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Don of the big screen

Ram Gopal Varma is an avant garde filmmaker ' there's no two ways about it. Ever since he made his first film Shiva in Telugu in 1990, he has broken the mould with every movie. So Rangeela made in 1995 was worlds apart from Satya in 1998 and Mast in 1999. And the list gets longer with each passing day. 'The variation in each film has excited me. I need something new because I get bored easily,' professes Varma.

His last film Naach (2004) crashed at the box office and that made him take a short break. 'I wanted to get my act together before releasing more films,' says the director-cum-producer who is releasing a spate of films in the next six months. His latest productions D and Sarkar which he has directed himself will be followed by two more ' My Wife's Murder and James.

So, is Sarkar a comeback vehicle' 'The truth is, I never went anywhere. If I say I hope that Sarkar makes the audience come back to watch my movies, it's just a joke. I don't think the audience belongs to anybody. Why should the audience be loyal to you' They like it and accept it or they don't accept it. It's fine by me.'

Sarkar also has the Bachchans, father and son, in leading roles. But Varma insists that's an unimportant point. 'I do not believe in gimmicks like casting coups. I would've cast Amitabh Bachchan and Abhishek in the lead even if they were not father and son because they were perfect for the roles. I grew up watching Amitabh Bachchan perform. So I wanted to see him not just as an actor but as a star,' he insists.

Varma has faced controversy over the years. At one time there were rumours that gangster Chhota Rajan had called Varma to ask if D was based on the life of his arch-rival Dawood Ibrahim. Now, there is much curiosity about the story line of Sarkar. Is it inspired by the life of Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray' Varma quashes such queries with deliberate nonchalance: 'It is not inspired by Bal Thackeray. The truth is that if Balasaheb can exist, Sarkar can exist. That is the premise. It's not about him, it's not about his party and it's not about his family.'

In the last decade, some of Varma's best known works have been on the infamous underworld of the country's financial and film capital. Intricate details in films like Satya, Company and Ab Tak Chhappan have led to speculation that Varma has internal sources of information on what goes on within the gangs. 'Everything I do is fiction. When I make films, I get into the characters' minds.'

If somewhere there's a curiosity about his fascination with the underworld, the filmmaker dismisses it with a laugh. 'I have noticed that it is more the media's fascination. I must be the only director who makes so many different films in the Hindi film industry,' he says with characteristic candour. 'Sarkar is inspired by Mario Puzo's thriller The Godfather, which is not about the underworld. The latter serves as a backdrop to the relationship between a father and his son. My relatives are always asking me why I don't make ideal family dramas. I hope this satisfies them.'

Varma films are also famous for the lack of special effects. Varma points out: 'You won't find my hero kicking in mid-air like in Matrix.'

He's also famous for being a careful spender. 'I am a realist and as such I don't believe in pre-budgeting. No amount of money spent on a movie can ever be considered over-budgeting.' He reflects on the changing economics of the film industry saying: 'Producers are realising that it's not about making a hit, it's about making the economics work ' targeting it at a niche audience and controlling production costs.'

Is there a 'Ram Gopal Varma school' of acting and movies' He flatly rejects the suggestion. 'I went ahead and made films which I believed in and if it created any genre, it did,' he says matter-of-factly. Ask him about his muses Urmila Matondkar, Antara Mali, Isha Koppikar or Rukhsar (his latest find who stars in D and Sarkar) and he says, 'I trust people on instinct. And I certainly do not cherish any hopes of a seat in heaven by encouraging new talent.'

Varma is known to speak his mind and perhaps that's because he has worked his way up the ladder. 'There is a big fallacy in the industry. Only the blessed get to make movies,' he insists. It was not choice but circumstance that led to Varma entering tinseltown. A civil engineer by profession, he was knocking on doors for a break, but there was nobody to lend him an ear. 'So I gave up the idea and thought I would go to Nigeria, make some money and come back,' he reminisces.

Then came the turning point of his life. A friend took him to a video library in Hyderabad. 'There I got the idea of starting a video library. I stayed back and started one and this somehow led to me meeting a director. So if my friend hadn't stopped the scooter that day at the library, I wouldn't have met the director and I wouldn't have been here,' he smiles.

As a student of Siddhardha Engineering College, Vijayawada, Varma was a movie buff. He used to bunk classes and head off to the theatres to watch between eight to 10 films a week. He'd go to the same movie again and again just to watch certain scenes which interested him. That's how he learned direction ' by watching films. 'I do not owe anything to anybody. Shiva was a good film and that's why I got some fame. When I made bad films, people rejected me,' he says.

He's famously shy and preoccupied with his projects, and that's why he doesn't like giving interviews. He is, of course, a hard core professional who prefers to let his work do the talking and he works at lightning speed. What with 20 films lined up for the next year, he cannot afford otherwise. He says, 'I have started my own company, The Factory, and got together like-minded people to make more films reflecting my sensibility. I want to create more...I want to come out more strongly.'

Lead photograph by Jagan Negi

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