Having braved the New York traffic and lived to tell the tale I am now safely ensconced in an East Village apartment to catch a few days of the 2006 New York Asian Film Festival. It looks as though this will be Bollywood heavy trip, with today's screening being Bollywood superhero flick Krrish and yesterday's given over to Ram Gopal Varma's sweeping crime saga Company.
Let me begin by saying this: when it comes to Indian film I am as dumb as a sack of hammers. If not completely ignorant I am very, very close with exposure thus far being limited at best. That said Company is not at all what I would have expected from a Bollywood film. Gritty, violent, ultra-realistic and with only one musical number to be found in the body of the film - and that one being a totally appropriate piece set while the film's central characters are meeting potential allies in a night club - Varma's film is worlds away from the sugary confections we tend to associate with Indian film.
An organized crime story that invites comparion to The Godfather films or Johnnie To's Election, Company tells the story of the rise and fall of two men, Malik and Chandu. A top lieutenant in a major Mumbai gang, Malik has the ear of his devoted boss and thus the enmity of his peers who fear his growing influence. And they are right to do so for Malik has his eyes on a much higher prize. Cold and ruthless, Malik is the ultimate tactician, a man slowly building his connections and positioning himself to strike at the opportune moment. All that Malik lacks is a weapon, a weapon he finds in Chandu. The polar opposite of the calculating Malik, Chandu is a proud, violent man determined to rise from his humble origins by whatever means necessary. He wears his heart on his sleeve and in his fists and will lash out with angry fury against anyone who insults him. In Malik Chandu sees an opportunity to rise and advance, in Chandu Malik sees the vicious animal who will carry out his will and so the two become allies and fight their bloody way to the top.
With a story that spans both continents and years Company is epic in every sense of the word. Varma tackles everything from the factions within the gang to widespread government corruption and underoworld influence in the Bollywood movie industry. With a huge cast of gifted actors Varma captures the politics and infighting of the gang itself, the lust for power that turns 'brothers' against one another and, just as To does with Election shatters the myth of honor among thieves. This is about power, it is about profit and personal gain and anyone who gets in the way will be disposed of.
Varma is clearly a master behind the camera, shooting beautiful film, every shot framed flawlessly as the director builds the tension towards the inevitable bloody conclusion. He strikes that difficult balance between realism and style with ease, never letting you forget that these are real people but still making them look mighty damn fine. But as skilled as Varma is behind the camera it is what he does in front of the camera that makes this film go. A director who has long been known for finding new talent as well as discovering unexpected layers and depth to established stars Varma draws career defining performances out of Ajay Devgan as Malik and Vivek Oberoi as Chandu. Devgan plays Malik as a cold eyed monster, a man totally given over to his goal of ultimate power and thus willing to do absolutely anything to acheive that goal. He is completely amoral and chilling. Oberoi is likewise exceptional as Chandu, a character who at first appears as a simple minded thug but gradually builds into a full blooded character, revealing a surprisingly tender side that is ultimately shattered and left in ruins. More knowledgable people tell me that Oberoi has never been as good as he is here since, but in Company he is truly remarkable.
Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix has been raving about Varma's films via his Kaiju Shakedown blog for quite some time and it is easy to see why. The man has a clarity of vision couple with rare technical skills that make him a legitimate force in the film world. It is truly a shame that he is so little known outside his native country.