Sunday, 2 April 2017

From the archive: "Sarkar"

A pretty decent transposition of The Godfather to latter-day India, Ram Gopal Varma's Sarkar is distinguished simply by making a lot of sense - for one thing, it's cast Amitabh Bachchan, the sternest-seeming of all Bollywood patriarchs, in what's effectively the Brando role at precisely the point in the actor's career, in his life, when his face has started to take on craggy, Pacino-like contours. The star's own offspring Abhishek, in the Michael role, is the ambitious son who's studied overseas and wants to set up his own software company, only to be held back by dumb familial loyalty; Kay Kay Menon (a doubly Puzoesque name), taking the Sonny role, is a married film director, obsessed with his leading lady, who doesn't take half as kindly to his pop laying down the law.  

The Godfather was a period piece as much as anything, but Sarkar runs with the line proposed by the recent Ab Tak Chhappan that contemporary India is a place where conventional methods of justice have broken down entirely, forcing the people to look towards mob (or, perhaps, Mob) rule. The updating leads to nice touches (a boss knifes an informant while a subordinate blithely texts away), while the geographical relocation permits Varma to do as much with the rituals of Hinduism as Coppola did with Catholicism: he cues chants of Govinda on the soundtrack, and recruits a swami (a more substantial character than any of the priests in the Godfather films) to advise Bachchan's rivals on the difference between killing a man and killing an idea.

Coppola's film ran to three hours, but Varma's only runs to two, which leads to some compressed - read: rushed - plotting in places, and a wider sense of indecision about the burden of following in your father's footsteps: is it a risky business (as the gangster genre has traditionally suggested) or entirely right and proper (as Asian tradition would dictate)? But the considered lighting and suspenseful score are true to the spirit of the original, and Varma has a major asset in Bachchan's fierce and unyielding stillness: this role instinctively feels a better fit for the actor's offscreen persona than the clown-papa he keeps essaying in the bulk of his romantic comedies.

(December 2005)

Sarkar is available on DVD through T-Series.

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