Everyone thinks Satya is a gangster movie, but it’s actually a movie about life in Bombay-Entertainment News, Firstpost

As Satya turns 24, film critic Uday Bhatia, who wrote Bullets Over Bombay, a book that examines the evolution of the Hindi gangster film genre with Satya at its heart, talks about director Ram Gopal Varma, his seminal influence, from his book, and more.

It’s been 24 years since Manoj Bajpayee shouted from the top of a cliff overlooking the Arabian Sea, “Mumbai ka king kaun? Bheeku Mhatre!

After rangeela, Satya was Ram Gopal Varma’s second Bollywood success that catapulted the careers of all his key players. Shefali Shah’s first film, her electric performance in the film landed her the role of Ria in Mira Nair’s famous Monsoon Wedding. Nair was so impressed with Shah’s Pyaari that she cast her without even auditioning her.

Satya also turned out to be a historic film for Bajpayee, who has never looked back since. Neither Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap or Saurabh Shukla. Moreover, he established Urmila Matondkar as the unrivaled face of RGV. The two went on to collaborate on several films together, some of the best of Matondkar’s career.

However, more than two decades later, Satya’s lasting legacy can best be felt in how he influenced the gangster film genre in Hindi cinema and how he was among the first films to successfully capture and hauntingly the spirit of a city in a film. In his first book Bullets Over Bombay, film critic Uday Bhatia analyzes these elements and the many other ways in which 1998 director RGV affected our perception of Mumbai and gangster film.

I spoke to Bhatia at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year after her session with Bajpayee on the book and Satya’s lasting legacy. As the film completes 24 years, now is as good a time as any to talk about the film and the book, which took Bhatia more than five years to write.

Excerpts from the interview:

Why a book on Satya? How did it all start?

When I started my career as a film journalist, everyone was talking about the genre of films made by Vishal Bhardwaj, Anurag Kashyap, Manoj Bajpayee, Saurabh Shukla and Apurva Asrani. Their movies were some of the first I started writing about. For many of these people, if you look at their breakthrough first film, it was Satya. All roads kind of led to it and you could see how much of an influence it had on the films that followed it and the people who worked on them.

So I got interested in watching Satya as a before and after for Hindi cinema. I also wanted to place it in two traditions: the Hindi gangster film and the Mumbai city film. Moreover, when we think of Satya, we often think of the great influence he had on Hindi cinema. We do not attach much importance to what preceded it and to the traditions from which it is inspired. So I wanted to map that too.

What was Satya to you growing up and how has your reading of the film changed with the multiple viewings as you get older?

I was quite young when I first saw it. It felt like a very violent and exciting gangster movie, very different from other movies. He was ahead of his time in many ways. Once I started writing the book, I had to go over and over again to analyze everything. For me, the biggest evolution in terms of watching the film was how brilliantly it captures the Bombay of that era and how the film of the city is integrated into that structure.

Everyone thinks Satya is a gangster movie, but it’s actually a movie about life in Bombay, about loneliness in Bombay, about bonding and how even in the midst of all the madness that continues to occur in this city, life continues at the same time. This is the emotional core of the film. It is not possible to take Satya out of Bombay and do it elsewhere. It would then be a fundamentally different film. It happened to me over time. Also because I went there and stayed there, I understood the film much better.

When you told RGV or Manoj Bajpayee that you were writing a book about Satya, what was their reaction?

Everyone except Ramu was very happy to talk about Satya as they all had very fond memories of him. It was their first film or it was their first successful film. Most people I spoke to really warmed up to the task. But Ram Gopal Varma was slightly reluctant to talk about it. He doesn’t like to brag too much and keeps saying that everything happened by mistake and everything fell into place. But everyone gives him almost all the credit. I think it’s probably thanks to him.

How well did you work with Bajpayee and the rest of Satya’s research team?

I spoke to almost everyone about Satya that I could get in touch with. Almost all the actors, both the directors of photography (Gerard Hooper and Mazhar Kamran), the editor, the director, the assistant director, the screenwriters (Shukla and Kashyap), and of course, Ramu. I tried to get as many stories as possible from whoever worked on the film and then kind of tested them against each other because often the stories didn’t match up.

Was it difficult to find a publisher for Bullets over Bombay? All the usual struggles, did you face any of them?

It was pretty painless. It started with another editor but didn’t work for some reason. He then came to Harper and here we are. The fact that I am a film journalist helped me. For example, I had already made a long profile on Bajpayee earlier. I had spoken to RGV once. A lot of the people that I ended up talking to, I had already talked to them during my work. I had also written a lot about cinema. So people knew me enough to recommend me to their friends, saying he’d come talk to you, give him some time. It helped. And I knew the public relations people. So that also helped. If I came from another field, getting hold of as many people as I might not have been so easy.

In writing Bullets Over Bombay, did you have to put extra effort into not making it too academic or erudite? Are there things you consciously avoided to make sure it’s an engaging read?

That’s probably up to the readers to answer because as far as I know they can find the book academically. But personally, I don’t like academic film writing and I don’t like jargon very much. So I tried to make it accessible to an average viewer who doesn’t study cinema or write about it. They must be able to understand and appreciate it. It was my goal. I don’t know how well I managed to do that. I certainly didn’t want to make too much jargon out of it.

What do you think of books about movies? It’s a whole new space. The editorial space is awash with biographies and autobiographies of actors and filmmakers, but there aren’t many books on movies yet.

Yes, you’re right. Much of the movie book space is driven by biographies, superstars, and ghostwriters. I hope many more books about movies will come out that aren’t academic. They don’t have to focus on any particular movie. They could be analytical and yet fun to read. There’s still plenty of room for that because right now most of it is superstar-led stuff. It’s fun, but I don’t know how much it adds to our cultural conversations.

When she’s not reading books or watching movies, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.

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