Where Have You Gone, Ram Gopal Varma?

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

Ten years ago, Ram Gopal Varma could do no wrong in my eyes. He was coming off a run that included Rangeela, Satya, Kaun?, Mast and Company. And, under his production banner, he had started to nurture a new era directors of thrillers and comedy. He helped usher in the current style of Hindi cinema– the edgy thrillers and the broad comedies.

But then he went off the deep end.

Bhoot, Naach, Sarkar, RGV ki Aag, Sarkar Raj have been not just disappointing, but downright bad movies. This year’s Rann is fine, but is this the same person who made Satya?

What happened?

Part of my trouble with his recent movies is, in his own words, his “framing”. On his blog today, he has addressed this issue:

Film related people either say my frames look very unique or they say that they are too exhibitionistic or they say that they are unnecessarily bizarre and some even say that they are ridiculous. [..]

If Urmila’s swaying hip in “Rangeela” is being framed in a certain specific composition, a one inch zoom out or a one inch zoom in and a little pan here or there can both spoil or enhance the effect. Urmila’s swaying hip is the content and the way I particularly want to see it will be my frame.

My problem with all of that is, in the words of one of his characters in Naach:

Different banaane ka matlab ye nahi ke kuchh bhi bana do.

His camera shoots from beneath a glass table, or partially obstructed by some equipment. His shots aren’t set up– I’m disoriented, I don’t know which characters are in a particular scene. In a scene with other characters, all of a sudden I’ll see Abhishek Bachchan and wonder if this is the same scene or have we moved on to the next one? And then Abhishek will be speaking to Aishwarya and Aishwarya’s face will be bright but Abhishek’s will be dark. Why? He is speaking, I am looking at him, but I can’t see him clearly. His face is dark. This is deliberate, but it’s drawing attention to itself. Why make the viewer work so, so hard?

After reading his blog, I know that all of this is deliberate. He has a vision, but for the life of me I can’t appreciate it. Not for most stationary shots in his movies in the past 7-8 years. On his blog, RGV himself draws attention to a scene in Sarkar Raj (below) where it’s shot from under a table. He acknowledges that he gets criticism and praise for it. I think it’s horrible– it’s exactly the kind of scene I am talking about. Why is my view obstructed? Why am I not allowed to focus on anything? Faces are obscured precisely when I want to see them. Hate. I’m using the word hate for a camera angle.

You notice I say “stationary”, because I believe his moving/action shots are still good (and sometimes excellent).

A well shot scene doesn’t draw attention to the craft. The craft is there only to help you see what the director wants you to see. It’s not there to make you see the director’s hand at work. Ebert has said that Citizen Kane probably has more special effects shots than Star Wars— and while that’s probably an exaggeration, it brings up a good point. What good is a special effect if you can see it for what it is?

Having said that, there are occasions when drawing attention to the craft works– but only when you’re brilliant and don’t overuse it. Take the unbroken Copacabana scene in Goodfellas, when Henry Hill walks in the service entrance with his girl, and the shot doesn’t cut until he’s had a table dropped at his feet. Scorsese’s drawing attention to himself, but you’re having so much fun that who cares?

You might be wondering– why am I wasting my breath comparing Sarkar to Goodfellas?

Because we are not talking about any of the six dozen hacks in Bollywood. We are talking about Ram Gopal Varma. He should know better.

This is the guy who directed Kaun?, where the camera is so oppressive that we feel as claustrophobic as Urmila. This is the guy who made the scene where Bhiku Mhatre takes a most unexpected goli in his bheja (dhiskhaao!), or where Satya chases down Bhau by the sea. Or all of Rangeela. Any self-conscious “framing” or camera work in these scenes would have ruined them.

Having said all that, I also appreciate what he says about his style– at least he has one:

The best compliment I ever received with regard to my framing is when someone criticized me for the way I frame, someone else shot back saying that “You can atleast criticize RGV’s framing whereas with others you can’t even talk about their frames”.

And having read his blog post about it, I have a lot of respect for him– he’s candid and he knows what he’s doing. Even if I don’t like it.

I have a theory about what happened to RGV, but it’s just a theory. RGV became an auteur— it is the curse of great directors. Once they were proclaimed as great, they believed it. And believed that they had to live up to it. They had to act the auteur to be the auteur.

[following excerpted from my essay on Hitchcock and Psycho]

Around the year 1960, a group of critics and filmmakers in France, lead by Francois Truffaut, were developing the theory of the director as the auteur- author- of a film. In their search for a poster-child to fit their theory, they found Alfred Hitchcock as a perfect fit. […]

It also spawned an era when the director was king- an era that continues today. Prior to Psycho, the director was one of the players and usually second fiddle to the producer. After the auteur theory and Hitchcock’s critical acclaim became legend, the directors rose to the top of the pecking order and multiple super-directors emerged in the 1960s.

The French experiment was also a grand failure. The last two decades of Hitchcock’s career did not match up to the auteur hype. While technically sound and, in parts, critically acclaimed his subsequent films have not had the same lasting power as his early ones.

Alfred Hitchcock’s five films preceding Psycho were The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much, The Wrong Man, Vertigo and North by Northwest. His five films after Psycho were The Birds, Marnie, Torn Curtain, Topaz and Frenzy. Whether the auteur theory had truly gone to his head or not, the sun had clearly set on Hitchcock. In the words of William Goldman, who wrote Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Princess Bride, Hitchcock had become encased in praise and himself had become the man who knew too much.

This is the gift and curse of Ram Gopal Varma.


[I’ll go off on a rant about the terrible use of background music in his recent movies some other time. Oh, and he needs to make a comedy. Or at least have light moments in his dramas. Satya was a great movie because Bhiku had a sense of humor.]


2 thoughts on “Where Have You Gone, Ram Gopal Varma?

  1. Hey Hi,

    I saw your link on RGV’s Blog…and started reading..I just want to write something about the clip of sarkar raj you pasted above…RGv was doing a right job by not making the subjects clear,coz both bachhans were discussing something very very crucial in the film..and the shock value which he planned to give to the viewer in the end is very closely connected with the conversation above…so he wanted the viewer to listen to the content and not to watch them perform..and is a very clever way of shooting the scene!…And RGv is getting better and better with time!….

  2. @pradeep- I appreciate what RGV was trying. It just didn’t work that way for me as a viewer. The glass table is a distraction in that scene.

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