Monday, March 7, 2016

Guns and Thighs: Ram Gopal Varma’s Life in a Book

(Ram Gopal Varma's Book Cover)

“I would say that the media is more dangerous than terrorists because it attacks under the guise of safeguarding values.” One may conclude that this statement is by one of those angst ridden anti-right wing seditionists who has just walked out an Arnab Goswami shouting match at the prime time news hour in the Times Now Channel. Surprisingly, this is the concluding sentence of a book of memoires written by the much maligned film director Ram Gopal Varma. Published in 2016, this page turner titled ‘Guns and Thighs- The Story of My Life’ is full of incisive observations which only a dare devil insider could talk about the Indian film industry (read Bollywood) which is controlled by absolute business interests than emotional quotients of the people involved. What makes this book a good reading is the emotional no-bar-hold-ness of Ram Gopal Varma, who started off as a video cassette lending shop owner and ended as an ace director of the Indian film industry.

This fifty films old director is fifty four years old now. Like all the fathers who brought up their sons in 1960s and 70s, Ram Gopal Varma’s father too thought that he should have a college education, which would fetch him a good job and eventually settle him down as a good, law abiding householder, exactly like him. However, Varma had a different plan about his life. As he was studying in an engineering college in Vijjayawada, he spent most of the time in movie theatres and streets. As the legend goes, he learnt the ropes of surviving in the big bad world from the movies than from the university. From the very beginning he was hooked to the workings of gangsters and policemen. He hung out with local goons and in college, he himself became a gang leader by keeping six of his well-built fellow students at the edge of their sense. Despite Varma’s diminutive figure they thought he was a born leader because he could make them believe that if one turns against him, he had five of them stand for him. Sooner than later he realized that’s how governments, politicians, policemen and the underworld kings worked. It was simple yet a reliable method. Ram Gopal Varma, the film maker who has a special appetite for underworld stories was born in college itself. He just needed the right opportunity.

 (Director Ram Gopal Varma)

Every week end I go to my favorite book store in Delhi with a list of books to browse. I come out with none of them. Instead I will have something like this book, which I have never thought of even existing. I was not aware of Ram Gopal Varma’s books. But the chance meeting of such books always gives me a different high. I have to confess that the best books I have picked up ever are always out of chance meetings with them in some inconspicuous corner of a book store. I take a fancy of these books like Varma’s because they are not the regular writers but definitely they have something interesting to say. I have to confess after reading this book by Varma that out of his fifty films, I have seen only one so far! That’s ‘Company’ done in 2002, the launching pad for Vivek Oberoi. I watched this movie not because I was so much a fan of Ajay Devgun or the debutant Vivek Oberoi but because of the presence of Mohanlal, one of my favorite actors from the Malayalam film industry in the movie as a soft spoken police commissioner namely Sreenivasan. I wrote a very fulfilling article (at least for me) at that in one of the leading journals in Malayalam and even predicted a good future for both Mohanlal and Vivek Oberoi in the Bollywood industry. Contrary to my predictions, Mohanlal settled back to his comfort zone of Malayalam films and Vivek by wrongly choosing a series of movies ejected himself out of the industry, despite his occasional efforts to stage a coming back. Varma tried to re-launch Oberoi in his Rakta Charita in 2010 and Mohanlal in the legendary Thakur’s role in ‘Ram Gopal Varma’s Aag’ in 2007, both turned out to be box office disasters.

‘Guns and Thighs’ however is not a lamentation on the flops that Varma has famously churned out from his stable. He has worked in the Telugu industry with the stalwarts like Chiranjeevi, Nagarjuna, Venkatesh and so on, and was also instrumental in launching many careers including that of Urmila Mathondkar, J.D.Chakravarty, Vivek Oberoi and so on. He could easily cross over to the Hindi movies because his way of story-telling was fresh and forceful. Varma was game for trying out something extremely new, whether it was raw eroticism or raw violence. While most of the Bollywood thrillers focused on the cop-thief chase stories to a greater extent, Varma thought of the leisure times or the scheming times of the cops and the thieves, or in other words what the underworld kings, sharp shooters and the investigators did just before committing a crime. Were they just normal people like us or they looked different? Varma realized from newspapers and television that the sharpshooters, rioters, killers, hit men and so on looked very ordinary. Sometimes a gangster could live next door and you would never come to know about his real identity until one day he is implicated in a heist or a hit. If so, what did this ordinary looking people did when they were not hitting or shooting? That’s why he came up with movies like Shiva, Satya and Company. Varma was a hit maker.

 (Company film poster)

Varma is very philosophical about many of life’s accidents and chances. According to him a good failure is better a bad success. It all depends on who talks about success and failure. If a successful person is successful, he says, that there should be a reason. Somebody who aspires for that kind of success should silently watch what makes the other successful and if possible emulate and improvise upon the given. Varma has always been doing that. He hates the ‘inbetweenists’. According inbetweenists are those people who have a very flexible philosophy and always want to be in the right side of things. They could be the nastiest people and most often they remain where they are in their lives. Varma quirkily points out that what makes the successful people successful because there are more inbetweenists in the world than the real achievers. Inbetweenists always have an opinion on anything and everything. And if that opinion goes absolutely wrong, they don’t have any problem to go back on their stance and come up with some pedestrian philosophy to explain why they are so. One cannot do nothing but agree with Varma.

The book progresses through various anecdotes both comic and tragic but Varma never tries to judge any of them. He only judges once that too his wife of that time for her insisting him to stay back at home for celebrating her birthday than going for a recording in Chennai. One should listen what Varma has to tell her in this matter:  “I don’t celebrate my birthday in spite of having achieved whatever little I have, whereas you have achieved nothing so why do you want to celebrate your birth? If you think the mere fact that you were born calls for celebration, don’t forget that when your parents had sex, the last thing they would have had on their minds while doing it was sot conceive you in particular. Your dad had a desire and your mom obliged, and it was sheer accident that the particular spermatozoa which managed to enter your mom’s womb just happened to be you. Your dad could alternatively have gone to a prostitute and the particular spermatozoa through which that woman might have conceived could have been you and you could have ended up in a brothel. In effect, when you have absolutely no control over or no contribution to the process of what, who and why someone gave you birth, why should you make such a big deal about celebrating it?” Varma says further to us: Needless to say, she slapped me. Let me quote further: “I believe that the obsession with birthdays is primarily a function of the fear of most individuals have that their existence might not matter to anybody else. So on that one particular day if an X number of people greet them, it makes them feel stars for at least that day and then they can wait like nobodies for another year to go by to become stars for yet another day.”

(Cartoon on Varma's visit to the Taj Hotel with the CM on 26/11)

Does it sound too chauvinistic? But the truth is those who have gone through this horrendous experience of their womenfolk bringing the house down for forgetting their birthdays or greeting them on that day or even taking them out for a dinner or buying them a new dress, know for sure that all those go with a birthday thing of a non-achiever is total waste. Like Varma says, one should celebrate whatever little they have achieved. Irrespective of gender people should celebrate the days that made sense to them rather than celebrating a birthday.

Coming back to the opening sentence of this essay, which happened to be the closing sentence of the book, I would say that it was not Varma’s views on the right wing media but on the media in general that is hungry for making nothing out of something. On 26/11, when Varma visited the Taj Mumbai where there was terrorist attack, along with the then Chief Minister Vilasrao Desmukh and his son and film actor, Ritiesh Desmukh, the media went hysteric saying that there were nefarious plans behind Varma’s visit with the CM’s contingent. In fact, he says, he was tagging along and the places that were shown to them were already been cleared of investigations and were already shown in television for mass consumption. But the media, instead of discussing vital issues pertaining to a horrible terrorists’ attack, spent many precious hours discussing the inanities of Varma’s visit to the place. Let me conclude my views in this book with the same sentence once again: “I would say that the media is more dangerous than terrorists because it attacks under the guise of safeguarding values.” 

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