“Although his recent works might not inspire confidence but looking at Shiva (1989), Satya (1998) and to some extent even Company (2002) or Sarkar (2005), it wouldn’t be too bold a thought to hail RGV as the most significant Hindi filmmaker since Guru Dutt for inspiring an entire cinema,” wrote film historian and author Gautam Chintamani of the maverick director, screenwriter and producer Ramgopal Varma. Varma is hailed as one of the pioneers of the new age Indian cinema—irreverent, gutsy, iconoclastic and thrillingly entertaining. Noted for his films that channel gritty realism, technical finesse and craft, to him also goes credit for his glorious stint with Indian horror as seen in Raat (1992), Bhoot (2003), Darna Mana Hai (2003) and Vaastu Shastra (2004). Known for his works in Telugu cinema in addition to Hindi, Kannada language films, and television, he has directed films across multiple genres, including parallel cinema and docudrama. His path-breaking crime thriller, Shiva featured at the 13th IFFI Indian Panorama mainstream section, winning the state Nandi Awards for best direction, best first film of a director, and the Filmfare award for best film – Telugu. The film, with which he also introduced the Steadicam to Indian cinema, went on to be included in CNN-IBN's list of 100 greatest Indian films of all time. His neo-noir heist film Kshana Kshanam (1991) was featured at the Ann Arbor Film Festival and also won him the Nandi award for best direction, besides best screenplay. The political drama Gaayam (1993) bagged six state Nandi awards, while Prema Katha (1999) earned him his third Nandi award for best director. Constantly pushing the envelope, he has directed and presented pan-Indian works casting actors across the country, such as the Indian political trilogy, and the Indian gangster trilogy; the latter was hailed by critics as one of the "most influential movies of Indian cinema”. Satya, the first installment of the trilogy, was listed in CNN-IBN's 100 greatest Indian films of all time. Scripting the political crime drama, Shool (1999) earned him the National film award. His films have reflected current issues such as Rayalaseema factionism in Rakta Charitra (2010), the 2008 Mumbai attacks in The Attacks of 26/11 (2013), Operation Cocoon in Killing Veerappan (2016), the Vijayawada riots in Vangaveeti (2016), NTR in Lakshmi's NTR (2019), and Konda politics in Konda (2022). In 2004, he featured in the BBC World series Bollywood Bosses, while in 2006, Grady Hendrix of Film Comment, published by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, named Varma as ‘Bombay's Most Successful Maverick’ for his works on experimental films. His cache of awards includes the National film award, the Bimal Roy memorial national award, seven state Nandi awards, and two Filmfare awards.
He was born Penmetsa Ram Gopal Varma into a Telugu speaking family in Vijaywada, Andhra Pradesh, on 7 April 1962 to parents Suryamma and Krishnan Raju Varma. Schooled at St Mary's High School, Secunderabad, he completed his BE degree in Civil Engineering from V R Siddhartha Engineering College, Vijayawada. His father was a sound recordist at Annapurna studios and perhaps it was only natural that young ‘Ramu’ became a film buff right from his early days - he was known to skip classes to watch films instead. This would eventually turn out to be his ‘training ground’ as a filmmaker, as often he would watch the same film repeatedly just to watch certain scenes that interested him.
He dabbled as a site engineer in Hyderabad and had even decided to go to Nigeria to work. However, a visit to a video rental library in Hyderabad sparked his interest and he decided to start one of his own. Gradually, his contacts with the film world developed, and after assisting on the films Collectorgari Abbayi (1987) and Raogari Illu (1988), he debuted as a director with the Telugu film Shiva in 1989. Such was its impact that there was simply no looking back. An action-crime drama starring Nagarjuna, Amala and Raghuvaran, it told the tale of Shiva, who, disgusted by the corruption in and around his new college, and along with his friends, decides to take a stand against the status quo. A vigilante thriller, the film has the fleetness of 1970s and 1980s Hollywood crime dramas. It also contained the key themes that would reappear in Varma’s later films, such as “the protagonist who breaks the law to achieve his means, the antagonist with his posse of surly men, the urban setting with dangers lurking around the corner, the doomed romance with a virtuous woman-next door, the bursts of stylish brutality, and moral ambiguity,” as Nandini Ramnath writes.
He swiftly showed his varied ouvre when he went on to make the action-crime comedy Kshana Kshanam starring Sridevi and Venkatesh revolving around a high-profile bank robbery in the city that wreaks havoc in the life of an unsuspecting regular young woman when she is caught in the line of fire between the villains and the police.
His next, Raat (1992) changed the face of Indian horror cinema. Breaking away from the monotonous ‘scary monsters’, bad VFX and tacky make-up that were the hallmark of the horror genre in the 1980s, Varma instead had actors pulling off stunning performances, a serene yet dramatic background score, and all the elements that went into creating what is considered one of the best supernatural films of Indian cinema. He would later reveal in an interview that he had always wanted to make a horror film, and his favourites in the genre were The Exorcist (1973) and Evil Dead (1981). “I feel horror films require the highest amount of technique because it depends on a lot of camera movements, sound effects and the use of psychological manipulation to make the audience feel scared,” he explained. He proved his mastery of horror again with Bhoot (2003), in which his no-nonsense approach to the genre creates an atmosphere that is doubly effective.
With Rangeela (1995), he surprised again, creating a romance that came like a breath of fresh air. Portraying his lighter side as a director, the frothy yet wholesome film revolved around a love triangle between the roguish Munna (Aamir Khan), an aspiring actress Mili (Urmila Matondkar) and the film star Kamal (Jackie Shroff). It was one of the biggest hits of the year, also giving Urmila's career a new lease of life and reaffirming Aamir's versatility as an actor.
With perhaps his most appreciated film to date, Satya, he created a trendsetter in Indian cinema. An explicit depiction of the underworld along with its modus operandi and mind-set, this technically brilliant film based on a sound script was a winner in every way. An action-crime drama starring J D Chakravarthi, Manoj Bajpayee, Urmila Matondkar and Manoj Bajpayee cast as the volatile Bhiku Mhatre, it revolved around an innocent man who gets embroiled in underworld after being falsely charged and sets out to punish the perpetrators who subjected his life to misery. Rachel Dwyer, a reader in world cinema at the University of London-Department of South Asia, marked the film as Varma’s experiment with a new genre, a variation of film noir that has been called Mumbai Noir, of which Varma is the acknowledged master.
In 2002, he directed Company, in the same action-crime drama space, depicting a small-time gangster named Chandu who teams up with Malik, a low-level enforcer for a criminal syndicate. Together they eliminate all their enemies, becoming the most feared gangsters in Mumbai. Starring Ajay Devgn, Mohanlal, Vivek Oberoi and Manisha Koirala, the film carried forward Varma's fetish for unearthing the mechanics of the underworld. A lavish, larger-than-life crime story, it was evidently inspired by the real life friends-turned-foes story of notorious gangsters Dawood Ibrahim and Chota Rajan.
In 2010, Varma had received critical acclaim at the Fribourg International Film Festival, Switzerland at which a retrospective of his filmography, highlighting Mumbai Noir was staged by film critic Edouard Waintrop, a delegate in the Directors' Fortnight of the Cannes Film Festival. Both Satya and Company were also cited by British director Danny Boyle as influences on his Academy Award-winning film Slumdog Millionaire (2008), for their "slick, often mesmerising portrayals of the Mumbai underworld," their display of "brutality and urban violence," and their gritty realism.
In 2005, Varma directed Sarkar, inspired by The Godfather (1972). A super-hit thriller inspired by the life of Bal Thackeray and North Indian politics, it was screened to special mention at the New York Asian Film Festival, along with its sequel Sarkar Raj (2008), which premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and the 9th IIFA World Premiere-Bangkok, and was archived at the Academy of Motion Pictures library. The film took Varma’s obsession with the criminal way of life and his belief in moral ambiguity over idealism to an extreme. It depicted its hero as a man who manipulates the system from the outside.
From the mid-2000s, he evidently went into a decline, with his hold over his productions and the films he directed apparently slackening. From a remake of his cult hit Shiva (2006), to the widely hated Sholay remake titled Ram Gopal Varma Ki Aag (2007), he has directed a string of films that seemed self-parodying in nature. It is as if he stopped trying to produce anything original, preferring instead to reach back “into his back catalogue with diminishing effect, recycling plots, characters, and attitudes that are no longer relevant.” His remake of Shiva, thankfully, was tightly structured and compellingly narrated, despite its obvious glorification of violence. It proved that Varma was—and can still be—a force to reckon with.
In 2013, he directed a docudrama, The Attacks of 26/11. It was screened to critical acclaim at the Berlin International Film Festival, in the Panorama as well as the Competition section, and was also premièred at Films Division of India. The film was particularly praised for Varma’s narrative of assistant commissioner N R Mahale, and the discrepancies associated with Mahale's interaction with Ajmal Kasab on anti-terrorism.
With influences are varied as novelist Ayn Rand and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, to pulp fiction authors like James Hadley Chase and Frederick Forsyth, as well as Mad magazine, Varma has displayed an astonishing variety in subjects. If he dabbled in neo-noir crime in Drohi (1992), his Kaun (1999) was a suspense thriller set entirely in a single house and featuring only three actors. While Mast (1999) was a subversion of Hindi cinema's masala genre, he set his film Jungle (2000) entirely within a jungle. While Ek Hasina Thi (2003) was a psychological thriller, Ab Tak Chhappan (2004) revolved around an inspector in the Mumbai encounter squad noted for having killed 56 people in encounters. His two-part bilingual parallel cinema Rakta Charitra (2010) explored South Indian politics, being based on the life of Paritala Ravindra, and Maddela Cheruvu Suri.
Varma’s irreverent humour and self-deprecating attitude often belie his seriousness as a maker. Several directors such as Anurag Kashyap, Madhur Bhandarkar, Puri Jagannadh, E Nivas, Prawaal Raman, Krishna Vamsi, Vishram Sawant, and Hansal Mehta have assisted Varma, before venturing into direction. He has also groomed talents such as Manoj Bajpayee and Urmila Matondkar.
He debuted on TV with a talk show titled Ramuism in 2014, which aired his unique point of view on a range of social issues. He has also made a documentary called God, Sex and Truth with adult actress Mia Malkova.
In 2010, his autobiography titled Na Ishtam, which discusses his life experiences and philosophy, was released. In 2012, poet, lyricist and writer Sirasri penned a biographical book on the interactions he had with Varma, titled Vodka With Varma. Varma published his book Guns and Thighs: The Story of My Life in 2015,, which discusses a wide range of subjects, from the influences and circumstances that drew him to cinematic techniques, his successful and unsuccessful films, his cinematic idols, personal relationships, controversies that dogged him, his philosophy of life, and Indian cinema, among other topics. At the time, in his typical style, he shared that he had dedicated his autobiography to The Fountainhead author Ayn Rand, martial arts artiste and actor Bruce Lee, veteran superstar Amitabh Bachchan, porn star Tori Black and Urmila Matondkar whom he re-launched with Rangeela, as well as “a few gangsters,” adding that the dedication is in accordance with their contribution to his life, one way or the other.
On the personal front, he was married to Ratna; they later divorced. The couple has a daughter, Revathi Varma.
Image courtesy: https://www.ndtv.com/india-news/case-against-bollywood-director-ram-gopal-varma-in-telangana-over-film-on-honour-killing-2257242