About 33 years ago, a man called Francis Ford Coppola, if one is to make an understatement, made a movie.
Fifteen years later, a man called Mani Ratnam made an entirely different movie, which TIME magazine recently put on its all-TIME best 100 movies ever, along with Coppola’s version of Mario Puzo’s best-seller. And Mani Ratnam joined Guru Dutt (for ‘Pyaasa’) and Satyajit Ray (for his Apu trilogy) as one of the only three Indian filmmakers to be featured in that list.
This month, a man known to run a parallel film-industry in Bollywood, Ram Gopal Varma officially paid his homage to the 1972 epic ‘The Godfather’ with his movie ‘Sarkar.’
Though there have been unlimited imitations or versions of Coppola’s classic, Mani Ratnam’s ‘Nayakan’ and RGV’s ‘Sarkar’ are probably the only two Indian films that stand on their own, while also paying tributes to the cult classic.
Ratnam and Varma have also shown us how a tribute does not mean a mere adaptation or a remake.
If Varma used sketches of Bal Thackeray to spice up his Subhash Nagre, Mani Ratnam based his Velu Naicker on gangster Varadarajan Mudaliar to create his all-powerful don.
Both Subhash Nagre and Velu Naicker are similar to the extent that they only do what they feel is right, without expecting anything in return, for public good. Don Corleone, to put it mildly, is just a businessman with ethics. The conservative cultural ethos of the dons, in their respective films — Italian, Tamilian and Maharashtrian, serves as an effective setting for the good old story of an all-powerful conscientious father-figure don.
Though Varma starts off with exactly the same scene as that of Coppola’s classic, (Bonasera asking Don Corleone to avenge his daughter who was raped), the maverick
filmmaker shows us how the same scene could have been directed tighter, slicker and crisper — in other words, how Varma would have directed Mario Puzo’s book.
Having done that, Varma moves on to tell us an original story, which, due to the lack of a well-etched out conflict and caricatures for villains, results in an unconvincing middle (read second Act) merely sprinkled with flashes of brilliance.
To put it simply, Sarkar is great storytelling of a weak story. A film that falls short of being a timeless classic by just two steps.
Backed with a strong script and a compelling performance by Kamal Haasan, Mani Ratnam’s version is probably the most original film made in the Godfather mould. But for the older Velu Naicker’s body language and the subtle nuances like the way he scratches his head or thrusting his jaw forward while talking, reminiscent of Brando, you would hardly get the connection. There is a reference to the Five Families in ‘Nayakan’ too but the sub-plots are very different. If not for the melodrama, considered quintessential in the Tamil cinema context, ‘Nayakan’ might have been on par with Coppola’s classic.
But what these two films have shown us, with their subtle improvements, is that Coppola’s critically acclaimed and probably over-rated version itself is not all that perfect. Staying faithful to the book was its greatest strength and its greatest weakness too.
Coppola puts his cinematic license to minimum use, refusing to tamper with the lines or the big scenes all that much. As a result the film not only incorporates the rich imagery from the book but also ends up including large chunks of text in the dialogue that could have been trimmed or done away with. The use of silence in ‘Sarkar’ and the tight narrative of ‘Nayakan’ is ample evidence of the scope for improvement in Coppola’s adaptation of the book.