The Making of Truth: Satya

A few weeks after I graduated college, I stepped off the plane in India and was told that Mr. Ram Gopal Varma, after blockbuster commercial hits like Rangeela and Shiva, was now looking to make a cult film about the Mumbai underworld. It was to be titled Satya, which means “truth” in Hindi, but really because it was to be named for its protagonist. Satya would be the first of its kind. Bollywood had never before turned out anything akin to The Godfather, and was the poorer for it. Mr. Varma was looking for a new directing crew to breathe freshness into a process that his trusty, well-trained one would have executed with orchestrated perfection but, perhaps, less innovation.

I had a job interview.

Mr. Varma’s decision to work with a new team turned out well for us (his soon-to-be assistant directors), superb for the film, and disastrous for the maverick director. Luckily, he had the nerve and the confidence to pull off the show, in spite of the initial bumbling of a motley bunch of wet-behind-the-ears right hands. (I mean, how many right-hands can a man have before he starts to feel like he’s been handed a raw deal?)

Ramu, or Sir, as we addressed him, never instructed. Not once in that whole-and-a-half that it took to make the film did he ever give us an instruction. He merely inspired us to get the job done. We spent the pre-production weeks getting to know the workings of his mind like the back of our hands, merely by spending time marinating in movie clips he picked out, listening to him speak about cinema, and quote lines and dialogues from books and films. Ramesh Sippy’s Sholay always made its way into these conversations. And Ramu frequently mentioned The Fountainhead, by which he was inordinately inspired. He spoke about background scores, cutting points, plots and personas until, gradually, without us being aware, Satya began to take shape in our minds. 

October, 1997. Lunch break on the sets, on a warm muggy afternoon.

Much of the cast of the film included actors from Mr. Shekar Kapur’s internationally acclaimed Bandit Queen, which had been released just a few years prior. This meant no stars, only superbly talented performers. The fact that our actors were not stars meant that they freely and willingly participated in the pre-production sessions, from sun up to sun down, absorbing the director’s vision as keenly as we did.

Satya is a story about two prominent rival gangs of the Mumbai underworld. As such, it showcases the point of view of a section of people who live outside the law, but laugh and love and weep like the rest of the world. Only, they do so with loaded guns in their back pockets, which they never hesitate to pull out and fire when required. What Ramu intended was for the audience to fall so completely under their spell that every bullet they fired would be understood, even applauded. What he ended up achieving was just that. Today, Bhiku Mhatre, Kallu Mama and Satya are household names in India.

12th August 1997. Our first day of shooting. On our schedule that day was a scene involving two young members of the Bhiku Mhatre gang firing at and killing a film producer at a traffic signal. In trying to escape the scene of the crime, one is nabbed by the cops, while the other gets away. A confession made in police custody leads to the subsequent arrest of the gang’s leader, a prominent member of Mumbai’s organized crime scene. While in jail, this ambitious, volatile gangster meets Satya, the protagonist of the film, the game-changer.

Satya is the outsider, the quintessential “other” perspective, in a reality so tightly bound by carefully-constructed hierarchy and unquestioning obedience that, if it were broken, would lead to a breakdown of that world itself. Satya, who grew up god-knows-where and lived god-knows-what life before arriving in Mumbai and being framed for a crime he did not commit, is befriended by Bhiku in jail. Once out free, Satya is incorporated into the gang, and almost immediately becomes Bhiku’s right hand. Silent and level-headed in the face of Bhiku’s passionate impulsiveness, he is the voice of dissent that causes the whole system to unravel, until it collapses from its foundations, taking everything and everybody down with it.

As we scurried around preparing for our first day of shooting, elsewhere in Mumbai the very same scene we were about to capture on reel was being enacted in real life. Gulshan Kumar, founder of the T-Series Music label (a leading record label in the 1990s) and a well-known Bollywood film producer, stepped out of the temple after his customary morning worship and was shot dead by members of the D-Company (the “D” here stands for Dawood Ibrahim Kaskar, the kingpin of India’s formidable underworld.) Sixteen bullets later he was dead, sending shock waves through the film fraternity.

Producers who had worked with Ramu on his previous projects arrived on our sets immediately to caution him against proceeding with this film, given the nature and sensitivity of its subject. What if someone in the underworld took umbrage and decided to act? Were Ramu’s creative aspirations worth losing his life over?

It is my personal opinion that the Gulshan Kumar murder fueled Ramu’s determination to make this film. The sheer audacity of the attack (it had been executed in broad daylight with no attempt at concealment) only added grist to the mill. We proceeded on schedule that day, and every day after that.

Our DOP was Mr. Gerard Hooper, faculty at the College of Media Arts and Design, Drexel University. If I were to describe Gerry in a phrase, it would be “a real sport”. Instead of trying to reorganize our process, he simply shrugged his shoulders and dived into the chaos, making sense out of all the nonsense that goes into filmmaking here. He arrived in India from an industry far more organized and systematic than ours, to find that we did not even have a bound script. Also, nobody, in those days, ever concerned themselves with a storyboard!

Ramu spoke to people from all walks of life. When an interesting anecdote or a quirky personality emerged, he didn’t hesitate to rewrite a scene, rethink a role or even change the fate of a character in the film. Sometimes we assistant directors alongside the production team would be buzzing around setting up for that day’s shoot while the writers would be holed up with Ramu writing the very scene that was to be shot. All in all, the story and plot of Satya emerged organically and in a most interesting manner, suddenly throwing a twist here, a turn there, that often caught even the director by surprise.

The best thing about Ramu was his willingness to be surprised. The best thing about Gerry was his willingness to roll (camera) with it. Probably one of the most interesting moments in the film emerged from a chance conversation with a person from our production team. We were shooting a scene in which Chandu, the silly, lovable gas-bag of Bhiku’s gang is killed in a police encounter. The story now demanded that we show his gang members’ reaction to his death. Weeping? Shock? Silence? A declaration of revenge?

Unaware of the director’s quandary (every one of those reactions was predictable, and Ramu was anything but), our location manager wandered onto the sets and began to narrate an incident, one that he claimed was true. This gentleman was particularly given to tall tales. So, when he began his story by saying that he had been present when India’s most dreaded gangster had received news of his brother’s death at the hands of a rival gang, we assistants rolled our eyes and returned to business. Ramu, on the other hand, made it to the end of the narration. The gangster, apparently, had vented his grief by raving against his dead brother for being at the wrong place despite repeated warnings. He had not listened, and now there he was, the stupid bastard, dead!

Ramu was fascinated by the account of this unusual expression of sorrow. He sent for the script writers, and immediately a new scene emerged. Today, Bhiku Mhatre’s reaction (not unlike that infamous gangster’s) to the news of Chandu’s death is considered to be one of the most powerful scenes of the film.

I must add, as an aside, that not long after the release of Satya, a snippet buried inside one of the inner pages of a well-known national daily reported the death of our location manager at the hands of the very same rival gang. I felt a tiny pang, nearly as perfunctory as the death announcement itself. I’m not certain if any of the other assistant directors saw it. At any rate, we never spoke of it.

In those days, digital technology was relatively new in India. Ramu had chosen a creative, young, up-and-coming editor to edit the film. Apurva Asrani worked on the Avid Media Composer, a film and video editing software. When the rushes came in, I found myself at the editing studio working alongside him. Most of what I learned about filmmaking and script writing came from the months I spent in there, helping to piece Satya together. So much can be said on an editing table, so many things change depending on how one chooses to arrange the shots, at what point one decides to cut a scene. And Apurva had the ability to do this with exceptional insight. He could take an impossible suggestion and turn it into something brilliant. Ramu let us play with ideas and experiment to our hearts content. If we thought of something novel and tried to run the idea by him first, he’d cut us short by saying, ‘Surprise me’.

But at long last, time and budget-constraints caught up with us. Ramu finally conceded that the old cut-and-paste method of the Steenbeck – on which he had been used to editing his films thus far – would have to take over. His trusted editor, Bhanodaya, took over portions of the remainder of the edits, while we retained the creative bits in the Avid room. There is an undeniable charm to the Steenbeck – to viewing the positive film on a backlit device, snipping away the superfluous frames and then taping the retained portions back together.

In 1999, when Satya bagged the prestigious Filmfare award for best editing, Apurva and Bhanodaya went up on stage and received it together.

I do not mean to imply that the making of Satya was a bed of roses. The process came with all the usual hiccups, the in-fighting and backbiting that characterize any film set. And yet, never again in my professional life have I felt such a sense of purpose, taken such satisfaction in my work. We shot on location partly in the dangerous alleyways of Agripada, close to Dagdi Chawl – stronghold of the dreaded Maratha gang – at all hours of the day and night.

With Ramuji, Apurva (our editor) and Barnali (a fellow assistant director) @ Chawl No. 12, Agripada: The home of Satya and Vidya

Call sheets that ended at 12 midnight often saw us searching for transport back home amidst crowds of drunken locals ogling and asking if we, the three female assistant directors, were the heroines of the film. Auto rickshaw and taxi drivers in that area usually doubled as pimps in the night. For those who could not afford a room but sought to hire the services of a sex worker (female or otherwise), the back seats of autos and taxis were often their location of necessity for a few minutes of clandestine pleasure. Laboring under the assumption that no decent woman would be hanging around those parts at that hour of the night, cabbies went straight to the conclusion that we girls were out looking for business of another sort. It was the male members of the unit who often came to our rescue, going several miles out of their way to accompany us home safely on such occasions. In retrospect, those incidents are amusing and make for interesting anecdotes. At that time, however, they were just plain terrifying.

Satya released on July 3, 1998, won critical acclaim, received more awards than anyone could count, and made it to CNN-IBN’s 2013 list of 100 greatest Indian films of all times. It was the front runner of a series of gangster films that subsequently emerged from Bollywood, and yet stands apart for its story, its performances, and its ability to reconcile with utter finesse and conviction, the paradox of deadly violence with unswerving loyalty, friendship, humor and compassion.

What I have been saving for the end is the most interesting bit of information about the film. The scriptwriters – there were two of them – included one Mr. Anurag Kashyap, a struggling writer at the time who had worked in television before being introduced to Ramu.

The release of Satya proved to be the big break for Anurag’s career, a heretofore lesser-known writer with aspirations no less glorious or impossible than the thousands of other struggling, out-of-work writers found all over Bollywood. He went on to write and direct several dark and hard-hitting films, earning him the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters) by the French government at Cannes, and seats on the juries at the Venice, Sundance, Marrakech and Busan International Film Festivals.

His work has won him a formidable international fan base, and praise from directors like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino, the latter of who showed up at his birthday bash in Los Angeles one year and yelled “Action!” just as Anurag was cutting the cake! 

Was Satya a great film? I’m not sure. It certainly was flawed, in that the character who lent the film its name was not its most memorable one. In fact, Bhiku Mhatre turned out to be the darling of both critics and common man, but the director had never intended for it to turn out that way. He thought that the power of Satya’s terse-but-insightful dialogues and his silent, brooding personality would steal the show. Nevertheless, Manoj Bajpai’s performance as the gregarious and unpredictable Bhiku most definitely trumped everyone else’s. And if a hero must have a strong heroine by his side to etch him the more deeply into the hearts of his audience, then Bhiku’s quick-tempered, affectionate wife (played by the versatile Shefali Shah) and their crazy, quarrelsome love worked a million times better than the polite passion that Satya shared with his sedate lady love, who discovers his life of crime only towards the end of the film, and then promptly rejects him.

The world quickly came to think of Bhiku Mhatre as the hero of Satya. No doubt this opinion was fortified by the film’s most memorable dialogue, delivered by Bajpai standing on a cliff overlooking Mumbai’s unending coastline as he shouted across the waters, “Mumbai ka king Kaun? Bhiku Mhatre!” (Who is the king of Mumbai? Bhiku Mhatre!)

So, maybe Satya isn’t the perfect film. But it ranks among the best and most memorable ones that Bollywood ever turned out. It carved a niche for itself in the annals of Indian cinema history. And it certainly is the film closest and dearest to my proud and permissive heart!

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