Thanks to badgering (in a nice way) from the comments section, I finally got around to watching this, my first Ram Gopal Verma Telugu film, and my first RGV Sridevi film. And it was a revelation! Not that different from his later Hindi stuff, but different enough that it made me look at his whole career in a new way.
As everyone knows, Ram Gopal Verma is “The Indian Tarantino”. They make similar movies, sort of wryly aware of film conventions as they choose to use or not use them. Often dealing with crime and convoluted plots with clever dialogue. And, of course, the strange sexualization of the female stars.
But there are differences. Prolificness for one thing. Tarantino has still made just a handful of films, while RGV makes a handful of films almost every year. Which has also lead to greatly uneven quality. I’ve had people say things to me like “I only like good Indian movies, like anything by Mani Ratnam or Ram Gopal Verma.” And that just tells me that they don’t know much about Ram Gopal Verma. Sure, every 2 years or so he comes out with a stone cold classic. But that’s mixed in with plenty of worthless dross that we can all afford to ignore.
(Notice I’m not arguing about Mani Ratnam. With him, every film really is a classic!)
There’s also style. Everyone thinks of Tarantino as having an incredibly specific style. But he doesn’t really. In films like Inglorious Basterds or Jackie Brown, he uses a completely different manner of directing than he does in Kill Bill or Pulp Fiction. Yes, it’s still recognizably Tarantino, there are still the long conversations and long takes and clever ways of editing scenes together, but the mise-en-scene is completely different, the characters are different, the topic is different.
RGV moves between crime films and rom-coms and mixtures of the two. But his mise-en-scene is fairly consistent. Realistic minimal lighting, minimal sets (preferring to shoot on location), casual blocking with characters moving through the frame, costumes that look like what people just wore to set that day. His characters tend to be consistent too, a Tapoori-type hero and a bubbly impulsive heroine. Most of all, his films tend to feel much more slice of life than Tarantino. I’ve never met people in real life who are like the characters in a Tarantino movie, but the nice middle-class families we see in Rangeela and Mast, or Sridevi’s flighty office worker in this film, that feels “real”.
That’s a big part of the punch of this movie, and some of RGVs other crime films, the disconnect between people going about their regular life, and the sudden complicated danger and death they have been thrown into. Depending on the film, this can be tragic or it can be funny. Or both at the same time.
And that is what reminds me of Hitchcock! (along with the mise-en-scene and similar characters film to film) Especially once I started thinking about this movie in terms of Hitch’s early British stuff. There is the same small scale feel to it, like he was as interested in the little human story of Sridevi being late to work as he was in the bigger story of a massive bank heist. And the same little sense of humor, like the nosy neighbor who kept popping up in different ways.
Mostly the “real” feel to it is what reminds me of early Hitchcock. The little things, like Sridevi missing the first autorickshaw she tries to flag down, or the sales clerk being nervous when they come into his store, it made me feel like I really was in Hyderabad (Hyderbad? Or Madras? Or Bombay? Telugu, so I am assuming Hyderabad?) just watching these people go about their lives. The same way you feel like you are really in London when you watch Sabotage or in the Scottish countryside when you watch The 39 Steps.
In Hitch’s early stuff, he had way more of these little jokes and specific references. And then he came to Hollywood and it all got watered down. He was no longer making films for a specific audience that would get the references, they had to play worldwide. And more than that, he was no longer setting films in the specific milieu he understood. Something like Shadow of a Doubt was distinctly set in small town America. But it was a small town painted with a broad brush, there weren’t the small things like the children’s party in Young and Innocent, or the cricket fans in The Lady Vanishes.
(Also, the young people romances didn’t feel as fresh in later Hitchcock. I’ll come back to that in a bit)
Bringing it back to RGV, I wonder if that is part of what is missing in his Bombay work? He still has small specific touches, but it somehow just didn’t feel as lived in as the setting of this movie. Like he was substituting glamour and gloss for real settings and real people and real situations.
Also missing from his Bombay work, Sridevi!!! I knew that RGV had a very specific type that he likes for his heroines, and since I started with Rangeela, I always thought he was trying to make them imitate Urmila. But after seeing this, OF COURSE, he is trying to make all his later actresses imitated Sridevi. And suddenly that reference to her in Mast has a whole new meaning.
Urmila comes closest to making it look natural, like she really is this bouncy happy frivolous person who loves to dance and smile and make big eyes. But even she doesn’t have the pure charm that Sridevi brings. In lessor hands (like Nisha Kothari), this kind of flighty charming character feels just, well, Stupid! A stupid irritating woman who just exists to bat her eyes and cause problems for the hero. But with Sridevi doing it, she feels independent, confident, with her own unique way of looking at the world that is different, but equally valid, to how everyone else sees the world.
My goodness, I’ve gotten almost a thousand words into this and I still haven’t hit SPOILERS! Time for them now, I guess.
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The opening is very cool. A completely dialogue-less sequence showing a bank heist, the police arriving to late, the criminals getting away with the money, and one of them stealing the loot from his co-criminals. This is the kind of thing that RGV does in all his movies. There is always at least one really cool and inventive sequence that makes you sit up and take notice. The question is, does he have a plot and characters to support it?
In this case, yes! We go straight from the bank heist sequence to a ringing phone and Sridevi pushing her hand out from under a blanket to answer it in a sleepy voice, telling her mother she is eating well, everything is fine, she doesn’t want to get married, she wants to keep working, and so on and so on. In a few natural lines of dialogue, we learn that Sridevi is a young working woman living with her mother and ducking the usual marriage pressure. And that her mother is temporarily out of town.
This is the bit that I meant when I was saying the film is a mixture of the everyday and the dramatic. It’s a hard mix to pull off, you risk making the everyday look boring or the dramatic look unrealistic. But RGV manages it beautifully here. Sridevi is late for work, her neighbor is bothering her, she can’t get an autorickshaw, she complains to her co-worker, gets yelled at by her boss, and finally leaves early for a long lunch running errands. And all of this is just as fascinating as the heist at the beginning, because Sridevi makes it so charming, and because RGV makes it so interesting to watch.
The collision between the everyday and the fantastic is handled in a really clever way. We see Sridevi going out into the bright every day world to run errands, and we see Parash Rawal, the criminal, in a dark room torturing a poor man. Back and forth and back and forth. Until the door of the dark room opens and there is Sridevi! And then we are back in the bright normal world as she is shoved back out, and we see that they are hiding and torturing in the actual “Dark Room” of the photoshop where Sridevi is picking up her pictures. Sridevi’s everyday life is happening on one side of the wall, and their dark deeds are happening on the other side.
The way the rest of the plot plays out for Sridevi is Hitchcockian in the very best way. There is the “common man pulled into something he doesn’t understand” when one of the gang breaks into her apartment and she is forced to stab him in self-defense and then go on the run from the police. There is the “young couple thrown together by circumstances trying to solve the mystery together” when she meets up with Daggubati Venkatash (who was quite good here) who is also on the run from the police. And there is the good old “MacGuffin”, when they realize that the photographer hid something in the envelope in which she took away her photos.
(Young couple thrown together)
But I want to pick out a few scenes as really brilliant and unique. It’s not Tarantino, it’s not Hitchcock, it’s purely RGV.
Sridevi is on the run and stops at a deserted cafeteria type place to hide. A group of rowdy looking men spot her and start teasing her. Sridevi quails away from them. And suddenly Daggubati shows up and tells them to back off (this is the first time they have met). They refuse, and he beats them all up. It’s the most “filmi” fight scene in the movie, lots of big punches and dramatic falls and stuff like that. Sridevi is grateful, Daggubati (or should I say Venkatash? What is the rule for his name?) is modest and respectful, sparks fly. And then the police burst in, Sridevi starts to run thinking they are for her, and Daggubati grabs her and puts the knife he just took from one of the rowdies at her throat and drags her off as a hostage.
I’m not describing it quite right, but what is so brilliant is that the first part of the scene is exactly like the hero and heroine’s first meeting in any other action film. She is being teased by random “bad people”, he rescues her, her eyelids flutter at him, and so on. Only, in this movie, both the hero and heroine are already on the run from the police (we saw Daggubati pull of a heist earlier and know he is a thief). So they are both kind of play-acting the “Noble hero” and “fragile innocent” respectively. Heck, we saw Sridevi kill a man just a few minutes earlier!
And then it ends with the cop arriving, and our “Noble Hero” turning into a heartless no-goodnick, taking that same knife he so nobly took away from a thug just a few minutes earlier into his own weapon. And our heroine not exactly screaming in fear the way a “good girl” should.
RGV is making this great meta-commentary on the fakeness of all those action movie archetypes, and how much more interesting it is when you have a heroine with a little spice to her and a hero with some shades of gray. And he is also letting the characters get some extra color to them, showing how they are both enjoying this kind of flirty play-acting, how they are both a bit dramatic and romantic.
(It’s very similar to this, but way more subtle)
There’s a couple of other moments when he directly comments on the fakeness, like later when Sridevi and Daggubati go to a store to buy her new clothes (after her clothes are ruined in the chase). They just barely escaped with their lives, they have spent a day and a night on the run, and yet when Sridevi comes out in a clean white shirt, suddenly Daggubati’s jaw drops to the floor and she is bathed in a warm light, and then a love song.
One of these things (his reaction shot, the change in her lighting, the love song) would feel like a normal part of the narrative. But putting all 3 in feels like it is purposefully just a bit too much, like RGV is making a little joke by pointing out how ridiculous the “My God, you’re beautiful!” scenes always are. Especially since Sridevi is just changing into a clean shirt and jeans, not like a fancy sari or something.
In the same way, having Parash Rawal play the bad guy feels like a bit of a brilliant breaking the fourth wall move. He plays it super scary in some scenes, but then in other scenes it’s just kind of slapstick! If it was a hair less different, I would say that it was just a bad film construction, making him change scene to scene. But it is such a dramatic difference, it feels like RGV must have been doing it on purpose, saying to the audience “see? See how silly these movies are that try to make us afraid of super criminals when really they are just Parash Rawal in funny make-up?”
And then he moved to Bombay and somehow lost his sense of humor.