SATYA (1998)

Satya has been one of those films that I must have seen the most number of times. I watched it, re-watched it and re-watched it yet again and still, it remains as fresh as it was the first time I saw it. I have stopped trying to decipher its mechanism and treatment and have decided to give in to its magic. That I believe has been the case for most film critics. Even the common masses made it a blockbuster at a time when nothing but the brightest and biggest stars of Bollywood worked. Ram Gopal Varma created a film that was not only hard to ignore but even harder to not be affected by. In a country that glammed up its baddies whenever they transformed to the big screen, Satya was one film that showed them with their personas stripped of any shine what so ever. That I believe was one of the causative factors of the film’s earthen appeal.

The film starts and ends with very little background knowledge of its protagonist being given to the audience. What it does is show how a common man lands up in Mumbai and is sucked in by the Mumbai underworld thanks to some unfortunate turn of events. The story starts with Satya (J.D Chakravarty) landing up in Mumbai and finding work at a place that is not exactly employee friendly. He soon finds himself in loggerhorns with a high-ranking criminal who puts him in jail for not wielding to his wills. In jail, Satya meets Bhiku Mahatre (Manoj Bajpayee), a charismatic but ruthless gangster and the two immediately strike a chord. Satya without as much as a thought decides to join Bhiku even though he could have easily tried his luck one more time at a legit life.

Once included in the gang, He meets the other players. Kallu Mama (Saurabh Shukla), Chandu (Snehal Dabi) and Mule (Makrand Deshpandey) make him feel at home and quickly take him in. He is given a flat to live and starts learning the trade. In his flat, he also meets Vidya (Urmila Matondkar). A sweet and simple girl who is trying to make ends meet for her family and also trying to get a foothold in the Bollywood music industry. Satya forms a bond with her but she is completely unaware of his gangster-ways. Soon Bhiku is released from prison and the two now form a bond that not only helps get the business soaring but also triggers events that never happened in the past.

The biggest turning point in the tale is the murder of Guru Narayan, a rival of Bhiku who was previously his best friend and ally. This infuriates a local Minister Bhau Thakurdas Jhawle (Govind Namdeo). Bhau brought Bhiku and Guru Narayan into the business and had specially ordered Bhiku not to kill him. However, Bhiku’s non-compliance has now cast a shadow on Bhau’s authority over Bhiku. With an election looming large on his head and Bhiku’s assistance being an important ingredient in his political potpourri, Bhau walks into an uneasy peace with Bhiku and Satya. But all is not well. The police are also after the gangsters but they are unable to make any serious dent. The arrival of Commissioner Amod Shukla (Paresh Rawal) a strict and thinking policeman who adds the much-needed teeth to the police attack on the gangsters changes that. The police are now literally breathing down the neck of the gangsters. What happens next forms the crux of the narrative.

Satya broke almost every stereotype set in regards to gangster flicks in Bollywood. True there had been some stark and gritty fairs in the past but the Mumbai underworld was not looked at up this close before Satya. If one looks at Satya, the story is not all that complicated or laid out. It’s a simple enough tale of a man who willingly joins the underworld, rises in its ranks and then perishes like all gangsters must. What makes this film special is all that happens in between those lines of the plots. Saurabh Shukla and Anurag Kashyap wrote this film and they made it a harmonious mix of an eclectic range of emotions. There is drama, there is action, there is comedy, there is romance, there is suspense and all of it happens in the backdrop of one of the seediest and dark worlds that one can think of.

The film shows the gangsters as common men and women. Interestingly enough, it never tells you what to think of the men. Instead, the film masterfully manipulates your feeling for the men and women with a series of sequences that is open to any number of interpretations. Take for instance the character of Satya. He arrives in Mumbai. He is abused and wronged and then put in Jail where he meets Bhiku. He is a sufferer but that is hardly reason enough for him to join the Mahatre gang. I felt that he joined the gang more so for his chemistry with Bhiku and the fact that he actually liked being on the other side of the fence. That turns him into a willing gangster. One, we should ideally hate. But the film shows you a series of sequences showing his romance, his softer side and his camaraderie with Bhiku and Chandu in such a way that you are manipulated to like him.

The character of Amod Shukla is yet another example. He is an honest police officer. He is out to protect us. He never for a second does anything that is wrong, but when he is killed, we don’t feel any remorse as he was out to kill the guys we have come to love. We especially hate him for killing Chandu, the darling of the gangsters who occasionally faints when he sees someone shot. That’s a knowledge that we are consciously made privy to just to extract some additional warmth for a character that is already a darling thanks to his antics. Thus we, the audience have unconsciously taken sides with the gangsters. Therein lies the greatest triumph of Shukla and Kashyap’s writing.

The actors in Satya have done such a great job that never for once I felt as if I was watching a film. J.D Chakravarty was the baddie in Shiva, the film that I believe kick-started Ram Gopal Varma’s gangster epics spree. Here he speaks only when he needs to. He even keeps shut when he should have said something. His brooding silence and his highly expressive eyes do most of the talking. He is a rank outsider and he is the exact opposite of Bhiku in mannerism and character but that only goes on to elevate his act. He feels real and his character never tries to justify its action through any plot point or through his essay. That serves him really well. He is self-aware. He knows the price to pay for what he is but he is neither willing to pay it nor change his line. Towards the end, he shows his fears and his helplessness at not being able to have a normal life with Vidya. This should have been a big Ho! Ho! for the audience as he chose the life of a gangster willingly and willfully. But his character has immersed us so much in his story and has turned out to be so likable that we almost shed a tear or two for him when he is killed.

Satya made a hero out of Manoj Bajpayee. They might have as well called this film Bhiku. He is so much there and he is so likable that you are confused whom to like more Satya, Bhiku or Chandu. He is erratic, he is sometimes irrational, he is boisterous, he is dangerous and above all he is whacky. I loved the way his character develops through the film. The scene where he is killed is probably the biggest shock of the film. Chandu’s death was a jolt but Bhiku’s death is a blow. A lot of that has to do with the way his character is developed and rendered likable.

Snehal Dabi is loveable in a role that was tailor-made for him. The way he looks, the way he talks and the way he moves was best suited to his almost dim-wit act. He is the comic sense of the Mahatre gang. Urmila Matondkar has an important role to play. She is the reason that makes Satya shy away from being a gangster. She is also the polar opposite of what Satya is and sort of provides a foil for the audience to gauge the difference between the two worlds. She is uncharacteristically earthen and that only adds to her charm. Shefali Chaya plays Bhiku’s wife. A tremendous performance from her ensures that we see and understand that even the gangsters can have a tough time in controlling their wives. I love Govind Namdeo. He plays himself in every film and Satya is no different but the good news is that here we needed exactly someone with his kind of mannerism and it worked big time.

Satya is one of the most efficiently shot and edited film of the 1990s. The film made a breakthrough with shooting angles. Little did we know that Varma would go on to use these angles to the level of irritation for his viewers in later films? However, in this film, his play worked. Satya feels unusually breezy for a film that is 167 minutes long and has at least 3 songs that I could count. The reason for that is the razor-sharp editing, exciting world-building, and engrossing characters.

I can go on and on for this film but I believe that I wouldn’t be able to add anything new to whatever has already been written and said about this film. Suffice is to say that, Satya is easily one of the best and one of the most unique films ever made in Bollywood. It deserves a place among the seminal masterpieces like Aakrosh, Ardh Satya, Manthan, Nishant, and Droh Kaal. While it could be sighted as one of the best examples of the changing face of Bollywood for the 1990s, it is almost a masterclass on how to write, shoot, edit and perform in a film. It’s no surprise that it made 5 times of its budget and was hailed by every film critic of that time.

Rating : 5/5 (5 out of 5 Stars)

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