Nowadays, the verdict is that he’s become a spent force and is given to posting unnecessary, outrageous and scandalous statements on Twitter.
Yet, once Ram Gopal Varma was a major force to reckon with – a trained civil engineer who was so fed up of his job that he had opened a video lending library (shades of Quentin Tarantino) in Hyderabad, and then gravitated towards filmmaking, eventually to make Bombay his base for years.
"Shiva" (the Telugu version),"Satya" above all, "Rangeela", "Company", the "Sarkar" franchise and to a degree "Bhoot", of course, remain his most memorable claims to fame. Also, whatever you might think of him today, he did initiate Factory, a production company which gave opportunities to freshers to belt out films of an indie kind by the dozen, of the good, bad and awful variety.
Lucklessly, after a substantially long innings, RGV could not longer fit into the Bollywood system. His "Ram Gopal ki Aag" (a horrendous take on Sholay), and "Department" shot largely on the newly-arrived digital format, are shudder-worthy.
He has fallen from grace alas. Still I do have sneaking regard for the game-changer for his early works. His debut-making "Shiva" (1989), in Telugu, was power-packed followed up by Hindi remake a year later, which again headlined Nagarjuna, Amla and the late Raghuvaran as the antagonist.
Ever curious about his first outing as a director – and an impactful one – I’d turned the tape-recorder over to Ram Gopal Varma for a throwback to the original "Shiva" in Telugu. Over to the recall in his own words:
Shiva (Telugu, 1989)
Power games are endemic in any facet of life, professional and personal. Two ants will be beaten to a bread crumb by another through stealth, two kids will resort to complicated devices to be their parents’ favourite, ministers will never be satisfied with the volume of influence they wield, the scams they can engineer.
As an adolescent and then as a teenager, my game was to seem tougher than anyone else among the street guys I would hang out with, although I was the weakest.
Six really tough guys knew that I could be knocked out with a single blow in a fight. Still every single one of them was sure that the other five would come to my defence, come what may. By convincing each one of them separately, I commanded power over all the six. I would make sure that none of them bitched behind my back, they couldn’t afford to, they acknowledged me as a formidable force. This is the psychological power game on which all gangs, underworld factions and political regimes utilise.
My understanding of the politics of violence and criminal behaviour, which I extensively applied in "Shiva", and subsequently in "Satya", "Company" and "Sarkar", comes from my days with the street gangs of Panjagutta and Vijaywada, and contrary to popular belief not from my contacts in the underworld.
The opening scene of Shiva in which hoodlums get off from a car and bash up students in front of a college actually happened right before my eyes in Vijaywada. The film’s atmosphere was recreated from the engineering college. The character of Shiva was inspired by one Golla Ravi from the Punjagutta area. He was a tough goonda and the sweet-boy-next-door, amazingly rolled into one.
The plot of Shiva was a straight rip-off from "Return of the Dragon" – in which Bruce Lee comes from Hong Kong to Rome to work in a Chinese restaurant. There the local Italian goons are trying to intimidate the restaurant’s Chinese owners. The combats become more challenging for Bruce Lee, culminating in a fight-to-the-finish with Chuck Norris in the Colosseum.
Similarly Nagarjuna, playing Shiva, comes from another town and joins a college which is being terrorised by a bunch of goons. The combats become more and more challenging for Nagarjuna, leading to a fight-to-the-finish with Raghuvaran on top of the college terrace. That was my Colosseum. So much for originality!
With a simplistic plotline I wanted to present characters and situations in an unconventional style. That was easier said than done actually, because I still had to ‘borrow’ elements from other films: the Ganpati Utsav donation scene is from Dilip Shanker’s "Kaalchakra", Amla serving coffee to Nagarjuna before a song is from Gulzar’s "Aandhi", the cycle chase is from Rahul Rawail’s "Arjun", and a police inspector being slapped by a dead boy’s mother is from Spielberg’s "Jaws".
The shooting went quite well, uneventfully, perhaps because I was extremely clear about I wanted to achieve. Trouble started after the final edit. At a preview of the rush print, two men whom I didn’t know at all, said that the film was slow, tedious and devoid of any drama. My team’s spirit came crashing down. I tried to convince them that the two guys had reacted that way since they weren’t used to seeing a film without a background score, sound effects and were not accustomed to underplayed performances and subtleties. Nagarjuna was the only one who stood firmly by me.
At the first trade preview of Shiva, most distributors found it excessively violent. They said women and family audiences would stay away. Generally it’s felt that they form the bulk of the audience. Two distributors, Venkat and Surendra, predicted that at best, it would do average business. I disagreed vehemently, I was sure it would be a huge hit.
On the film’s opening day, the reports were that the audience is watching Shiva in pin-drop silence, without any reaction, whistles or claps. The next morning, the reports were that the audience was silent because they were stunned. The film created a furore at the box office.
Instantly, I became a household name in Andhra Pradesh. Distributors Venkat and Surendra, didn’t know where to hide their faces.
*Shiva was supposed to be the name of the film’s villain. When the story was narrated to him, Nagarjuna liked the name so much that he requested if he could be called Shiva.
*The villain’s name was altered to Radha. This was the name of a very violent sort of guy in Vijayawada. Since Radha is usually a girl’s name, the villain was rechristened Bhavani. Now that’s a girl’s name too but not as frequently used as Radha.
A football match on the lines of the ice-hockey scene from "Damien 2" was to be shot. The distributors weren’t thrilled with the idea. That was replaced with an action sequence showing the breaking of a bicycle chain. No one can quite break a bicycle chain in real life but on the screen, it seemed plausible. Many claimed to have broken bicycle chains since then, fired obviously by their imagination.
*Most of the action scenes were designed by me. Nagarjuna takes on his opponents, with a hook or a punch in the stomach".
The magazine, American Cinemtographer, had carried an in-depth article about the Steadicam. Such a camera had been rotting since four years in a Chennai studio. The cameraman of "Shiva" wasn’t keen about using a Steadicam, saying that the camera couldn’t be balanced. Since it was being used for a chase scene, the balancing did not matter. "Shiva was" the first film to use the Steadicam. Within a year, 10 Steadicams were imported by Indian filmmakers.
Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and filmmaker.