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April 18, 2002



Subhash K Jha

He has always forged new grounds in cinema. His new release Company has gone beyond mainstream movie entertainment to encompass a field of issues pertaining to international organised crime and its hold on Mumbai's corporate world.

The film has triggered an unprecedented dialogue and debate on the rapidly changing definitions of popular entertainment. Taking time off his round-the-clock schedule, Ram Gopal Varma speaks to Subhash K Jha on the politics of crime that controls the theme of Company:

What did you set out to achieve in Company?

The film was a completely new experience for me. When Karan Johar [director of Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham] saw the film in portions he said liked the main players Vivek and Antara. When he saw the whole film he liked even the passing shots. He said he could see my stamp in every frame.

To me, the film hinges on the one line that the cop Mohanlal speaks, "Samajhne ki koshish karo. Yeh sab kuch jo ho raha hai woh tumhare dhande ki jaat hai [Try to understand. What is happening is thanks to the nature of your job]." That is the crux of the film. If that line makes its point, the film makes its point, too.

Some viewers complained about Ajay Devgan's death in the end. Had that character lived, the whole point of the film would be defeated. I think audiences react this way to Ajay's character because by then they had begun to empathise with him.

When actress Rekha saw Company she said it was a truly romantic film and that I was romancing every aspect of life -- from violence in the underworld to the police force.

I thought that was an incredible summing up of the film's style. In Company I had a tremendous amount of story to tell within 150 minutes. Unless I resorted to a flash-forward technique, I couldn't pull it off. Hence I introduced a voiceover for quick time passages.

At first, my team thought the audience wouldn’t be able to follow the narrative pattern. But I've always thought the audience to be far more receptive to new ideas than the film industry. The industry works in fear of failure while the audience approaches a film with no preconceived notions.

What are your views on the fact that Vivek Oberoi and Ajay Devgan seem to have grabbed audiences' attentions so strongly?

I'll tell you something. Ajay's character has been very carefully designed. A lot of behind-the-scenes work has gone into heightening the performance. The background music, shot compositions and editing patterns have all gone into making his performance very effective.

In Vivek's case the performance comes intuitively -- from the brash arrogance in the beginning to the vulnerability in his eyes when he talks to Antara, to the betrayal midway through the film. By the end he exudes a Buddhist wisdom. This kind of a performance cannot be designed. For that you need a genuine performer.

How far have you taken the incidents in the film from newspaper headlines?

I don't know if I've really gone into specific headlines. When you live in Mumbai you keep hearing the underworld. Some of these are bound to stay in your mind . But I don't think Company is about specific incidents. It's about people placed in positions of power and how they use it.

But the audience sees it as a film about the fall out between Dawood Ibrahim and Chhota Rajan.

They're bound to hear echoes of news reports in the film. The Chandu Nagre [played by Vivek Oberoi] who kills for money is a known phenomenon. People keep reading and hearing about the underworld. This is the first film where they actually see what they have been hearing all along. If they suddenly put a face to a newspaper report, audiences are bound to start looking for parallels, and they may not be offtrack.

What was your agenda behind this novel treatment of the underworld genre?

I wanted to treat organised crime on a company management basis. When a management takes a decision on behalf of a company it cannot favour one employee, as Malik [played by Ajay Devgan] favours Chandu. But the employee feels betrayed if his interests vary with company policies. Once a company recruits an employee, he becomes another cog in the wheel.

Even Malik who heads the crime syndicate in Company is a victim of the organisation policy. They are all victims, finally.

So you see organised crime as just another well-oiled, policy-driven company?

What is the difference between a common man getting street goondas to evacuate tenants from his house and a politician using a trained terrorist to eliminate his rival?

Everyone needs extra-constitutional power to do dirty work. Ultimately crime and the underworld are active because they fulfil a need in legitimate society. But even ganglords are victims of larger invisible forces that the common may not be aware of.

For the first time you have openly shown the nexus between our cinema and the underworld?

Why should our cinema be distanced from the rest of the media? In a way I consider myself a journalist too. Just as you report a situation I'm putting an issue on celluloid in a dramatic manner. I don't think I've shown anything that the audience doesn't know. The audience knows from newspaper reports that film people have been talking to the underworld.

I haven't shown the film star actually talking to gangsters. When the cop says he has a taped conversation I depend on the audiences memory of newspaper reports.

There are several direct references to real happenings, like Salman Khan's interrogation...

When I showed a film star being interrogated I didn't have any particular star in mind. So many actors have been called to police headquarters for questioning. I wanted an actual leading man to do the role. But I don't think any leading man would have done it. So I just signed any man I could find.

What about the shootout in Mombasa when Malik's men attack Chandu ? Isn't that like Dawood Ibrahim's attack on Chota Rajan in Bangkok?

It was just an attack. It's not related to the Bangkok attack at all.

So would you say that Company is a courageous film?

The whole point of being courageous is you should be ready to face the consequences. There are so many things I have tried in Company. Take the shootout at the film mahurat. Once the scene is established I move on quickly.

There were so many other issues to tackle. So I had a voiceover informing the audience of what happened after the shootout while moving on with the narrative. This discrepancy between what they see and hear could have confused the audience. But they got the point.

I used several new narrative devices like jumpcut cutting and skipping frames between shots. Even the Khallas song is used as a narrative device.

Why Makarand Deshpande for the voiceover?

The rasping tone that he uses sounds like a wise man who knows much more than the characters in the film. I don't think Amitabh Bachchan or Om Puri would have worked in the same way.

How would you compare Company with your other underworld hit Satya?

In Company I designed everything in a classic style. The frame compositions, dialogues, lighting, everything is meant to achieve a lasting effect. Company is a very philosophical in tone.

While the characters appear very real, they don't speak the language of everyday gangsters. It's finally to do with design. In the scene where Ajay Devgan is called for questioning by the cop [Mohanlal] about the attack at the film mahurat, the way the two characters are sitting, with Vivek a blur somewhere behind Ajay, is what creates a classic atmosphere.

So you purposely devised a classic gangster epic, like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather?

I used a lot of manipulative devices because I wanted to make a dramatic impact. Everything from the background music to locations was designed for a particular effect. At times the background music was highly exaggerated.

But when it was juxtaposed with realistic performances and design a whole new effect was created. Yes, a lot of conscious designing went into Company.

At the beginning of the film you see a video footage of actual crime. Then we go to a James Bond-film style credits. Then we see an eagle flying in the sky. I've jumped styles right at the start to get audiences acclimatised to the unexpected narration. Even when they encounter a seemingly normal scene like the mother-son bonding, the audience knows it can't be all that normal — not in Company.

In Company you have really pushed the envelope. Weren't you apprehensive?

But that's what filmmaking means to me. When I watch Martin Scorcese's Cape Fear, I see him doing incredible things with cinematic grammar. Eventually cinema is about effect, the cinematic grammar isn't an issue for the audience.

When D W Griffith tried a closeup for the first time, the film industry was shaken. But the audience accepted it for what it was. Anything new in cinema is more readily accepted by the audience than the industry. How will I know if the audience likes a new idea unless I try it?

Sure, Company could have gone over the heads of the masses. But I had to take the chance.

Where would you place Company in your oeuvre?

I've progressed a lot since Satya. Then I was working on a very basic level. I was just beginning to understand the medium. Company has been made more cerebrally than instinctively. I knew exactly what my characters were about and what I wanted to say about them.

A lot of thought went into its making. Characters played by Ganesh Yadav and Rajpal Yadav may not have a lot of footage. But I knew exactly where they came from and where they were going. Without telling the audience their background I knew they'd make themselves intelligible to the audience.

How far would you attribute the film's success to the quality of acting?

Oh, I'd say actors are the most important components of a film. They physically convey the director's vision. If a director is clear about his vision, an actor cannot go wrong. That explains why good actors give bad performances in some films. But please, I'm not clear-headed all the time.

When people ask why Antara Mali is so good in Company when she was so bad in my Telugu film Prem Katha, they're confusing a character with a performance. In Prem Katha Antara's character didn't work.

It's nonsense to believe that I can make anyone act. No director in the world can do it. A performance depends on so many factors, for instance, a co-artiste can spoil the best performance. Or I can ruin a brilliant performance on the editing table.

So will Company will put you on nomination lists for awards?

My opinion on awards remains unchanged. Only I know what my actors and technicians have contributed, and why certain moments work better than others. How can a jury judge my work sitting in some far off place? It's quite ridiculous. Awards are glamour events, not occasions to celebrate cinema.

To me the only thing that's important is to get my ideas across to the audience.

In that you've succeeded completely in Company.

That I've it pulled off does give me a high. Yes, this is the most expensive film I've ever made. But nothing is done to impress audiences. I haven't used locations just to go to a foreign country. I went where my script took me. It's a well mounted film. But the richness comes from actors and technicians.

You'll be surprised to know that my cameraman Hemant Chaturvedi had never held a feature film camera before Company. All he had shot was for television, including the popular Kaun Banega Crorepati. But I had not seen his work.

So how did you know he could shoot your film?

I just liked his attitude. He wasn't in awe of me, which I liked. And when I asked him why I should let him shoot this film, he said he couldn't think of any reason why he shouldn't. I found him sensible. So it stood to reason that the rest of his abilities would follow.

I'm always asked how I stumble on to talented people like Vivek Oberoi and Hemant Chaturvedi. I guess I'm just plain lucky with my actors and technicians.

Take Vivek Oberoi. My signing him might have attracted some attention towards him. But to be signed by so many people after that, he had to be seen and appreciated.

I think the role in Company needed a very high degree of performing ability. That must have spread in the industry. From day one Vivek was known as a good actor.

You have been considered a pathbreaker. What after Company?

Let's hope it doesn't break my path. *laughs*

But if a film like Company does well everywhere, younger newer directors can make unconventional films with minimal music. Films should break accepted codes of presentation.

As for what I am doing next, I'm planning a film with Abhishek Bachchan.

Also Read:
TheCompany review

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