This should not be a good movie, let alone a Great movie. And yet, it is. Largely because of Amitabh. His performance is so good, I think it inspired everyone else to raise up to his level, from director to writer to co-stars.
The strange thing is, this should be a bad movie. The idea of yet another Godfather remake, with Amitabh playing Brando and Abhishek playing Michael seems terrible cheesy. Add on that it is directed by Ram Gopal Verma, the man who never met a scene of violence or sexual objectification he couldn’t love, and it starts veering over into “blasphemy” territory. After all, this is the man who dared to try to remake Sholay.
And yet, it works. That’s the miracle of RGV. Just when you are ready to write him off as a hopeless hack, so egotistical that he cannot see past his own desires and so perverted that those desires are shared by basically no one, he comes out with something brilliant. The thing I tell people about RGV is that he makes one stone cold classic every 2 years. The problem is, he makes 9 other movies in that same time which are just terrible. For instance, he made this brilliant film with Amitabh, and then 2 years later their next film was a remake of Lolita (no!) in which Amitabh had a deep sensitive romance with a 19 year old actress (NO!) including an explicit kiss (yuck). RGV is also the type to give quotes like this:
“Hi Sunny (Leone), I just hate that it’s your birthday because someone as beautiful as you should stay young forever, and your birthday reminds me that you are getting one year older. I hate it, I hate God for that.’”
“I really don’t know much about clothes, I’d rather look at women without clothes. (On women whether they look good in yoga pants or shorts)”
“I like women with a lot of curves. I don’t like model like women, they’re skinny.”
So, generally, he is someone I try to avoid because of that kind of nasty tarlike sensation when you accidentally step into his thoughts and can’t wipe them off. But then he makes Rangeela. And Mast. And Kshanam Kshanam. And Company. And they are just so BRILLIANT that for a moment you start to think maybe there is something there, maybe he is a deep sensitive guy who just comes off as a disgusting person. And then of course he makes a movie like this:
Starring a 21 year old trained Bharatnatyam dancer in her first movie. You can see how well he used her dancing talent in the hit song video (sarcasm):
That was a whole little detour there, but I felt like I had to say it and give examples before I go on with the rest of this review. RGV has gotten a bit of an international reputation as this brilliant auteur and so on and so forth based on his few brilliant movies, which makes it easy for him to keep making his terrible movies. So I don’t want to contribute to that, if you are going to learn why RGV was brilliant in how he made this film, by golly you are also going to deal with the moral conundrum of whether his brilliance here excuses his skeeziness elsewhere, just like I have to.
Now, why is he brilliant here? The most important way is how he strips down the family story to its basic level, and then tells it through glances, posture, brief moments of yelling. There is more unseen than seen, which is how family disputes work in reality, no need to spell out what is wrong or why you are angry, you know each other well enough to understand it with just a gesture. And using Abhishek and Amitabh for that, that is what makes it all really sing. Because all they have to do is sit in a room together for us, the audience, to see an authentic difference between father and son, a wordless conflict and a wordless compromise. Their very acting styles tell us their characters, Abhishek restrained and self-effacing, Amitabh effortlessly powerful.
Beyond the central 2, RGV somehow manages to get perfect performances from each of his actors. Supriya Pathak has an almost wordless role, but her strong distinctive face and onscreen personality carry it along. Kay Kay Menon is expectedly disturbing and childish but dangerous at the same time, a typical Kay Kay Menon role. Katrina Kaif has just the right look for her role and, with Abhishek guiding her reactions and experienced dubber Mona Ghosh Shetty providing the dialovue, she turns in one of the best performances of her career. Tanisha Mukherjee, in one of her first major roles, reveals a naturalness in her performance that reminds you of her sister Kajol and an arresting look on camera similar to her mother Tanuja. Anupam Kher for a mere 2 minutes, but a perfect 2 minutes. The rest of the cast is made up of TV actors, southern actors, and lessor known Hindi talents (notably Ravi Kale as Chander who defines in many ways the personality of Amitabh by showing what he has inspired in his followers). All of them perfectly cast, perfectly costumed, perfectly directed. This is not a group of interchangeable characters, henchman who just exist to give one liners and female relatives who are just there to scream and be in danger. This is a collection of humanity each with their own motivations and goals and unique personalities.
The plot is also a miracle of construction. Each character gets their own little build to their pivotal moments, the plot is made up of dozens of stories and each one is complete and meaningful. While still being reasonable and logical based on where the characters started. That was the main problem with the sequels, RGV knew where he wanted to go by the end but he hadn’t quite figured out the steps that would logically get him there. In this film, it is more like the characters were driving him forward to where they needed to go and he just let them loose.
Oh, and then there’s the style of it! This is not a consciously stylistic film, which is what makes it so stylish. It feels like we are simply sitting quietly in the room watching people talk around us. There are few fancy camera angles or anything else to take you out of that feeling. And yet, subtly, the camera work is creating a tone and a mood. Abhishek for instance is not often shown alone in the frame until the midway point of the film after which he is almost always the focal point. Those characters who cannot be trusted are usually shown at a kilted angle. Those who can be trusted (notably Amitabh) are shown head on. Tanisha and Supriya are almost always in the background, not metaphorically but literally standing in the background area of the shot. And the whole film is shot in tones of light yellow, black, and white. The yellow, the sunlight, creates this sense of beauty and warmth but also power. Not to mention being a subtle homage to The Godfather‘s famous warm lighting. The black and white, that is the characters, Amitabh in black and Abhishek in white and everyone else in tones across the middle. There are no songs, just one repetitive background hymn pounding us on, and no pauses in the narrative that would allow for songs. We are pulled scene to scene by the editing and it is up to us to fill in the gaps, to understand fully what we have just witnessed.
That’s what this whole film feels like, like we are witnessing real events, and then the ending asks us to make our own judgements. Who is Amitabh? Is he good or bad? What has Abhishek become, or what was he all along? Is that good or bad? The whole structure in which they are living, is it useful or destructive?
One thing that I was relieved about when doing this rewatch, the film explicitly rejects Hindutva. A large amount of the iconography of it is clearly based on Bal Thackaray, who Amitabh personally admired. But the film itself is explicitly NOT based on Bal Thackaray. Amitabh’s character may have mala beads and read the Gita and so on, but Abhishek’s character is something different. And while one of the enemies is Muslim, so is one of the closest allies. Religious differences and disputes are rejected by the film, Amitabh is a hero of the lower classes and that is all, and his enemies are those who would take his power away, coming from every class and religion. In fact, one important character implies the falsehoods and evil of Hindu religious leaders.
(Not as Hindu as you would think!)
Now, that’s as much as I can cover without getting into SPOILERS. Be aware, I am also going to SPOIL the sequels at the end of this section, because they are terrible and not worth watching but I want to talk about why they are terrible. You can skip that part if you want to watch them after all.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
Amitabh is a powerful figure in Bombay. He’s not a gangster, more a decider, someone who protects people as needed. That’s an important distinction from the original Godfather, where making these decisions was only half of the job and the rest was straight up crime and violence. In Bombay, this is a legitimate possibility, someone who decides between right and wrong and guides his followers, who takes money from those who can pay for his justice-giving services and not from those who cannot. And whose decisions are not for sale, who cannot be bought out. The “real” government is so corrupted and inefficient, that a parallel government and ruler is not just possible, but required.
Amitabh lives in a big old house but he lives a simple life. Also in the house is his daughter-in-law Rukhsaar Rehman, his small grandson, and Tanisha Mukherjee and her mother, daughter and widow of a friend that he has taken into his home. This is a traditional household, the women do the cooking and serve the men, the men all eat together. Amitabh reads his Gita and carries his mala beads. But outside the house are men with machine guns strolling around. The first scene perfectly establishes his life, the camera coming in and going through all these happenings and finally finding Amitabh, out on the balcony, listening to a helpless man describe the rape and torture of his daughter and how the police failed to punish the criminals.
This is the same opening as The Godfather, but different. First, because the police truly failed, there was no justice here, there is no where else to turn and no one else to trust. And second because in the middle of this, Amitabh gets a call asking him to approve a massive government housing scheme. He is dealing with the small personal issues, and with the massive government issues. And he is dealing with them fairly and seriously in both cases, they are equally important to him. This is not a small criminal, or someone who puts on a show of being fair, this is true justice being meted out.
(The house is almost Jalsa but not quite, too old fashioned. But with the same walls and gates and crowds around it, we are also supposed to be reminded of Amitabh the real person)
After that opening, we immediately leave The Godfather because we follow Ravi Kale as he goes to deliver justice instead of staying with Amitabh. He brings with him some of the weightlifters we saw around the house, and he calmly and professionally walks them through what they need to do. He tracks down the rapist, warns the rapist’s friends to stay back, and then directs his team with clinical precision in exactly how much to beat him up. This is truly justice, this is not vengeance or anger, but a careful calculation of the right thing to do.
And only then do we meet Abhishek. Arriving at the Bombay airport with his girlfriend Katrina, calmly strolling over to a car with armed men around it. As calmly, at home, Amitabh remembered that Abhishek was arriving today thanks to Tanisha reminding him. This is not a father and son bond made up of drama or emotion, but simple acceptance.
The stress is between Amitabh and his other son, Kay Kay Menon. Kay Kay is a movie producer who spends his time on set, ignoring his wife and son. Amitabh doesn’t force him to change but silently slightly implies disapproval. He snaps at him during a dinner when Kay Kay suggests partnering with an untrustworthy person and then snaps himself back into control. The grandson watches this innocently, implying that he knows his grandfather is no one to be feared. Abhishek keeps eating, neither hiding his eyes nor looking closely. Amitabh snapping at Kay Kay is apparently a common occurrence.
It is with Abhishek that Amitabh should be having these blow-ups, would be having them if he were the old-fashioned authoritarian father he first appeared to be with the traditional family structure and so on. Abhishek arrives and Amitabh learns he has a serious relationship with Katrina. Amitabh had promised his hand in marriage to Tanisha years ago, a promise made to Tanisha’s father on his death bed. An old-fashioned father would be angry at being forced to break his word. Amitabh is also new-fashioned enough to sincerely enjoy Tanisha. He likes laughing with her and teasing her and playing games with her. We can see he loves her and her mother and he will be very upset when Tanisha’s heart is broken and this engagement is canceled. And yet, he does not hesitate. He finds a moment to calmly let Abhishek know that he knows about Kat, and suggest she be brought home to meet the family. He trusts Abhishek enough to let him make his own decisions.
(Kat has the perfect look of casual fearless woman who is too rich to know when to be afraid)
That is what this film is about, ultimately, people being allowed to make their own decisions and reap their fate. Amitabh issues justice after the crime has been committed, he does not necessarily try to stop it from happening, or worry about what is happening. Abhishek is a natural at doing the first part, observing and knowing and waiting, but this story is about his struggle to rise to the second, to be able to act when it is time to act and trust his ability to do the right thing.
The start of the film is about Abhishek holding back, watching. Watching Tanisha let him go in a graceful little speech in which she admits she fell in loves with him, but never considered that he should also have free will in this marriage. Watching Kay Kay grow farther and farther apart from the family, falling in love with his actress Nisha Kothari until in a jealous rage he kills her co-star/boyfriend. Watching Amitabh decide on the right thing to do, banishing Kay Kay but keeping his wife and son with them, and then personally apologizing and swearing protection on Nisha if she testifies against Kay Kay. Watching Amitabh be accused of assassinating Anupam Kher, the honest politician who spoke out against him. He is always there, watching, not reacting. The scene when Kay Kay is banished, the rest of the family has reactions, is upset, crying, something. But Abhishek merely watches, and once the decision is made, he leaves the room because there is nothing more to see.
Abhishek watches, but that does not mean he is weak. Amitabh knows that. When he is arrested, it is Abhishek’s shoulder he leans on, literally leans on, as he walks out of the house. And now there can be no more watching for Abhishek because there is no one else to watch, he is it, he is the one.
The audience spends most of the film watching as well. We see things Amitabh and Abhishek don’t see. We see the meeting of the conspirators, Raju Mavani as an MLA that Amitabh refused to support, Zakir Hussein as a drug smuggler from Dubai frustrated with Amitabh refusing to allow him access to the Bombay docks, and Jeeva as a Hindu Swami who hates Amitabh because, well, he’s just plain evil! We know every step of their plan, we understand what is happening as Jeeva tells them that the idea of Amitabh must be killed before the body of Amitabh followed by Anupam’s assassination and the assassin pointing the finger to Amitabh. We are watching, and interested, but not emotionally involved.
That involvement comes in a bravura moment when Abhishek suddenly slaps into place as our point of view character. Amitabh is in jail, and Abhishek gets word that he will be killed that night. He rushes to the police and begs them for help along with Amitabh’s loyal secretary Ishrat Ali (“Khan Saab” in the script, the most prominent Muslim character and the most loyal). The police inspector laughs at him, Abhishek is furious, he rushes off to talk to Kota Srinavasa Rao, the southern gangster and Amitabh’s old friend who we previously saw charming the household when he came for a visit. And Kota laughs at him as well, explains that he was behind the plot all along, he was sick of how Amitabh patronized him. And now he will kill both Abhishek and Ishrat Ali. In that moment, the audience is looking at Abhishek and Ishrat’s faces as the look in the guns and for the first time we are truly drawn into this story, forced to take their perspective. Which is when Ishrat dives for the gun and tells Abhishek to run and suddenly we are finding ourselves watching Abhishek as he makes a mad run for life, ducking through the docks and hiding from the following feet. And this is when he gets his theme song, “Govinda Govinda Govinda”. It’s an odd song at this moment, it means “protector” (loosely), it is a title of power and it is sung in a driving powerful way. But Abhishek is running for his life. Where is the power?
(“Govinda” being a name for Krishna, who spoke the Gita and talked about when it is your Dharma to act rather than stand by)
The power is inside. This is the moment the switch is flipped and Abhishek goes from witness to judge and jury. No more begging for help, once he survives the run he goes straight to the jail and forces the guards to check on his father, managing to arrive just in time to stop the assassination.
This is how we saw Amitabh act as well, this is the kind of power this film teaches us is right. Wait and watch. And only act when you have no other choice. But in that moment, do not be afraid to act. Amitabh promised his protection to Nisha Kothari if she testified against Kay Kay, but he did not offer to exact justice himself. As of that moment, the courts still had a chance against Kay Kay and it was not his place. Abhishek was still learning, he had spoken up (softly) to defend his father against Katrina, chosen to stay in the country and help the family, but he was still hesitating to take his true place until this moment.
The rest of the film is about this new Abhishek and the challenges thrown to him as he is forced to make choices. He chooses Tanisha, touched by her care for Amitabh and finally aware of her virtues and values. He chooses to assign Ravi Kale to investigate exactly what happened and exonerate Amitabh from the assassination attempt rather than making statements and trying to sway public opinion. And finally he makes his most difficult choice. Kay Kay comes back to the family, swears he is a changed man, declares that the conspirators offered him whatever he wanted if he would kill Amitabh for them and he turned them down. And that night Abhishek catches him at Amitabh’s bed, trying to kill their father. He fights him off and then later, in cold blood, goes to execute him. It was not done in anger, or vengeance. It was justice that only he could decide and carry out, no matter how much it pained him as a person, he had to do it as the protector of the community and the family.
This is a brilliant alteration to the original Godfather. In 3 points that build on each other. First that the central powerful father character is truly no criminal, he exists in a world where the established forces of law and order are worthless and he fills in that gap. Second that the hero’s turning point is not in a moment of violence enacted against others (Michael’s first killing), but in a moment of escaping violence and realizing the need to act to protect others. And third that the conflict is not between the weaker brother being forced into a position he does not want by the death of the stronger more heartfelt older brother, but that the weaker brother is not weak at all and the older is not stronger, he has an inner strength to him that allows him to defeat and remove the evil that is his older brother.
These 3 changes, plus a structural change. In the original, we watch this family closely and see their soft intimate moments, feel we know them, care about them. It is only at the very end that we suddenly step back and see them for what they really are, become witnesses to their crimes. This movie does the opposite, begins by holding us back, making us feel like an uninvolved witness, keeps us untrusting of their violence and darkness and so on, until the sudden flip at the end as we see them for what they really are, Good.
And that brings us to the ending. In the original, it is the sudden reveal of evil. In this, it is the price of good. Abhishek kills his brother, because he has to, because there is no other choice. And after that, he discovers he has to kill more people for the same reason. The conspirators, ending with being there himself for the death of Zakir Hussain, outside of his city, returning him to the sea where he came from. And then finally confronting the real brains of the operation, Deepak Shirke, the chief minister who had pretended to be Amitabh’s friend and support this whole time. Abhishek is no longer shot head on, and he is no longer in white. He is still in his western wear, not his father’s Indian style clothing. And he identifies himself in this conversation as an atheist, not his father’s Hindu style philosophy. But he is wearing a large black suit coat, his styling reminiscent of his father’s loose black shirts and draped shawls. And he is sitting like his father, stretched out and relaxed, taking over the scene, instead of quiet and contained and waiting like before.
And that is how he is sitting in the end, in the final scene. While Amitabh is out on the balcony still, enjoying the sunshine, scene by the people, laughing with Tanisha, Abhishek is inside, listening to a woman talk to him about how her children threw her out of her home. Hearing testimony and preparing to issue justice.
SPOILERS FOR NEXT TWO MOVIES
This is such a great ending, and there is a clear place to go from here. We want to see Abhishek move on to higher challenges, he has accepted his role now, what comes next? Sarkar Raj, the first sequel, starts to go down a really interesting direction but is hampered by Aishwarya Rai. The direction it wants is to say “you want to see what Abhishek will do next, he wants to see what he will do next, and the whole city wants to see what he will do next. But what if it doesn’t happen like that? What if that very expectation is what does him in? And what if someone you never expected ends up being the real ruler?” It starts out strong, Abhishek hears about a new power plant plan that he thinks will ultimately help the people. Amitabh is against it because it means land reclamation, but Abhishek convinces him. Only to learn it was all a trick, all along. Along the way Tanisha is killed in a car bomb and Aishwarya the corporate type supporting the project becomes his new love interest. And then just as Abhishek is figuring things out and preparing to fight the real enemy, he is shot while Aish watches and screams. Their life together is over before it can begin. But Aish carries on. She confronts everyone, she works with Amitabh, and it ends with her sitting calmly in the living room calling for tea in her proper upper class way, running things while the other woman move in the background.
The thing is, it should have been Tanisha!!!!! This is a story about the unexpected ones taking power because there is no one else. Aish already had power, she was proper and rich and all the rest of it. This film, the first film, established Tanisha as smarter than she seemed, and Amitabh’s most beloved and trusted child. More beloved than Abhishek even. If the second film was going to be the shocking twist of our central character dying partway through, then it should be followed by a surprising rise of someone else in his place. The heartbreak of a love story unfinished, the power of a grieving widow, the surprise of the overlooked woman taking power, it’s all so much better with Tanisha than with a recently introduced character that has no firm place in the story. And of course it only happened because Aish now had a place in the “real” story and RGV couldn’t resist playing out the husband-wife-father-in-law dynamic on film.
(They have to keep putting people on the poster to make us think they are part of the family, but they aren’t, just new characters for this film)
The third film, Sarkar 3, again, isn’t what it should be. The central idea is good, an angry young grandson fighting with his grandfather. Seemingly going against him because he is frustrated by his lack of action, and seduced by his girlfriend who has an old grudge against the family. But in the end it is revealed Amitabh was working with his grandson all along, there was no rift, it was all for show to bring out the true enemies. And it ends with Amitabh and his grandson Amit Sadh sitting down together to have tea and discuss power and how to control it. But Aish is not here, which seemingly erases the second film. And Abhishek looms over it all, literally through his photo on the wall. It’s all unbalanced and wrong, Abhishek should have died at the start of this film leaving the power vacuum that Amit Sadh struggles to fill. Or Tanisha should be running things and Amit Sadh be her child with Abhishek trying to over come his father’s shadow. Most of all there should be other family around them, it can’t just be the story of grandfather and grandson, there should be more. And there isn’t. Whether it was a failure of imagination or casting, the whole rich family life we saw in the original film is gone, just down to two men. How much stronger it would have been if it had been filled with all the characters foolishly expended in the previous films!