HERE finally is a crossover film that is much, much more than just a well-meaning attempt. Satya succeeds where many others have failed. Ramgopal Verma's searing essay on the murky, brutally violent Mum-bai underworld fuses the grammar of popular Hindi cinema with the aesthetics of non-mainstream films. And the effort doesn't show. Songs, dance routines, moments of high drama and a boy-meets-girl angle in an otherwise unrelentingly bleak film are Verma's willing concessions to commercial considerations. But the dominant sensibility, both in the screenplay by actor Saurabh Shukla and Anurag Kashyap, and in the director's stark depiction of a world that exists on the fringes of civilised society and yet constantly impinges on its ground rules, is steadfastly that of an informed sociologist. Satya perhaps marks the birth of a new best-of-both-worlds genre but, given the power it packs, it will be a hard act to follow.
Satya's film noir feel places it firmly in a tradition that dates back to '40s Hollywood, but it's anything but derivative. Its dark tone, the expressionistic lighting in the gangsters' dank hideaways, the senseless shoot-outs and characters whose tortured souls are trapped in dead-end despair are only a ruse. Under its hard crust, this study of urban violence has a heart. Its all-pervasive cynicism is couched in genuine concern. Concern for those unfortunate social outcasts who're forced to live and die by the gun.
Verma is, admittedly, in morally ambivalent territory: do these murderous men really deserve a hearing? But in his deft interpretation of their trigger-happy impulses, they're shorn of all vestiges of valour. They are unheroic creatures placed in real, grimy Mumbai locations. They're people who take recourse to violence for survival. They're figures deserving more pity than awe or fear. As Verma, in a personal declaration at the film's end, says, "my tears are as much for Satya as for the many people he killed".
"The attempt was to break new ground, to prove that intelligent work can be done in the Mumbai industry," says first-time scriptwriter Shukla, who also essays an important role in the film. Satya has driven its point home. Verma was hot property even before Satya. Now, Shukla, a former NSD repertory member, is set to hit the big time. Impressed with Satya, Amitabh Bachchan is reported to have sent feelers to Shukla. The latter confirms the news: "I will definitely be meeting him."
It is easy to see why he's is in such demand. Satya is a moving elegy to men who live under the shadow of death in a big, bad city which, as a voiceover tells us at the outset, never sleeps and yet never stops dreaming. The fitful dreams of one's waking hours often tend to turn into unnerving nightmares. As they do for the film's eponymous 'hero' (Chakravarthy). The mysterious misfit, like the hundreds of faceless hopefuls who arrive in Mumbai every day in search of material nirvana, lands in the city of dreams. Even before he can find his feet, he is sucked into the underworld. The consequences are tragic.
But Satya is no masala movie mannequin who attains martyrdom. He is the ultimate Nowhere Man: he's come from nowhere, he's headed nowhere. It is his nonchalant nihilism that sets him apart from all other anti-heroes. Satya is an end-of-the-century avatar of the '70s angry young man pared down to his very bones.
The persona that megastar Bachchan made his own had certain moorings: he had a mother, he also had God. But Verma's anti-hero is an atheist and an orphan. He has no past, no future, no clear raison d'etre except the need to stay afloat in a hostile environment. Even the girl he loves cannot save him: when Satya's real identity is sprung upon her, she can only recoil in horror and deny him the redemption he craves.
In an era when feel-good romances are all the rage, Satya is a close-to-the-bones chiller that holds out absolutely no flicker of hope. Sad, pensive, it is a film that delves deep into the heart of darkness. Each of the film's characters is a victim of a system gone haywire. It's a world where cops are indistinguishable from criminals. For both, it's a struggle to save what is precious: for the former it is their jobs, for the latter, their lives.
Barring Urmila Matondkar, Satya has a cast of virtual unknowns: a talented assortment of stage actors who can no longer be ignored. Especially impressive is Manoj Bajpai, a Delhi street theatre activist who was last seen in Pooja Bhatt's Tamanna. He plays Bhiku Mhatre, a very human don who becomes Satya's best friend in Mumbai. He is a regular family man. He loves his wife who frets and fumes over him. He wants his two children to do well in life. And he swears by Satya's sharp survival instincts. Bajpai fleshes out the character with the kind of ease that comes naturally to an actor who knows his craft inside out.
Urmila, in a completely deglamorised role, captures the vulnerability of Vidya, the aspiring singer whose relationship with Satya is doomed from the start, to perfection. She is the protagonist's only link with sanity, it is through her that Satya stays in touch with his dreams. But when the tenuous bond snaps, she is pushed to the edge of insanity, and Satya's dreams dissolve into a gory end.
That is the note of despair on which Satya ends. But there is hope at the box office for Satya. During its first week in Mumbai, it registered 85 per cent collection, no mean achievement for a low-bud -get, non-star cast film. Since then it has continued to hold its own, both in Mum-bai and in the south. "We hadn't set out to achieve marketing success," says Saurabh Shukla. "But the film does have repeat value." In Delhi, it is playing to enthusiastic audiences. Satya, released on a commission basis all over the country so that the distributors do not lose any money, is essentially targeted at an urban audience. If it clicks, it could open the sluice-gates for a new kind of Mumbai cinema.