One - Man Company

Within Bollywood, the ace director runs a parallel film industry. It's the biggest launchpad for new talent.

By Sandeep Unnithan

The nondescript single-storey building a stone's throw away from Mumbai's Juhu beach is busy as a beehive. Phones buzz and production executives scurry through a gauntlet of Road and Company posters. Presiding over this chaos with saint-like serenity is Ram Gopal Varma, dressed in muscle T-shirt, jeans and brown loafers and unruffled by the air conditioner that blasts out a cold draught. Until you ask him about the "Ram Gopal Varma film industry". "Sounds more like an underworld faction,'' the 40-year-old throws his head back into the high-backed red chair and laughs. But Varma, the stylish auteur of Satya and Company, two of the classiest Bollywood gangster epics, has had it with the underworld.

Jijy Philips
Murder at Srikrishna Building, jointly produced with Ajay Devgan
Chandan Arora
Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon, starring Antara Mali
Praval Pandey
Darna Mana Hain, Twilight Zone-esque thriller, stars virtually entire Varma camp
Shimit Amin
Ab Tak Chhappan, story of Mumbai Police encounter specialist Daya Nayak

With Bhoot, due for release in March, Varma intends to "scare the hell out of everybody". Muse Urmila Matondkar sees dead people amid a truckload of talent-Ajay Devgan, Nana Patekar, Seema Biswas, Fardeen Khan, Victor Banerjee and new friend Rekha, who he chats with in fluent Telugu at least once a day on his silver Ericsson cell phone.

The film is set not in a mist-swathed bungalow with the mandatory haunting songs and a lady in white, but in an apartment block in the heart of bustling Mumbai "where you are safe and secure and least expect a ghost".

Uncharacteristic of Bollywood, the film's teasers were out six months before its release. Varma, who drives a pearl white Toyota Landcruiser, has refused to drive the beaten path for a decade since his tale of college violence, Shiva, put him on the movie map. The pioneer of the industry's new corporatisation mantra-script-driven, start-to-finish projects made within reasonable budgets and sold cheaply (Bhoot was sold for a paltry Rs 1 crore)-says the industry promotes indulgence. "It is used to making films over two to three years with lavish sets. I have control over my films, which reflects in the cost and time.''

Superhit Satya cost just Rs 2 crore. And the costliest Company (Rs 12 crore) still doesn't qualify for big budgeter. 20th Century Fox MD Aditya Shastri, who is marketing three Varma Corp films, says, "There is no reason why he can't be a Warner Bros or a Fox.'' Trade analyst Komal Nahta calls him "a director so confident of his script that he makes it with absolute newcomers or even flop stars". Devgan, who stars in three of his next seven films, calls him a perfectionist. "He comes with his homework done, knows every shot and dialogue and is clear about what he wants."

Not surprising then that Varma is ranked third in Bollywood's power list of directors-after Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai-who call the shots and, in Varma's case, ask for the moon. Bollywood moneybags Bharat Shah did not bat an eyelid when he asked for Rs 80 crore-more than the combined budget of his 17 Hindi and Telugu films-for the Amitabh Bachchan-Devgan thriller Ek. It is one of the seven films worth over Rs 150 crore that Varma plans to release by 2004. The civil engineer, whose boss entrusted him with only counting cement sacks, is happily handing over six of the seven films to first-timers, a record even for someone regarded as the Cape Canaveral of two film industries.

In the Telugu film industry where he has made 13 films, Varma has launched stars like Nagarjuna and music director M.M. Kreem. In Bollywood, soon after launching Manoj Bajpai, reviving the flagging career of Matondkar and fielding cinematographers and editors, he snapped up an unknown Vivek Oberoi, now the hottest newcomer, just five minutes after seeing a demo tape.

Varma's eye for talent means he is besieged by newcomers. He has changed cell phone numbers three times in 2002. His office staff handles at least 50 newcomers a day. But mention the word "break" and Varma morphs from a haloed Svengali into a ruthless mogul striking Faustian deals. "It is purely a mutually beneficial business relationship.''

Dum director E. Nivas, who joined Varma as a 15-year-old assistant director, says it isn't easy getting the "break". "He has to first see that spark of talent in you." Varma asked Nivas to direct Shool after he was impressed with two scenes he edited in a Telugu film. Last year, the master of the item number-"I love shooting women with voyeuristic glee"-even allowed choreographer Ganesh Hegde to shoot and edit Khallas and Kambakht ishq. Varma, who hadn't entered a studio before shooting Shiva, feels "once someone understands the fundamentals of his work, it is his personality which shines through".

Which could explain his dramatic personal makeover. Last year, the nerdish, slightly built director zapped his eyes with lasers so he could toss away his thick spectacles and hit the gym. Now his 14-inch biceps strain the threads of his torso-hugging T-shirts. Critics, and he has plenty, accuse him of hubris. One director calls him a power-tripper, while Anurag Kashyap, who scripted Satya, refuses to talk about him. Trade experts say he is yet to attain the stature of a universal hit-maker, industryspeak for a director whose films are as successful in Mumbai as they are in Moradabad. "His main markets are Mumbai and south India. Rangeela was his only universal hit,'' says trade analyst Amod Mehra.

But Varma himself is perhaps his worst critic. His first film, the Exorcist-inspired Raat, "is a pretty bad movie". What of forthcoming Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chahti Hoon? "Laugh at it. Say, 'Ramu has lost his head'. But you can't ignore the title. That's the whole point.'' The industry is beginning to get it.

"Don't fool people with long titles"
Ram Gopal Varma tells Principal Correspondent Sandeep Unnithan on why he chooses newcomers, Urmila Matondkar and short titles for his films.
Q. Do you scare easily?
Quite easily. I'm an atheist and I don't believe in ghosts. But my most frightening moment was in 1995 when Ganesh idols allegedly began sipping milk. I thought everything I stood for was being challenged.

Q. Why do you work with debutants?
When I have a new idea, I'm charged up and want to start the film immediately, but I simply don't have the patience to wait for stars. Secondly, I can't imagine established actors doing roles like the ones in Satya, just as I can't imagine anyone but a star like Ajay Devgan doing Mallik's role in Company.

Q. Why do you give breaks to so many directors?
I hate the word break. It's just a business deal at the end of the day so there's no such thing as giving a break.

Q. Why is Matondkar there in practically all your films?
I like her as an actress. I have a very good working relationship with her.

Q. Road, Satya, Daud and Ek. Why are you obsessed with short titles?
Everyone told me Road was a bad title, but if you forget its box-office performance, it was one of the few films that got an initial. I think it is only because of the title. It is stupid to think the audience is a bunch of fools who can be manipulated by long titles and NRI romances.