Bullets Over Bombay book review: Uday Bhatia's Satya rewind is a capsule of the '90s
Bullets Over Bombay is quite an immersive treatise on Satya because it does not just detail the making of the movie, but also gives a sense of what the real world was like back then, in the not-so-nice '90s.
At first, there is nothing; then for a long time, chaos; then, almost improbably, a world is born, brimming with life.
I am romanticising the journey of a motion picture here, but if it also reads like a quick dash from the Big Bang to yesterday, that’s because at an infinitesimal level, moviemaking is almost exactly that – creating a world out of nothing. A detailed look at the making of an iconic motion picture is always a worthy document, medium no bar. Personally speaking, I frequently revisit the 1991 feature Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse, a gutting film about the making of Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). The movie is as good as the movie.
It need not always be a film, though. A book about the making of a movie can be equally compelling. Or even spectacular, like Robert Rodriguez’s Rebel Without A Crew, detailing the making of his first indie feature, El Mariachi. Yet, there is often something about a keen outsider-fan’s construction and deconstruction of a film’s making that can make it resonate wider and deeper than the filmmaker’s own perspective. It is why Anupama Chopra’s 2000 book Sholay: The Making of a Classic is such a fun read.
Cut from similar cloth is Uday Bhatia’s Bullets Over Bombay, a vivid chronicle of the making of Ram Gopal Varma’s Satya (1998). There are but a handful of movies (give or take) that can claim to have altered the course of popular Hindi cinema. Circling back to the cosmic analogy one last time, Satya was one of those rare films that inverted entropy itself. The Big Bang happened after the film was made and released into the world; its visionary maker has since been steadily imploding into nothingness. (I still believe, RGV will be back.)
Plenty of little anecdotes about that genre-invigorating film have come out in the decades since it released, so these are not altogether unfamiliar stories. After all, as Bhatia mentions in his book, the list of Satya alumni today reads like an honour roll, and they have all recounted their Satya days before this. Still,
Bullets Over Bombay is quite an immersive treatise on Satya because it does not only detail the making of the movie, but also gives a sense of what the real world was like back then, in the not-so-nice '90s.
It puts into context many of the social and political events of the day that played their part in the scripting and crafting of an epochal work of fiction. The assassination of a certain movie mogul, for instance, which coincided with the earliest days of the shoot of Satya. No one making the film could have predicted the impact it would have. But putting all of the little vignettes of the saga together gives a sense of the deliberate artistry and accidental genius lurking behind it, both of which are vital for a film to match or surpass its ostensible potential.
A chunk of the book also looks back at the antecedents of Satya – the history of the gangster movie itself, at least those made by Hollywood and its Mumbai counterpart. Bhatia simultaneously notes how Satya is not just a gangster film, but also a city film. And thus, he also casts a look at memorable city films over the years, specifically Bombay/Mumbai films. Satya, after all, embraces the unvarnished truth of everyday Bombay like few other films do. In connecting all of the cinematic dots that preceded Satya, Bhatia also aptly points out how Hindi films until then often showed a revolt against the cruelties of the system. Satya showed its characters accepting what is. The system is what it is; we play it and game it as much as we can, the characters of Satya seem to say.
Bhatia’s loyalties here lie not with the Satya the film, but with the story of how it came to be. So he does not shy away from pointing out the follies and frailties of those involved. Thus, the memories and accounts of the participants in the telling of this story may not always line up – from Ram Gopal Varma himself to Anurag Kashyap, Apurva Asrani, Vishal Bhardwaj, and the rest – but that is the beauty of it. They come together to paint a rousing picture of the nuts and bolts that were hammered into the crafting of a genuine classic.
It is a story of youthful derring-do and exuberant creative energies harmonising at different levels, culminating in a film that emerged a game-changer. Imagine, for instance, that no one liked or even understood: "Goli maar bheje mein, ke bheja shor karta hai," apart from Gulzar himself, who wrote those lyrics. They went with it because ultimately, no one knew how to tell the senior artist that. Needless to say, history shows who was on the right side of that particular disagreement.
Every scene, every iconic moment in the film has many strands leading up to it, and Bhatia is meticulous in providing not just his own reading of the scene in question, but in also bringing out the joys and heartbreaks that surround nearly every moment of inspiration, every memorable flourish you might remember from the film. I was personally thrilled numerous times while reading the book, with the little insights into RGV’s brain it provides, or even for its confirmation about one of my long-held hunches about Satya – its opening monologue, always seemed like it was first written in English and then translated into Hindi.
And if the history of the gangster genre or Bombay film subgenre fascinates you, Bullets Over Bombay might just help out with an essential viewing list.
Bombay Over Bullets is published by HarperCollins Publishers India.
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