Satya: The Other Side of Truth

Reviewed by Anabela Voi You

Director: Ram Gopal Varma
Music: Sandeep Chowta, Vishal
Cast: J.D. Chakravarthi, Manoj Bajpai, Urmila Matondkar, et al.
Running time: 2 hours and 54 minutes
Year: 1998

Satya is not just one of the best gangster films ever made in India, but one of the best gangster films ever made.  The story is told in a narrative overflowing with humanity and without sentimentality.

Unsmiling Satya, whose name means “truth,” (J.D. Chakravarthi) arrives in Mumbai with no family, history, friends, money, or connections. He later tells his love Vidya (Urmila Matondkar) that he is an orphan but one can’t be sure of his origins. His one asset is his unflinching, stone-cold fearlessness. At first he lives inside a buffalo stable and works as a waiter who unfortunately offends Jaggabhai, a big-time gangster and bully who’s so scary-looking he makes the average Hong Kong cinema villain look like a puppy. Satya’s run-ins with Jaggabhai increase but Satya never backs down. Jaggabhai finally frames him to go to prison where he meets a happy-go-lucky and hot-headed gangster Bhiku (Manoj Bajpai).
Unlike Jaggabhai, Bhiku is impressed by Satya’s cold and calculated fighting ability and recruits Satya into his organization. Satya’s first assignment is to kill a man, and he doesn’t have a problem with it at all since the target is Jaggabhai who framed him in the first place – sweet coincidence, eh? Bhiku’s world is full of happy-go-lucky gangsters like himself such as Chanders (Snehal Dabi) and the seal-like Uncle Kallu Mama (Saurabh Shukla). Satya is fearless; he is not courageous for courage is characterized by overcoming one’s fears. Satya has no fear because he is a nihilist, nothing to live for, nothing to lose, and nothing to fear. He is only propelled by an animal’s instinct for survival, which is why Satya behaves with such mental clarity as emotion and moral issues, which plague others, are completely bypassed. Those intense, void-bearing eyes alone are chilling enough to make you forget to breathe.
Satya turns out to be a natural born killer even more so than his trigger-friendly brethren. He is also an intelligent, ruthless businessman and strategist. The film progresses to a discussion of the trinity of the underworld, the police force and politicians, and the labyrinthine relationship among the three forces unfolds in a mesmerizing narrative. Each camp makes intelligent, foresighted decisions, surveying the enemy’s every move. The police are having a headache trying to curb the incessant shootouts of rival gangs and dealing with problems of civic safety. When asked how to solve the problem, one policeman called Khandilkar (Aditya Srivastava) unemotionally declared, “Just kill them all.” Khandilkar’s superior responds by saying that the problem is a significant number of Indians are illiterate and uneducated, but he doesn’t expand on his theory; such movie characters, who utter social theories which have little to do with their personalities, are often the mouthpieces of the intelligentsia and probably belongs to the director’s voice, not coming necessarily from a weak, armchair policeman. Later in the movie Bhiku says he took his wife to see a “lizard” movie called Jijamata Park, which turned out to be Jurassic Park. I suppose that was the vague reference to the lack of education (at least Hollywood education!) and how people have turned to crime for their livelihoods.
The Commissioner Amodh Shukla (Paresh Rawal) insists that the underworld can do anything because it’s allowed to trespass the law, while the police force can’t do much within the law without breaking it. Then the politicians proclaim that any measures, extreme as they may be, must be taken to exterminate the hooligans regardless of the consequences and costs, because the rights of other Indians are being violated and India must maintain its democratic ideal. Despotic measures are taken to maintain a democratic, safe society – a contradiction. The Commissioner is given free reign to eradicate the gangsters and a bloody full-scale police-gangster-politician war ensues. I liked how the film wasn’t partial to either side, and although much of the movie was a gangster tale, it didn’t portray the police as gratuitously evil, stupid, or one-dimensional – they are dedicated to their jobs in a world they have little control over, and they too have families and loved ones.
They all have a job to do and sometimes it involves unethical practices such as torturing, interrogation, shooting, and betraying people to reach their organizations’ goals and to defend their livelihoods. As the Commissioner bemoans in a passionate speech, there are accusations of human rights violation all over the place when the police makes mistakes, but the public is fearfully silent when gangsters annihilate the innocent ones. The politicians reap the benefits of dictating the policies that the police help execute but it is precisely the police who are held responsible when things go awry. In the meanwhile, politicians remain safely invisible behind their curtains, free from condemnation and protected from the line of fire.
In Satya politicians are portrayed shamefully who use the other two worlds of the police force and gangsters to do the dirty work for them. The most despicable man in the movie is Bhau, who keeps one foot in the legitimate world and the other foot in the illegitimate one, and he manipulates both worlds against each other for his own self-promotion. Aside from Bhau, most of the characters were shining with humanity. He is only out for himself and his own interests, as Satya accurately assessed, while others, regardless of their actions, are at least caring for another person or a group of people.
Satya becomes successful in this war because he isn’t afraid of removing obstacles, that is, highly respected gangsters and even police Commissioners. Conversely, everyone around him is wallowing in their emotional turmoil and mindful of breaking the least significant of unwritten rules and codes of honor. Satya’s head is hunted and there was one brilliant scene where Satya escaped from police arrest after watching Border in the cinema. Chakravarthi’s performance is remarkable - Satya displays an icy disregard for anything or anyone in the beginning, and then later a love-struck Satya conveys a child-like vulnerability, a transition of character that is tough to pull off. Before Satya came to Bombay he was a little more than a cold-blooded animal, and I find this transition from a cold-blooded animal into a passionate, caring human being to be deeply engrossing. After his entry into the underworld and meeting his love, he learned about brotherhood and family. It is ironic that when Satya actually entered a world of extortion, murder, and deceit that he finally learns about camaraderie and love. Without Vidya he wouldn’t even know how to pray in a temple.
Ever read all those rumors and sensational stories about how gangster-infested Bollywood is? Satya devotes a significant part of the film to this issue while brilliantly exploring the Mumbai underworld and politics at large. Now that I re-watched the movie and read the disclaimer of protocol about how “any resemblance to real live events and people is purely coincidental,” it just made me giggle. Bollywood’s “film financing” by the underworld has been widely reported, and rumors of how so-and-so ascended to the top or how so-and-so got killed because of non-payments to the underworld are rampant. The varying moods of Satya can easily echo John Woo, Johnnie To, Tarantino, Coppola, and even at times Fernando Mereilles’ City of God and the result is riveting.
While underworld films by Tarantino or Coppola have an air of self-indulgence and decadence, Satya is always firm on the ground, focused and intent on delivering its message and its purpose. In a way I was reminded of every gangster film in the genre I’ve ever seen because each and every theme was so thoroughly explored, and most of the characters were given plenty of screen time and development. Without her knowledge, Vidya gets her job as a playback singer by having Satya pull some strings that was very reminiscent of Godfather I’s extortion scene with a Hollywood director. There is also a shootout scene that’s comparable to The Mission’s shootout scene in the shopping center, and, although it’s not as stylish and smooth as The Mission’s whose visual mastery is nearly unsurpassable, Satya’s shootout was quite gripping. Later on, there’s a scene where a “soldier” from the rival gang is caught and they torture him while they casually chat and giggle.
I was reading reports from the Nanjing Massacre and how Japanese war criminals recounted how desensitized they become to human suffering and how valueless human lives become in their eyes. Sadistic cruelty is a part of the job description; I wonder what it’s like to live a life where you never know when you’ll get caught, tortured, and killed by the enemy and where you have to witness death and destruction so often in a day. In Satya some of the deaths were accidental, and accidental death is pretty much a part of the job description too. The accidental as well as premeditated deaths, the rush of adrenaline when you realize it’s happened, were well captured.
I liked the sound effects, which are eerie and delve into the human heart’s darkness much like the music in Asoka. There are only a few songs that are performed without much pageantry to fulfill the audience’s basic musical thirst, and the music was generally understated but also enhanced the storyline. They could be forgettable at the first viewing, but the melodies really caught onto me and haunted me at the second viewing. I loved the songs “Baadalon Se” and “Tu Mere Paas” which are sultry, evocative, and romantic songs that accentuate the urbanity of Mumbai. “Gholli Maar” was also a great, gritty drinking song where the guys spill beer with reckless abandon and dance, or rather hurl, to the music. The songs were akin to something like Mumbai blues. The cinematography was seamless and masterful. The breath-taking beauty of the scene where Vidya and Satya are strolling down a glittering beach during sunset makes you wonder how such contradictory sights can be in the same film. Urmila gloriously poses in her plain yellow, white, blue saris holding the sheer fabrics against the sun in “Tu Pere Paas.”
Often times there isn’t enough focus on Mumbai itself in Bollywood movies, and I didn’t have the faintest idea what facets of the city looked like even in a movie that is supposedly about Mumbai as in Bombay. For the first time on film I got to see a satiable glimpse of Mumbai’s colonial architecture, shantytowns, beaches, high-rises, harbors, food stalls, night markets, real estate developments, temples, jewelry shops, movie theaters, back alleys, religious festivals, and an overall paradoxical flavors of this major complex international city. The cinematography is gritty and “realistic” but simultaneously the story is handsomely presented. Many of the scenes are shot outdoors and I loved seeing the prolific urban landscape of Mumbai.
I can’t praise the cast enough – they were simply fantastic and superb on the whole. Manoj Bajpai received more publicity and praise for this film than the leading Chakravarthi, probably because Manoj is more handsome and has a higher profile, but I disagree that Manoj out-performed everyone else in the cast. Chakravarthi was excellent and Manoj was also outstanding. It would be unfair to compare the two performances, as their characters were a far cry from each other, which contrasted and complemented each other.
There is an absorbing scene where Vidya realizes who Satya really is and the sense of trauma and deceit is etched in her face in such a way that she is transformed from a vivacious girl to a lifeless, blanched face. Vidya is a simple, nice, honest, filial girl and singer who is just the innocent “girlfriend” to a ruthless gangster. Satya, however, portrays women differently than other gangster films where women are portrayed as burdens, excess baggage, the ball and chain, an obstacle to a man’s career, a hapless victim that is used for kidnapping and extortion, wrecker of brotherhood, and other tedious stereotypes. This time, on the other hand, women and families are portrayed in such a loving, tender light and given such importance that they give the gangsters a ray of hope, and really, the purpose of their lives. The relationship between Bhiku and his wife Pyaari (Shefali Chhaya) is so touching that it gives Satya a humane look at the gangster world.
The spiraling events of retaliations, vendettas, betrayals, killing sprees, informers, assassinations, and convenient relationships/friendships that mask hatred underneath are the elements that make Satya so engaging to watch. The film also sufficiently explores the major issue of how a gangster juggles his private life of love and family with his profession. Uncle Kallu (Saurabh Shukla) was absolutely marvelous – you can sense every alternating thought he had in his chaotic mind and his fear was so palpable that your heartbeat synchronized with his. It turns out that Saurabh Shukla does indeed have something special - he co-wrote the script! Ram Gopal Varma wrote: “My tears for Satya are as much as they are for the people whom he killed.” Each and every fiber of the film remains conscious and faithful to the heart of this message. This is a phenomenal work by Ram Gopal Varma and crew, and I think Satya is nearly perfect as I haven’t been this passionate about a film in a long time.

 Rating: A resounding 9!

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