For all those who want to secede from the dreaded formula of Hindi cinema, he has promised to create a parallel universe without degenerating into art. What he started with Satya, Company and Bhoot, he plans to continue, "forever". He has already damaged the star system, proved songs are immaterial to story-telling, and driven down prices at which films are sold to distributors. But some say that with the failure of the last three films he has produced, the first round has gone to the serenading bores. Varma says it’s too early to take a call. The war goes on.
Down a lane filled with identical middle-class apartments where they never break any rules unless it’s traffic, there has come to stay a very strange office built entirely on a preposterous question—Why Not? Beneath a huge board that says The Factory, there is a heavy door guarded by an unemotional, uniformed man whose job is to stretch his hand to chest level and stop visitors. He has been getting increasingly busy of late. Suppressed talent has been dropping by. Writers, directors and musicians come to the heavy door with hope, even tall muscular boys in tight T-shirts, looking like they have escaped from Karan Johar’s rose garden in Bandra. It’s usually around noon that Varma walks into The Factory, wearing a mask of preoccupation that makes him look convincingly unmindful of all the poignant hope at his doorstep. He is a powerfully built man, chest puffed through characteristic persistence in a gym called Barbarian. According to writer Anurag Kashyap who once felt Varma’s biceps, "they are like rocks".
Inside, The Factory has expensive sofas and a somewhat more affordable receptionist. Everything else is abstract and confusing. There are deceptive mirrors and a false door at one end of the corridor. On a wall, Varma’s initials are expressed in bar code. He loved the insanity of the decor so much that he asked designer Praveen Savant who had never seen a film set in his life to direct a film. So Savant is directing D, a grim prequel to Company. Varma believes that if a man knows how to tell a story, he will be able to direct a film. "There is no need to know how a camera works. Frankly, I don’t know how the camera works." The mainstream, he says, "tries to suppress new talent by building a mystique around a director, I want to break that mindset." Any day, he would choose enthusiasm above expertise. Some men who used to clean his teacups have become production assistants. His driver is now a production controller.
As he walks down a narrow metal-plated strip towards his cabin, Varma is unsmiling and distracted. "Very creepy," as an assistant whispers. He is variously described in his office as a good man, a pathetic communicator and "a dark human being". Though he is not a foul-mouthed chieftain and usually expresses anger by not speaking at all, something about him frightens his assistants. Once during the shoot of Satya, Varma wanted to capture the sea in a surprising evening light. No one had the courage to tell him there was no more film left to shoot. Later, at the editing table, he was told that the fog had ruined the shot.
On the walls of Varma’s spacious cabin are nude men and women in artistic poses that should not be copied at home. There is a bright orange couch shaped like a foot. "Everybody calls it the casting couch," he says. The couch is never a route talent has to take to reach his sets. But his famous persistence with Urmila Matondkar earlier and Antara Mali now has made people point to a certain weakness for the women he’s involved with. He himself has never clarified the nature of the two associations. He doesn’t speak on such matters, nor does he make a decisive statement but to a good friend he once said jokingly, "Let people make up their own stories. If these stories make your old college friends jealous of you, it’s great, isn’t it?"
Mali stars with Abhishek Bachchan in Varma’s musical drama Naach. The film is believed to be so far removed from convention that industry observers say only a man who is either very rich or mad will do such a thing. Varma is not rich. He has always had a mysterious ability to generate money while questioning traditional wisdom. Later this year he’ll begin work on the most expensive Indian movie ever conceived. EK will be a Rs 75-100 crore story on international terrorism. He admits to speaking to "a few Hollywood stars" but will not confirm the rumour that it’s Harrison Ford he’s trying to rope in. If EK is ever made, it will fall in line with a certain darkness that he so admires in a story. He’s said to quote from memory whole portions of Mario Puzo’s Godfather and Ayn Rand’s Fountainhead.
Someone brings him a sketch of a deserted bungalow. It’s a set design for one of his projects—Shanti Kutir, a film Varma says will be scarier than Bhoot. When director Saurab Narang came to meet him with the idea, he asked him what he had in mind. "I want to scare the shit out of the people," Narang said. "I love that about a director," Varma says. "Clear, simple vision of what he wants to do." For a man who has declared that he will make "as many films as there are good fresh directors", he is entirely dependent on his instinct to separate the cons from the truly talented. He has no patience to read a whole script but listens with the complexity of a man evaluating every inch of the speaker. He makes judgements very fast. "When do I know a guy is bullshitting me? When he comes to me and says he wants to make a film on the psychological conflict in Indian society. I don’t want to work with people like that, those intense types."
Though he is directing only one of the seven films that will be released this year, he is closely involved with the rest. "He has his finger on everything, the scripts, casting, production, music, even publicity posters. The only area he’s not very involved in is in making payments," says an insider. Varma is said to be a stingy man though he’ll always give excellent reasons on why he’s not. "I pay a new director Rs 4 lakh a film," he says with a clear conscience. It’s usually paid as a monthly salary of Rs 40,000. "Sometimes these cheques bounce," an assistant director says. "My salary cheque bounced last month." When Varma doesn’t think too much, he’s said to be magnanimous. Anurag Kashyap has gone to him several times and asked for money "to pay my rent, to run my house". Despite all the bitter fights the two have had before over how to make a good film, Varma would always be ready with the cash.
Among those who believe the goodness in him is limited, the strongest complaint is that he likes to play god. He admits that in all the films he has produced, "the final cut is always mine". But that’s not the reason, he says, why he is hated by many. "Actors, writers, directors, musicians, a lot of people I’ve worked with hate me. It’s 98 per cent emotional." The way he spits out "emotional", it’s clear he thinks it’s a great flaw in human evolution. "They feel I deserted them after using them when they were fresh. The way I look at things, in films there are only affairs, no marriages. Some people say I give breaks. That’s not true. I use new talent. That’s all. When it becomes expensive or when it doesn’t fit my requirement, I will not need it."
He loathes situations where he has to heed a system. Once during a discussion with iDreams, he was asked to submit the script. He walked out of the meeting grumbling that he didn’t submit scripts. It’s another story that he usually doesn’t have a complete script even while shooting. Satya was born on the roads. Writers developed the story on the sets. Nobody knew what was happening. In the beginning it was the story of a small-town man encountering the underworld in Bombay. When he saw Manoj Bajpai, he built a story around his life. Company and Bhoot too were made this way. Khalaas, the lead song of Company, was shot without Varma. The cameraman was asked to look at Isha Koppikar "as if he was a voyeur" and the editor was asked to cut as though "he was having a hangover after a drunken party".
Varma’s almost eerie instincts have not been good enough for Darna Mana Hai, Main Madhuri Dixit Banna Chaahti Hoon and Ek Hasina Thi to become hits. There has been talk that K. Sera Sera, the 65 per cent finance behind Varma’s revolution, is getting nervous. Parag Sanghvi, one of the promoters, however denies that there is any pressure on Varma. "We are going strong. In fact next year we plan to release 12 films and by 2006 we hope to release a film every week." And then a day would come, Varma says sincerely, when he would have unleashed so many directors and "so much sense" that the Formula will have to coexist with The Factory. And the war would have been won.