The Mumbai Film Industry has been thematically infatuated with the Mumbai underworld for a long time and this is reflected in the number of movies produced every few years projecting their own version of what the underworld might look like. A huge impetus behind this fascination is the potentially lucrative business movies with such a ‘mysterious’ (to the general populace, anyway) theme can do, if executed properly. Barring Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Gangster’ series, however, very few of these attempts at making underworld-themed movies have actually focused on depicting a somewhat realistic picture of the theme they had adopted, instead copy-pasting from earlier movies’ tropes that have become the standard formula of these kinds of movies, the argument being that they are what ‘fill the box office,’ so to speak. Varma’s ‘Sarkar’ (2005), apart from his ‘Gangster’ series, might provide a fresh departure from this trend, although to answer the question whether this film is completely free of these tropes is a bit complicated.
Subhash Nagre, also known as ‘Sarkar’ is the biggest gang leader of Mumbai. He functions as a kind of parallel government, addressing the grievances of people who did not find justice in the formal ‘system’ of the state apparatus or were betrayed by the corruption in that system. The resultant support that the poor of his state shower on him has made him powerful enough to pull strings in the highest levels of state government. His overarching influence over the formal state system and his strong sense of justice and ethics became problematic for a lot of people both inside and outside the system (state officials and underworld bosses, respectively) and an elaborate plan was hatched to remove him from the picture. With advice from Virendar Swami (an ‘ascetic’ who also kept political and underworld connections), Rashid (a gang leader whose illegal business promising an annual revenue of 200 crores was blocked by Sarkar) and Vishtram Bhagat (a former member of Sarkar’s gang who had joined the then chief minister Madan Rathore’s party in order to secure more illegal income) set upon tarnishing the reputation Nagre had built for himself as an honest and ethical ‘peoples’ champion.’ Sarkar’s eldest son Vishnu Nagre was tricked into killing the hero of the movie he was producing and was taken in by Bhagat, while a careful framing of Sarkar in the case of a pacifist and popular political leader Motilal Khurana’s murder resulted in the former being jailed. At this point, Nagre’s former ally Silver Mani joined the conspirators. An assassination attempt at Nagre, when foiled by the efforts of his youngest son Shankar, resulted in the speculation of the involvement of a possible third party in Khurana’s murder which helped in Nagre’s bail and the restoration of his public image. The conspirators, now terrified for their lives (as the latter now knew who they were thanks to Shankar), used Vishnu Nagre to breach Sarkar’s defences and secretly murder him. This attempt was again foiled by Shankar who made Vishnu lie to the conspirators that he had succeeded. After killing Vishnu, Shankar used the brief window of time provided by Vishnu’s lie when the conspirators were lured into a false sense of security to murder them in quick succession. It was finally revealed that the chief minister Madan Rathore was the true mastermind behind the conspiracy. Shankar used Virendar Swami to destroy the CM’s own public image and intimidated him into resigning. The film ends with Sarkar re-established in his position, Shankar having emerged as the power behind his father’s personality.
Subhash Nagre or ‘Sarkar.’ an old man at the peak of the Mumbai underworld, is a mixture of characteristics usually perceived as contrasts. The man has a strong sense of justice and ethics, has a surprising degree of self-control, is a loving father and caring husband, and exudes an aura of calm collectedness. The same man, however, has no qualms in ordering tortures and killings of people he deems are ‘wrong,’ ‘unethical’ or ‘a criminal that the system did not punish.’ This apparent duality can be reconciled in light of Nagre’s sense of justice. As he explains in his meeting with Rashid, he does things that he believes is ‘right’ and in doing so commits actions that are deemed as illegal. However, nothing can stop him from doing what he thinks is ‘right’ even if that means going against the police, the political leadership, God or even the whole system. This is what makes Sarkar so frightening to his enemies. Once he decides that someone is a ‘criminal’ or an ‘enemy of the people,’ that person is not left any room for negotiation and is quickly introduced to his punitive arm. This punitive arm spares no one, as seen by his treatment of his son Vishnu Nagre and his support behind filing an FIR against him. On the other hand, Sarkar assumes the role of ‘protector’ for those who he deems are ‘innocent’ and have been ‘wronged’ in any way. Generally this protective arm is extended over those who do not find any justice in the so-called ‘system’ i.e. the state-based ‘formal’ machine of jurisprudence. Nagre does not let any material interests come in the way of his ethical clarity and morality-based decision-making. This moral clarity and refusal to compromise this clarity in favour of situational necessities, while raising him to an almost God-like position among the urban poor (who are usually the prey of systematic corruption) giving him unparalleled power; also frustrates those who are in it for the profit and do not possess the same degree of moral rigidity, allies and enemies alike. Sarkar’s defining nature, therefore, while the source of his power also has the potential to produce great danger, as his refusal to compromise with anything ‘wrong’ pushes his disaffected allies and enemies together. He even admits this when he is jailed (“Ek bahaut bari sajish rachi gayi hai ... meri galti hai ... mein ise aate huye dekh nahi saka”).
Unlike Subhash who draws his identity from his sense of justice, his eldest son Vishnu Nagre draws his identity from power, or lack thereof. He tries to establish himself in a position of power in every situation he is in, and tries to be in control of not only his own decisions but of those around him, irrespective of the social constraints and duties that may restrain him from doing so. This controlling attitude shows itself even in his marital and extra-marital relations, with him chiding his wife for speaking positively of his father and not him and reminding her that it was him who brought her into the Nagre family, while forcing his film’s lead actress Sapna to accept an expensive gift. He certainly inherits his father’s adamant mindset but lacks the moral compass that functions as this mindset’s anchor in case of the latter. Unlike Subhash who in spite of being the most powerful person in the state of Maharashtra treated his gang members and even some of his public enemies (like Motilal Khurana) with respect and dignity, Vishnu perceives the relationships around him as vertical, not hesitating to call his father’s right-hand man Chander a ‘naukar’ (servant). This also implies that he perceives himself to be the ‘malik’ (master) by virtue of having a sort of hereditary ownership over the power and prestige meticulously built by his father. Probably the knowledge that all his power is derived from his father’s and the sense of powerlessness that he has to experience in his interactions with his father, apart from the sharp ideological differences that he has with his father feed his resentment towards his father. This is reflected with his distrust for his father’s public image (“Tujhe kya lagta hai, tera baap sant hai? Janta nahi tu apne baap ko!”). He is the only member in Subhash’s family and probably the only member of his gang who has no difficulty in believing that it was Nagre who ordered Khurana’s murder. His impulsiveness (reflected in the killing of his film’s lead actor), blind hatred for his father and unquenchable hunger for control ironically makes him the perfect candidate for manipulation and he is tricked and coaxed into making a series of mistakes. His only redeeming characteristic seems to have been his love for his mother, but this is in the end overshadowed by his vices when he decides to assassinate his father, the final mistake before he meets his demise in the hands of his own brother: a traitor’s death.
Amrita, Vishnu’s wife, is the person arguably most affected by the latter’s actions. Her existence in the film is defined by the clash of two identities both forged by the patriarchal values imparted with marriage: the identity of Vishnu Nagre’s wife as opposed to that of a member of the Nagre family headed by the patriarch Subhash Nagre. She has to face the brunt of the emotional trauma brought about by her husband’s debauchery with other women and his unapologetic behaviour regarding the same. Never does she fight for her rights as a legally married wife but has to keep doing her duties to the family she is now ‘bound’ to and to the son (Chiku) that her husband does not seem to care for. The unusual conflict between the two generally aligned above-mentioned identities is the source of her misery, the very conflict that makes her choose between the two opposing sides, spelled out by her conversation (interestingly, only one of them is seen throughout the film) with her husband. Truthfully, she is never really given the option to choose what is best for her own life. She has no say in her husband’s expulsion; none in his return and none in his murder. She remains the silent spectator, the ‘woman of the house’ who has to accept the decisions of the men of the household without question.
Pooja Modi, Shankars’s girlfriend, is a different story. In her very first scene, she seems judgemental about Chander’s appearance. Influenced by her father, she distrusts Shankar’s family, especially his father Subhash. She does not buy the idea of Subhash Nagre doing ‘justice’ while staying out of the system’s boundaries and acting as a parallel government. She has no problems believing that it was Nagre who ordered Khurana’s murder. Her position is finally spelled out by her when she tells Shankar that she loves and trusts him but not his family and gives him an ultimatum of either staying with his family or leaving with her for the USA. On receiving a negative answer, she leaves for good. While her character shows strength and independence unusual for a Bollywood film, her thoughts on the Nagre family and her judgemental attitude without investigating anything for herself shows her prejudice against anyone who she (and her father) thinks is out of bounds for polite society.
Avantika, Shankar’s second love interest, is in many ways the traditional, run-of-the-mill ‘girlfriend’ in Bollywood terms. This bubbly, cheerful girl’s whole world seems to revolve around Shankar; with no development whatsoever otherwise. Her father was one of Subhash Nagre’s associates and when the former died, the latter promised that his son Shankar would marry her. Avantika, (unsurprisingly when we consider Bollywood logic) is on board with this and ‘loved Shankar since her childhood.’ At the beginning of the movie, she seems happy and excited at Shankar’s arrival but is heartbroken when informed of his relationship with Pooja. For someone who ‘loved Shankar since childhood’ she, apart from having cried all night one night, is quite alright with this development as well. Later, when Pooja has conveniently left Shankar, he is suddenly impressed by her devotion and service to his father during times of crisis and ‘accepts’ her as his love interest. Avantika is happy and her character arc comes to a close here.
Vishtram Bhagat, a former member of Sarkar’s gang, was apparently kicked out when Shankar was in the USA and we find him in the beginning of the movie as a minister in Madan Rathore’s party. Bhagat is out for the money and he prefers Rathore’s leadership to Nagre’s as the former is seemingly oblivious to his attempts at illegally making more money. It is also the promise of a share in a business with potential annual revenue of Rs. 200 crores that draws him into Rashid’s dangerous conspiracy of having Nagre killed, although his personal animosity towards his former superior must have contributed in this decision. Bhagat is smart and uses Vishnu Nagre’s hatred for his father to keep contacts with him and keeping tabs on Subhash Nagre’s movements through him. This connection becomes crucial during the conspiracy when Bhagat uses his ‘friendship’ with Vishnu to have him commit an impulsive murder that ultimately leads the latter to find refuge in the former, effectively turning Vishnu into an involuntary pawn. Vishtram is a money-hungry manipulator, but his over-reliance upon Vishnu as a pawn leads to his and his group’s demise.
Rashid, a former member of Nayek’s gang who had spent 2-3 years before the movie’s time in Nepal and Dubai, functions like a wild card in the well-established hierarchy of the Mumbai underworld. He had secured a big business deal and needed Sarkar’s support in conducting business without having to run into problems with the Mumbai gangsters. Apparently the ‘commodity’ of this business was something unspeakable as Sarkar refused to comply, even making it clear that he would not let Rashid carry on this venture. Rashid then decides to kill Sarkar with the help of the local magnates (both underground and ‘official’). This fearlessness (as every other ‘established’ thug in Mumbai is terrified of Sarkar’s power), along with a cold cruelty exhibited by his piercing stare, is characteristic of Rashid’s behaviour throughout the film. Speaking of stares, it is important to mention that although extremely dangerous because of having a distinct lack of any moral compass when it comes to do some dirty work to secure what he wants, Rashid is very soft-spoken and has an uncomfortably calm energy about him. Most of his emotions are expressed through his quiet stares which are enough to make people back away or comply. What make these stares even more lethal are his unpredictability and the absolute ease with which he kills. The only moment in the film where his gaze exhibits some form of vulnerability is moments before his death, when he becomes sure of his impending demise.
Silver Mani or Mani Seth was Sarkar’s junior and associate, but by the time of the film’s beginning he has enough influence of his own to emerge as a powerful gang leader in his own right. Power does not translate fully into independence, however, as Mani has to seek Sarkar’s permission before going through with any important deal. Sarkar’s rigid moral stance means that Mani has to turn away many opportunities for lucrative business. He does not care for the moral implications if the deal brings material profits for him, but he does not have the courage or the stupidity to tell this to Sarkar’s face. In spite of his internal frustrations, he has to maintain amicable relations with Sarkar as the former is fully aware of the latter’s power. However, he finds the perfect opportunity to break away from Sarkar’s shadow when he is offered to join the conspiracy to kill him. Apart from being a cautious opportunist, Mani is also prone to fits of anger. He is the first to burst in anger when Rashid’s attempt to ambush and kill Shankar fails. His bid for independence and unchecked power fails in the end, as he is the first of the conspirators to be assassinated.
Virendar Swami is a mysterious character because he is the only one of the obvious antagonists in the film whose intentions are not revealed almost through its entirety. Maintaining a facade of an ascetic and a religious guru (teacher) while keeping covert contacts with the underworld and the political circle, Swami is always hailed for his intelligence and “level of thinking” by his political friends. He also possesses a degree of charisma not seen in major politicians. This charisma, intelligence and a religious garb allows him a great degree of power over people. He serves as the brains of the conspiracy, formulating the initial plan of action and also suggesting using Vishnu to breach through Sarkar’s defences and kill him. In the end, however, it is revealed that Rathore himself had used Swami to convey what was actually his plan to the conspirators. Swami, in reality, served as the perfect camouflaged mouthpiece for Madan Rathore.
That brings us to the most dangerous of the antagonists, chief minister of Maharashtra, Madan Rathore. He had won the elections by enlisting Subhash Nagre’s support and maintained cordial relations with him. It even seemed throughout the film that Madan was one of Subhash’s closest friends and most ardent supporters who fought with colleagues and negotiated with superiors to put forward Nagre’s position. In reality, however, Madan found himself, in spite of being at the top of the ‘system’ in Maharashtra, as a figurehead in the face of Subhash’s over-arching influence and popularity. The only way, therefore, to make progress in the political chessboard, was to eliminate Nagre and his gang. He used Rashid’s entry into the scene and the ripples that he was creating in the established stillness in order to make sure that his (as well as his own) objective was realized. In order to remain anonymous, he had enlisted the help of Virendar Swami. It seems highly probable the only Swami among the conspirators was truly aware of the real mastermind behind their plans. Ultimately, it was Shankar who realized Rathore’s involvement through the hints that he was unconsciously leaving throughout the film.
Shankar, the youngest son of Subhash Nagre, has lived most of his life away from the family and its illegal activities, getting a formal education abroad and looking forward to what seemed to be a fairly normal and prosperous life. His distance from his father’s activities had helped in him developing an idealized image of his father, much like the outsiders who had incurred his favour. In his conversation with Pooja, he informs her that his father “helps people in need” and is a good person in spite of his unorthodox methods. He has a strong sense of loyalty towards his father which is reflected every time he is criticised. However, this loyalty faces the ultimate test with his brother’s expulsion and his father’s humiliation and arrest. Shankar surprisingly declines his father’s order of returning to the USA to take refuge in his comfortable life in order to stay with the family and protect it in crisis. In spite of having no hunger for power like his elder brother, Shankar in a time of extreme crisis and pressure was able to take sound decisions that his father’s trusted and experienced subordinates were unable to do. This quickly solidified his position in Subhash Nagre’s absence as the leader of the gang. Quick thinking and action in his part as well as luck and the sacrifice of one of his closest associates allowed him to prevent his father’s assassination. However, he quickly had to learn the terrible price that power demands by having to execute the terrible but necessary decision of killing his own brother in order to ensure survival for the rest of the family and the gang. This allows him the breathing time needed to finish off their adversaries. He is also the only one to have figured out Madan Rathore’s hand in the conspiracy and is able to remove him from the picture through a combination of alliance and intimidation without having to reveal his or his gang’s involvement in it. By the end of the movie Shankar emerges as the power behind his father, with people even starting to call him ‘Sarkar.’ However, mentally and emotionally, he is scarred for life.
It seems that the movie ‘Sarkar’ does not have the tropes we all know and hate as far as gangster movies produced by the Mumbai film industry is concerned: there are no hilarious fight scenes when one punch from the ‘hero’ results in the ‘villains’ flying across the horizon, cheeky romantic songs or overtly dramatic in-laws. However, there are some tropes that we can still identify. For example: the distinct lack in Bollywood films of fairly natural female ‘human’ characters is also present here (a glaring example being Avantika). Shankar’s position as the ‘unlikely’ or ‘reluctant’ hero is something that has been seen one too many times in the industry’s productions before or since. In my opinion, therefore, ‘Sarkar’ is definitely a movie that provides a departure from the norm when it comes to films about gangsters. The plot is a clever one and there are some genuinely intriguing, entertaining and emotional moments. However, it is not something ‘groundbreaking’ or ‘shell-shocking,’ adjectives that can readily be attributed to Varma;s ‘Satya’ or ‘D Company.’ Even so, Ram Gopal Varma’s ‘Sarkar’ is absolutely worth the watch.