(An edited version of this was published in The New Indian Express)
Subhash Nagre (Amitabh Bachchan) returns to the screens after almost a decade, possibly as one final attempt to save Ram Gopal Varma’s career. Everything from the RGV factory returns along with the character. He does begin where he had left off. Those shots from under the chairs, the ones through the grills. The slowing down of time as vehicles enter Sarkar’s den. The monochrome compositions and frugal lighting. Those fascinating and frustrating close-ups and silences. The first film, an undeniably honest tribute, was followed by a middling sequel. He always had actors for these shots. Either good to excellent actors or faces that were interesting and lent themselves to such an exercise. Amitabh Bachchan. Kay Kay Menon. Abhishek Bachchan. Zakir Hussain. Kota Srinivasa Rao. Aishwarya Rai. He still has the senior Bachchan of course. He now has Ronit Roy who can pull it off. But he also has Amit Sadh. Yami Gautam. The Govinda riff is still there. The first time we hear it, it is a remix or dubstep version. There are drones that drop flowers. It is Ram Gopal Varma 2017 service pack. The magic has left the building.
A few scenes work. Like when a push-in shot moves over a dining table towards Sarkar as his grandson and his handymen keep passing food and thoughts around. Each one has different approaches and different motives, and this is amplified by silent dinner time scenes where they chew each other’s thoughts as much as they chew food. There is a visarjan scene that is admirably shot just as something sinister is about to happen and the towering Ganapati idol is one resembling Raavan with ten heads and trunks. But then scene after scene, Varma officiates a hide and seek game between his actors and his camera. There is a shot through the handle of a coffee mug for crying out loud! A statue of a bull dog is used in the background, in the foreground, along with the framed photograph of Shankar (Abhishek Bachchan) that follows Sarkar in his own house like a ghost. There is a shot in what resembles a large unused garage where Varma plays with the depth of field but it amounts to nothing. About three quarters of Sarkar 3 is Ram Gopal Varma trying to find different nooks and crannies to screw his camera in.
Varma of course maintains his unalloyed admiration for the leading man – Amitabh Bachchan. There is a play on Bachchan’s famous rishtey mein to line, uttered by Shivaji (Amit Sadh) right at the beginning. The man who once sang about shayars wondering kitne aaye aur kitne gaye uses the same line to refer to his enemies. Like the first film, Sarkar 3 also gets a band of Sarkar’s enemies together plotting all sorts of schemes in hilariously overplayed scenes. Manoj Bajpayee at least saves himself with a single line like only he can. When someone offers him a mic to speak about Mahatma Gandhi (one of the antagonists is also named Gandhi and RGV’s attempt at irony falls flat), he says aawaz hi kaafi hai, establishing that he is a character who is just a puppet in the form of a loudspeaker. Jackie Shroff plays a role that is a parody of Dawood Ibrahim. If the most wanted gangster watches the film, there is a possibility that he might turn himself in. Yami Gautam probably decided to be part of this film only because she finally gets to play a character who is not fridged.
For a franchise that began as Varma’s tribute to The Godfather, the following lines are terribly juvenile, if not out of place – log kya kahenge, kaisi family hai ye. Aajkal underworld mein tu best hai. Ab Bombay ka sher woh hai. The first Sarkar worked because it was an unabashed ode to a film people knew like the back of their hands. We could fill in gaps and details ourselves while a family dealt with problems internal and external. It used silences, shot compositions and faces more than plot. But Sarkar 3 does the opposite. It is overwrought with plot controlled by a dated Ram Gopal Varma.