fiction film. That doesn’t happen here enough, which is a bit sad.
There was a small example though, in a recent film, that really delighted me. It links, in a way, with the piece which you had brought up, which was on early nonfiction film in India. There’s this cop film called “Class of ’83,” which was recently released on Netflix out here by Atul Sabharwal.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, it has got Bobby Deol.
BHATIA: Bobby Deol was the older, grizzled cop. [laughs] He was not bad. In that, the filmmaker did a very clever thing. I don’t think that it was a huge budget, and they had to recreate ’80s Bombay convincingly. What he did was, he took old newsreels from Bombay, and he cut off little scenes, and he inserted it into the action in a way that it didn’t look like newsreels but actually looked like part of this film.
It’s just that I had seen the originals from where these had come, and I knew they were newsreels, and that delighted me. I thought that was really so clever. It’s something that I really wish a lot more filmmakers here could do, but it doesn’t happen very often.
RAJAGOPALAN: We really have only two, three kinds of documentary filmmakers. One is the Doordarshan—very sanitized. The government is commissioning or supporting these documentary filmmakers, so there are limits to what you can talk about, whether it is caste or whether it is violence and things.
The second is, really, whether it is the piece that you did on the Pathé newsreels, which is pre-Independence. Some of it has the colonial gaze, right? It’s coming from a particular point of view of documenting India from the outside. Then you have a continuation of that, which is not exactly a colonial gaze, but the BBC and National Geographic, and a lot of what they call “the poverty porn,” looking at India in a very particular way.
The most important part of these nonfiction stories or narratives is, it’s not the Indians telling their own stories. So, other than someone like Patwardhan, as you said, who keeps getting banned, we don’t have a tradition of Indians telling their own narratives in film which are not fiction. You know, there is some fiction in all documentary, and we can talk about that later.
I don’t think there is a taste that has developed for the genre at all, right? Unless this is homegrown, I doubt there is ever going to be a huge demand for it because why would we watch what these foreigners have to say about us with such a limited and stilted gaze? They know nothing about our lives, and it’s not coming from within. Documentary makes it seem like you’re catching stuff in real time, but there’s still a gaze to the nonfiction.
BHATIA: Absolutely. Everything is edited, and it’s chosen, and there are decisions being made. One of the mistakes that people do is looking at documentary and saying that this is the whole truth, and fiction is not—whereas, everything is a bit of truth and a bit of whatever the filmmaker or the writer wants to show.
It is, after all, a worldview. You have chosen a particular image. You’ve chosen a particular narration or whatever people are saying, something to go with it. That is your choice. That is what you want to show. That’s not the entire truth. That is the truth that you have chosen to show in your film.
RAJAGOPALAN: I wanted to talk to you a little bit about your career as a film writer. You do many different kinds of film writing. This is your first book, but you are a film reviewer and critic. That’s your day job.
There’s also film appreciation or film history, and you’ve done pieces on that. It is a wide range. You’ve written on Jatin-Lalit’s music, “Rangeela,” Pathé newsreels. There’re so many examples of you doing longer features. You did a great feature on Manoj Bajpayee, who plays Bhiku Mhatre in this particular film and in the book. He is a really important character. What is the difference in these different styles of writing film?
BHATIA: It will seem weird, but I don’t really see them as very different. Obviously, the approach in writing the profiles and a lot of the other pieces that are not reviews—it’s more journalistic. A lot of them are reportage-driven. What I like to do is bring a similar approach, whether it’s writing a review or writing a profile, which is to try and situate something in the context of what I see.
Maybe it’s a historical context or a social context or a political context. I try and do that across, say, a review or a profile, or even an interview, where my hope is to give the reader an insight into not only why something might be good or bad, or worth their time or not worth their time, but where this stands in the broader history of that particular thing. If it’s a cop film, then does it deviate from what normal cop films are? If it’s a newsreel, does India have any history of newsreels in that sense?
Just in terms of that, I don’t see them as that different from each other, though, of course, the approach does differ.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is your writing process?
BHATIA: Well, I’m a late sleeper, so I write into the night. I guess that’s one cornerstone [laughs] of my process. My brain doesn’t function really well in the morning, though sometimes I do have to get up and finish my review in the morning if I’ve left the last paragraph. I read through it, and I find that [laughs] I’ve made wild claims in the earlier parts, and I change those. I’m not very regimented in terms of sitting in a particular place and writing. There are a couple of places around the house that I’m happy to do it.
I did have a bit of a routine going when I was actually traveling for the movie reviews, like going to the halls and stuff. That has been disrupted. In the last year and a half, I haven’t been to a movie theater. That process would expand to include going there. Then there’d be a delay of half an hour, and then the movie would start. There’d be the interval. There’d be the other people around there. On the ride back home, you’re already trying to compose the review in your head before you even get back.
I was very used to that process. It’s a little weird in this last year and a half, sitting at home and trying to write without having any of those distractions because those distractions actually became part of my writing process.
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you listen to music when you write?
BHATIA: No, I can’t do it. I started listening to Western classical music when I do editing work. That’s about as much as I can take, but I still can’t write anything sensible, at least when music is playing.
RAJAGOPALAN: What are some of your intellectual influences in, say, film and in writing, and in film writing, that put you on this career path?
BHATIA: It’s a little difficult to pinpoint influences in film. It’s a terrible cliché, but I watch pretty much everything with pleasure. Except for horror movies, I watch everything. I don’t really have a favorite director or a favorite list of films because it varies too much, and it changes too much, so I never really bother with that.
But I do have specific influences in film writing. Actually, I used to read a lot of music writing before I even got into film, so a lot of the writers whom I loved in college were all music writers. They were Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, David Fricke. I used to read their books and their pieces.
It was actually through a Lester Bangs piece that I first heard of Pauline Kael, who then became my first big influence in film writing. He described her as “the beautifully epigrammatic Pauline Kael,” which I think is just the nicest thing you can say about someone’s writing. Then, I looked up the review which he was talking about. That was my first Pauline Kael piece, and then I read pretty much everything by her. She was a huge influence.
Then, there’s another English writer called David Thomson, who’s written perhaps my favorite film book, which is called “Have You Seen? 1,000 Films to Watch Before You Die.”
There’s another fantastic American writer called Geoffrey O’Brien, and there’s the reviewer for The New Yorker, Anthony Lane, whose flow is just a thing of beauty and very difficult to replicate, but one tries.
RAJAGOPALAN: What about Indian influences?
BHATIA: I very much like Jai Arjun Singh’s “Jaane Bhee Do Yaaro” book. It actually gave me a model as to how I would like parts of the “Satya” book, in terms of how the team gets together and the excitement which must have existed on the sets of a seminal film. The way he evoked it, it really struck me as something very beautiful and very touching. I wanted to try and do something like that.
Of course, I read a lot of my fellow critics, but on a week-by-week basis.
RAJAGOPALAN: What is going on with music writing in India? We don’t have too much of a music writing tradition outside of film either. I can’t think of anyone consistently, other than maybe The Hindu, who would actually routinely go cover live performances and review the season and individual concerts in the English language. But what’s the state of music writing in India? Does it exist in any reasonable form? Who should one be reading?
BHATIA: I don’t think it really exists as a thing in itself, like film writing or sports writing or even book writing. You have the odd piece here and there, but I don’t think there’s much of a scene. I think that’s also because the indie scene—indie music scene in India—outside of film is a small and niche one, a bit hipster and not very widely . . . “Gully Boy” was an interesting moment because it mainstreamed a lot of rappers whom people in Bombay knew of for four or five years, but not many outside it. But those moments are very rare.
Usually, what happens is that someone either breaks through, like Ritviz or Prateek Kuhad, and they have a couple of big songs. Usually, people just turn up in a film soundtrack, and that’s how people get to know them more widely. There are not too many people that break out outside, unlike when we were back in college or before that, where there was actually a pop scene, and there were successful groups outside that. There are groups still today, but it’s not really very mainstream anymore.
RAJAGOPALAN: My sense is, it’ll come back because I think the ’90s and early 2000s pop generation we’re talking about was almost a backlash to the Nadeem-Shravan era, which really messed us up.
Now the film music is so horrible that I think there’s nowhere for any talented artists to go except non-film music, so I’m really hoping for a resurgence. To be more specific about music writing, was there any good writing on music in the heyday, like S.D. Burman and Sahir Ludhianvi? I don’t recall reading anything like that, but to your memory, have we ever been good at this kind of writing?
BHATIA: Not that I know of. Actually, I think that there are better music journalists around nowadays than when I was growing up. As and when there is a good artist or band worth writing about, there have been some very nice profiles. A couple of people—Bhanuj Kappal writes. There’s Akhil Sood. There is Amit Gurbaxani. These are good journalist critics as and when they get something worth writing about, which, I think, doesn’t happen too often.
Hindi Film Recommendations
RAJAGOPALAN: Do you have a recommendation of one Indian film everyone should watch—Hindi film, rather—one gangster film, and one Mumbai film?
BHATIA: Okay, let me do the gangster film first because that’s easier. I would say Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s “Parinda,” simply because it is actually the first great gangster film that was made, and it gets sidelined in these discussions because “Satya” changed so much, whereas “Parinda” didn’t quite change in this cinema. But it is, in its own way, as accomplished and perhaps technically a superior film to “Satya.” It’s an unbelievable film, really. It looks beautiful, by the way, in whatever versions are now there on, I think, Amazon out here.
For the Mumbai film, I’m going to actually suggest a trilogy. These are the three Mumbai films by Saeed Mirza, who I think is one filmmaker who really sees Mumbai for what it is, like no other. This is “Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan,” “Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Ata Hai” and “Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro.” You could map Bombay, from the start of the ’80s to the start of the ’90s, through these three films.
RAJAGOPALAN: And one Hindi film?
BHATIA: Any genre?
BHATIA: Okay, I can’t remember the last good Hindi film that I saw, so I can’t really—
RAJAGOPALAN: Any genre, any time period.
BHATIA: Okay, just because I saw it recently, and it was just so much fun, and I don’t think it’s aged one bit, I would suggest people see “Teesri Manzil,” if they haven’t seen it recently, for no good reason except that it’s just pure fun. And it’s also just so technically accomplished that I think people don’t quite realize how good a filmmaker Vijay Anand was.
RAJAGOPALAN: And it’s got the best music. I love the music of “Teesri Manzil,” even today.
BHATIA: I’ve seen it for the book, but then I just ended up watching it again because I was just so taken by it.
RAJAGOPALAN: What are you binge-watching right now?
BHATIA: I’m seeing the second season of “Ted Lasso” and wondering why I’m one-and-a-half seasons deep into a show that is objectively terrible.
RAJAGOPALAN: [laughs] Tell me a show that you’re binge-watching and happy about right now.
BHATIA: [laughs] I can’t think of anything else that I’ve seen recently after “Queen’s Gambit.” That I really like.
Uday, thank you so much for doing this. This was such a pleasure.
BHATIA: Thank you so much. This was great fun.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks for listening to Ideas of India. If you enjoy this podcast, please help us grow by sharing with like-minded friends. You can connect with me on Twitter @srajagopalan. In the next episode of Ideas of India, I speak with Alice Evans about female friendships and fraternal capital.